At first pass, the issue of racial and gender representation in movies seems like a fairly simple problem to solve: Give more high-profile roles to women and people of color. It’s a quantifiable solution — one that can be (and is) well monitored by websites like CNTRST, Women and Hollywood, or Shadow and Act.
But what a filmmaker does with diverse roles is just as important as providing them. The new DC Comics adaptation Suicide Squad nails it by the numbers — of the film’s 11 main roles, only three are white men, and of the four women in the cast, two are women of color. But what writer/director David Ayer does with that diverse roster isn’t great.
The film takes place post-Batman v. Superman. Fearing the unknown threats super-humans might present, national security expert Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) proposes an unlikely potential security force. Waller wants to assemble an international team of criminals, and essentially bribe them with freedom to make them do her bidding. If they’re killed in action, no one will miss them. If a mission becomes morally questionable, they’ll take all the blame.
With the blessing of the government, Waller commandeers the skills of hitman Deadshot (Will Smith), thieves Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) and Slipknot (Adam Beach), sewer-dwelling mutant Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), firestarter Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the unpredictable, loony girlfriend of The Joker (Jared Leto). There’s also archeologist June Moone (Cara Delevigne), who’s possessed by an ancient witch called Enchantress. The plot kicks off when Enchantress goes rogue, escapes handler Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and starts engineering the end of the world.
While that expansive ensemble leaves room for several actors of color and some powerful ladies, it also means that several characters get short shrift. Some, like Slipknot and Japanese assassin Katana (Karen Fukuhara) get barely any introduction and have very little to do. Enchantress is absent for most of the movie, and her human alter-ego, June Moone, is never developed at all. Apart from being a supernatural conduit, her only purpose is to be an object of lust for Flag.
But the film’s most problematic character is also one of its biggest: Harley Quinn. Margot Robbie gives a memorable, lively performance in the role, and shows she can take care of herself. But the character has a highly abusive, dependent relationship with Leto’s Joker, and David Ayer makes the big mistake of presenting it as a selling point of the film.
Through flashbacks, we see how psychologist Dr. Harleen Quinzell became the character we know as Harley Quinn, becoming obsessed with The Joker while treating him as a patient at Arkham Asylum. After escaping, The Joker goes about making the doctor into his ideal mate, first through shock treatment, and then by making her swan dive into a vat of toxic waste. Part of Harley Quinn’s trademark costume is a jacket with “Property of the Joker” emblazoned on the back. And yet this is a pairing that we’re supposed to root for.
Suicide Squad’s premise could be all about smashing preconceived notions about misunderstood characters — a theme that resonates highly in today’s climate. Instead, when it comes to diversity — and especially when it comes to treatment of women — the movie is all about appearances.
The film fails its characters by not leaving room for them to stand out individually, and it fails women by attempting to sell an overtly abusive relationship as romantic.