Suicide Squad: Are Comic Book Movies Actually Interesting? (PG-13)

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“A lot of comic book movies are actually pretty interesting…”

If, over the last ten years, you have lived within the vicinity of teenage boys, you are likely familiar with this claim. The claim that a thing is “actually interesting” is, often enough, actually interesting in and of itself. The “actually interesting” claim assumes that a man need look below the surface of a thing, and in an era when the sell-out and the avant-garde are interchangeable, not many people know how to look below the surface of a thing, let alone know that “looking below the surface” is a thing that can be done. “Actually interesting” has done me a lot of favors over the years. I would not be surprised to hear that half the hits I’ve ever pulled came from “actually interesting” reviews of this or that.

However, the “actually” in the claim “A lot of comic book movies are actually pretty interesting…” is a very particular kind of “actually.” It is not the “actually” of “God actually became man.” It is not the actually of “This meeting actually started ten minutes ago and you are late.” It is not even the actually of, “Actually, I think I do need to use the bathroom, can we pull over?” Rather, the “actually” in the claim “A lot of comic book movies are actually pretty interesting…” is the same “actually” one finds in the following claims: “Barack Obama is actually a Muslim,” and “The effects of marijuana are actually similar to alcohol,” and “I have seen some glass bongs that are actually pieces of art.” This is an anxious “actually.” A fingers-crossed “actually.” An “actually” entirely staked in ambiguity and a hope for reasonable doubt.

From time to time, Timothy Lawrence writes compelling essays for FilmFisher wherein he reviews popular films, Marvel films, and he claims those films are actually interesting. I am grateful for his work, because I simply have neither time, will, nor sufficient quantities of Prilosec to sit through the visual stomachaches which now pass for box office hits. I do not often agree with Timothy’s opinions about comic book films, but that hardly diminishes the brilliance of his reviews. I have heard profoundly lucid, compelling lectures praising the brilliance of Jackson Pollock’s art, and I find Pollock a dreadful bore and a grade A hack. Many geniuses have been sired by deadbeat dads, and those genius sons love their fathers nonetheless. So, too, many lousy works of art have prompted think-pieces which are nothing less than labors of love, and the love of the critic does not fail to impress even if it does not finally persuade. One may tell the depth of Timothy Lawrence’s wit and power to interpret film in the fact he does not limit himself to claiming comics are “actually interesting,” because he can make incisive, provocative claims about anything you throw at him.

The reason the “actually interesting” comic book film strikes me as so banal is that these films are practically advertised as “actually interesting.” The American foreign policy issue of the month generally makes some limp cameo in the first or third act and the audience is given license to think of the film as relevant, thoughtful, edgy, “about the issues.” Said limp cameo invariably shows up in the trailer so you can defend your choice to purchase a ticket to incredulous friends with less time on their hands. As for the critique or discussion the comic book film gives to the foreign policy issue— don’t expect anything north of boilerplate. The opinion of a comic book film about this or that political matter rarely rises above the level of simple skepticism, or bumper sticker sloganism. “Who’s going to watch the watchmen?” is an interesting enough problem, but Zach Snyder’s 3 hour sleaze fest failed to do more than ask the question, a task which could have been accomplished more effectively and cheaply with a sixty second skim over a Wikipedia article. It might be argued that the spectacle of the film is needed to ask the question in a sufficiently weighty manner. Of course, it could also be argued that the spectacle does little but distract from the interesting question… or that the question is not asked in earnest, or that the question is little more than a bureaucratic requirement of a film whose more genuine interests are ennui, dismemberment and Malin Akerman’s Autobahn-like silhouette. While the master’s thesis with a title like “Vigilantism and the State of Exception in Batman Incorporated” or “‘Holy Commodity Fetish, Batman!’: The Economics of a Commercial Intertext” are still common enough on Academia.edu, such essays are really just echoes of the theory-heavy lit crit gibberish of the 1980s which still clings to universities like a desperate first boyfriend.

On the other end of the interpretive spectrum, the parallels between Superman and Jesus are, by this point, over chewed and under nourishing; once the parallels have been noticed, the Superman story is not noticeably more compelling. Superman is like Jesus the same way that cloud over there looks like a rabbit, which is to say you notice it and you move on. As a philosophy, theology and literature teacher, there is precious little in a book discussion which dismays me quite like the premature recognition of “a Christ figure.” The identification of the Christ figure is often the death of an interesting conversation, for the “Christ figure” has the power to turn fascinating, flesh and blood characters into archetypes, abstractions, inevitabilities. Jesus Christ was God-veiled-in-human-flesh, but there is no figure in literature quite as inhuman, ephemeral, gnostic and ghost-like as the dreaded “Christ figure.” He shows up haphazardly (“Jim Casy’s initials are JC!”), kinda dies with his arms outstretched, kinda comes back from the dead, and then the story has “interesting theological elements.” It is “about redemption.” What’s worse, comic book movies are filled with these nickel-and-dime Christs; repeated and generous exposure to such stories often reduces a man’s capacity to see a genuine Christ figure. Unless there is some big, capital S, marquee-lit Sacrifice! which occurs to save the life of another in the closing moments, no one sees Jesus. Earlier on in my writing career, I should confess to have frequently traded in Christ-parallels— there is an overwrought review of Apocalypto I wrote floating around somewhere, I am sure. While I do not regret spending years looking for Christ figures, I eventually tired of the Christ figure because he had nothing to do with life on earth. He behaved in a predictable, inevitable, coercive fashion which was overly foreordained by his creator. He demanded reverence, awe. His gifts tended to silence dialog more often than they created dialog, and what little dialog he gives, he belittles with platitudes and clichés.

All that said, despite the big bozo promises of Suicide Squad’s many grating trailers, the film is a rather conventional summer blockbuster: a panty model passes as an actress, a major US city is destroyed, and the denouement features two special effects fighting each other. A punchline-speaking Chewbacca-variant hulks around gloomily. Margot Robbie flops most of her daffy jokes. Jared Leto is suitably weird for all twelve lines he gets to speak. Half the characters have facial tattoos. At the film, I sat next to a complete stranger who bellowed, “Oh, shit!” and looked at me expectantly every time someone got shot in the head. It’s a movie you take Guy Fieri to see.

At this point, I suppose committing a few days to consider and then write out a full blown review of the plot structure, themes, soundtrack and acting is possible, as well as some research into the origins of the comic (Reagan era, probably ripe for “analysis” because drones) are a genuine possibility, and I suppose that a better man than myself might come away with an “actually interesting” take on the film. And maybe the fact that the Suicide Squad heroes are despised (stricken, smitten and afflicted?) for “our” sake” means that they all have something to teach us about the Incarnation or the “stumbling block for the Greeks.” But Suicide Squad is yet another film wherein a team of ultimate badasses risk their lives to save the day because, “You got something better to do?” and so the story, the aesthetics, the marketing… nothing about the film really commends itself as worthy of contemplation. If you have to see Suicide Squad, enjoy it and then feel guilty about it. There’s no need to defend it.

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books, collects records and jogs to work. He and his wife have two children, both of whom have seven names. He tweets at @joshgibbs and blogs for the CiRCE Institute.

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