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The Suicide Squad: Rectifying a Filmmaker’s Disaster

Written by Becca Brown

*warning – review contains spoilers*

Recently, I went to see the new-and-improved version of The Suicide Squad (2021), directed by James Gunn. Despite being dubbed a ‘standalone sequel’, it is evident that this is DCEU’s attempt at rectifying the disastrous 2016 Suicide Squad directed by David Ayer (whose Rotten Tomatoes rating is a poor 26%). The film opens with the deaths of several of the old characters, signifying a rebirth of the franchise. What makes this film interesting is to see production companies listening to the opinions of critics and viewers and adapting a film accordingly; it seems almost an apology to the audience. And one thing Gunn has successfully achieved is the overhaul of Harley Quinn’s character, turning a ‘popcorn’ film into a true statement piece. 

The main and most obvious point of comparison between these two films is the portrayal of Margot Robbie’s character of Harley Quinn. Both Marvel and DC are famously known for their fairly misogynistic history – traditionally, it’s all about the superhero saving the damsel in distress. Suicide Squad (2016) tried to turn this on its head with the Harley Quinn and Joker love story, portraying something dark and twisted and dangerous. But in reality, all the audience saw was a happy-go-lucky take on a deeply abusive relationship. Apparently, Warner Bros. was unhappy with Ayer’s ‘dark’ take on the film and so reshot scenes to add a lightness and comedy. In doing so, they butchered what could have been a serious storyline, instead of romanticising their toxic relationship (‘My heart scares you, and a gun doesn’t?’). Not only this, they also put Harley in the most ridiculous outfit they could think of: tiny hot pants, heels, and a shirt that reads ‘Daddy’s Little Monster’. It’s not that I oppose skimpy outfits, but not in battle and especially not when all other men are in full battle gear. In an interview with the New York Times, Robbie claimed that she understood that the outfit was ‘part of the iconography’. But the ‘iconography’ is whatever they make it and the costume strayed far from the original Harley’s jester outfit.

In contrast, the new and improved 2021 Harley Quinn is wearing actual clothes. Her first outfit is in line with the comic’s character and all her subsequent outfits succeed in being distinctly Harley whilst not making her wander round in stilettos, swinging a baseball bat against machine guns. Not only this but there is no mention of Joker. Her tattoo, which originally read ‘Property of Joker’, now reads ‘Property of No One’. The only allusion to Joker is in the killing of General Luna scene. In an oddly heart-warming moment, Harley shows her slightly misguided good side, murdering the General when he tells her about his plans to kill innocent people. She apologises to him, saying she has promised herself to dump a man when she sees a ‘red flag’ and that she has to kill him because men she has dated don’t like taking no for an answer. This is a moment of superb scripting, a nod to her history with Joker whilst showing that people in abusive relationships can go on to live happy (in her own sort of way) lives independently. For the duration of the film, Harley remains her kind but psychopathic self, but this time, she breaks herself out of torture, carries a machine gun and answers to no one but herself. 

Sure, Harley still has a tattoo that reads ‘daddy’s little monster’, but despite being a ‘popcorn’ film, The Suicide Squad is almost feminist. The women in this film are the more level-headed ones who don’t just beat each other bloody, but nor are they two-dimensional checkboxes of filling the feminist quota. Instead, Harley and Ratcatcher 2 are characters full of vitality, back story, and personality – a very pleasant surprise for a feminist audience member like myself. 

Written by Becca Brown