“Don’t forget, we’re the bad guys.”
“On the inside, you’re ugly.”
“We all are!”
The extended cut for Suicide Squad is out which finally gives us the chance to talk about the film in some depth.
And it would appear that while not as central to the movies directed by Zach Snyder, the fact that Deborah and Zach Snyder are still producers for the movie, it is still imbibed with a lot of philosophy, which not only makes it a better movie than the cheap thrill ride it could have been, but holds out hope for the entire DC extended universe continuing in the great footsteps of it’s two first films.
So as Man of Steel was all about showing how Plato was nuts, and Dawn of Justice was all about showing the evil of Nietzsche, Suicide Squad deals with the inherent flaws of the philosophy of Foucault. Now unlike the previous films I can’t point to a lot of detailed markers that show that Foucault was the target, partly because I am not as familiar with the intricate details what is laughingly called philosophy by those who study Foucault, I believe that director Ayer was being kept in thematic line with the other films by the producers didn’t find the philosophy as a key a point as Snyder does, and probably because this is just a lighter film. But since the series of the DCU up to this point has been a philosophical journey, and I can find general parallels I will assume that Foucault was the target and withdraw my observations if it appears that future movies drop this deeper thematic material.
So, I am not the first person to say that there are parallels between “The Suicide Squad” comics and I won’t be the last, but for most readers, even most of the well read ones, I assume the name Foucault might not be one that you can immediately identify or have any idea what the hell his philosophy was. Don’t worry, except in the most pretentious of circles his name isn’t well known, and even if you did have to suffer through his works in some college philosophy course, it’s unlikely you fully understand what he said. Partly because Foucault himself wasn’t all that interested in creating any kind of systemized belief system with a sense of theme and consistency—no, his philosophy is more of a very wordy version of listening to a drunk philosophy major on a bender. And it’s about as silly too. And as it is so preposterously complex we’re only going to be dealing with the popular understanding of Foucault because to get into the details of a philosophy no one really understands (probably due to it’s lack of consistency and logic) would be pointless.
“Moreover, he [Foucault] argued that the alleged scientific neutrality of modern medical treatments of insanity are in fact covers for controlling challenges to a conventional bourgeois morality.”—Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Michel Foucault
“The conclusion of [Foucault] in relation to this subject matter is that the prison is an institution, the objective purpose of which is to produce criminality and recidivism.”—Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Michel Foucault*
So, the key point of Foucault in relationship to Suicide Squad would be that institutions like prisons are not there to deal with problems, like criminals, but rather are there to create them so that the institution becomes self perpetuating. That the criminal justice system isn’t about justice, it’s about control. Also, his idea that madness is not something abnormal simply just something that the mores of society look down on.
And seemingly therefore a very cursory reading of Suicide Squad would agree with this. The members of the Suicide Squad are under the thumb of Amanda Waller. They are put in a special prison just so that they can forced to agree to Waller’s terms. They are forced to do something they don’t want. Waller even brags that “Getting people to act against their own self-interest for the national security of the United States is what I do for a living.”
And I don’t disagree that in some ways Waller is the embodiment of everything Foucault says about power. As she says “I believe in leverage.” And she will use that leverage. Which is what makes Amanda Waller one of the most frightening characters in the entire DC universe. Thus she gathers people not to punish or reform, but to keep them forever as her puppets to use for her ends, which thankfully while her methods are questionable at best, her ends seem to match with the good of society (yeah there’s a whole do the ends justify the means conversation we need to have about Waller someday, but I need more footage than her justification of “In a world of flying men and monsters this is the only way to protect our country,” Flag saying, “I’m not judging. I’ve buried a lot of mistakes too.”)
But while at first glance this view of Suicide Squad confirming Foucault, a closer look shows that like Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice this movie was about tearing down bad philosophy (I suspect the putting for proper philosophy will be saved for the crown jewel of Justice League II).
The Suicide Squad is the “worst of the worst.” But more importantly, rather than fitting into Foucault’s ideas that the system creates definitions of insane or criminal so as to institutionalize people, the Suicide Squad is really a bunch of criminals through and through.
Let’s go through them.
Harley: You hate mankind much? Let me guess, mommy didn’t take you to Chuck E. Cheese on your sixth birthday. I can recommend a good therapist.
Harley: Because I’m bored. I need a victim. A mind to pry apart and spit in.
Harley Quinn, even without the extended edition scenes, is a certified lunatic. And she was so even before being tortured by the Joker. If you pause on Waller’s Argus report on Quinn you find that she was crazy and looking to play with people while still Quintal and before she ever met the Joker. As a psychologist, who still clearly understands her field, and she uses it to find “a mind to pry apart and spit in.” She used her field and knowledge as a diversion for her indifference to humanity. And what better mind to warp than the one that is already warped beyond the telling of it: The Joker. And she does love torturing him as much as he does her…he has become as much her puppet as she is his (he should have listened to his own warning “Desire become surrender, surrender becomes power”). She is not a creation of any system, as her history shows she was broken from the beginning and actively sought to be worse. And it is not just that Foucault’s saying that she doesn’t fit in because she doesn’t fit society’s norms. As the fantasy life Enchantress tried to show her, Harley knows what normal is, even at some level wants it, but knows “Normal’s a setting on the dryer. People like us don’t get normal.” Given every chance she betrays people—this is not a “challeng[e] to a conventional bourgeois morality” this is the fact that she is a killer, a thief, a traitor to those around her, and through and through a lunatic and danger to society. She felt the joy of being the good guy, of saving the world and jumped at the chance to return to her Puddin’ at the end. There is no redemption there, only a villain—an adorable and hilarious villain, but a villain.
“Every time I put this on somebody dies.”
“I like putting it on.”
Deadshot might appear to be the exception here as he appears to have morals of a sort. He won’t shoot women or children, he cares about his daughter, he won’t seemingly betray a friend. But here’s the problem you can’t claim that he loves his daughter and at the same time have it be in the same universe where he says “You don’t kill as many people as I’ve killed and sleep like a kitten if you feel shit like love.” Notice that the fantasy that almost gets him to stop is not being with his daughter but killing Batman. That’s what he wants. And Enchantress’ last ditch attempt to stop him didn’t get him to stop shooting like the fantasy about killing the Bat did. If his daughter really was the world to him, as he claims over and over, he would have shot and killed Harley when Waller ordered it. We know he didn’t miss, he chose not to killer her. Why? Because pissing off Waller was more important to him being with his daughter. His protestations about not killing women and children, about his love for his daughter, those are the acts of someone who wants you to think they have morals when they don’t, who wants to draw you in with their charisma so they can use that, who wants to use your higher opinion of them to their advantage. As Harley, the trained shrink put it, “textbook sociopath.” So he is not a creation of society judging him as being non-standard to it’s morality, he’s a coldblooded killer who will kill for money. Using him isn’t perpetuating his incarceration and ensuring that he will always stay a criminal, he was always going to be a criminal and nothing was going to stop that.
Killer Croc, while somewhat not dealt with in theatrical version, comes out to be a more rounded character in the extended edition, whole heartedly embracing his evil as a cannibal with it’s belief that to eat something is to take its power. Granted his distaste for civilization may have stemmed from being shunned by society, but choosing to be a cannibal is not something that just comes from being bullied.
You might have some pity for Diablo as he admits his evil and gives more than the rest to try and redeem himself…but even he admits he sought the power his crimes gave him.
And Captain Boomerang is still looking for things to steal only seconds after defeating Enchantress. This man is always going to be a criminal. (Am I the only one who wanted to see the fantasy Enchantress showed him…it would have had pink unicorns and I would have been laughing hysterically.)
And finally, of course, we come to the Clown Prince himself. A lot has been said of Jared Leto’s performance, most of it unfairly comparing it to Heath Ledger. What everyone forgets is that this is a different universe with a very different purpose for the Joker. Ledger was there to be the embodiment of evil for the sake of evil, a modern day Iago there to tempt and destroy everything. This Joker, more in line with the Golden Age version (which thematically is where a lot of the DC extended universe draws from for it’s villains) is first and foremost a criminal mastermind, a psychotic one, but a criminal first and foremost. Ledger’s Joker complained about criminals only caring about money, this Joker would never make such a claim. This is not a Joker who meets the old Alfred’s warning “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical; some men just want to watch the world burn.” While he doesn’t only care about money, this Joker certainly doesn’t feel Ledger’s Joker’s aversion to it—“You making me good money. I’m making you good money.” It may not be his driving factor, but Mr. J. clearly has an empire built on large cash funds. Also, this wasn’t meant to be Joker’s movie, as it wasn’t Batman’s or the Flash’s despite their brief appearances. But whatever the Joker was, he wasn’t something the system created, nor was he just outside conventional morality. He was crazy. Pure and simple.
Further, Foucault’s beliefs are shattered by the little problems of those who don’t fit “conventional bourgeois morality” but aren’t being put in jail nor are they being shunned. Waller, Batman, and Katana hardly meet any conventional standard of morality, but they’re the heroes of the story without being criminals who need to be jailed.
Now none of these fictional examples disprove Foucault, but they do remind us that there are people who are criminals, pure and simple. There is no rehabilitation, there is no letting them back into society. The fact that they return to crime isn’t the fault of the system, it’s the fault of the criminal. Yes, we can certainly do a much better job at helping those who can return to society get the skills and education they need to ensure they do not return to crime—but this is a reminder that there are actual criminals and the system of criminal justice is there to punish and rehabilitate, not to create criminals. There are criminals and they’re just that, those without hope are few and far between in the grand scheme of things, the worst of the worst as Waller put it, but they do exist. And as Waller, Katana, and Wayne show those who don’t conform to traditional morality can still function in society, not so garishly as those characters, but there are places for them as well.
In the end this shows not that Foucault was right, but that there are clear examples on the extremes that are not the exceptions, but rather that exceptions that disprove everything he has to say. The key flaw here is that while this film seemed inspired by these philosophical questions, it didn’t seem to be the primary focus that it was in the previous films.
I look forward to Wonder Woman to shredding Third Wave Feminism.
Now philosophy aside this was an enjoyable but not great movie. All the actors did an excellent job at bringing what are really a bunch of third string characters to life, and a sequel will be a welcome addition to this universe.
*I would usually go with a more primary source, but it being Foucault, trying to find a nice little sentence that sums up his ideas, or is even vaguely intelligible, is a little too difficult.