People love good villains, especially good cartoonish genre-fiction villains. Villains are alluring, decadent and transgressive in ways the generic, moral, white-as-hell protagonists they usually try to corrupt or destroy can never get away with. The simple fact that people find the Joker, literally a sociopathic and asexual clown, to be fuckable is proof enough of that, but there’s another reason for the allure of villains. For marginalized people who are treated by society as disposable, monstrous and dangerous it is far more easy to see yourself in characters challenging the status quo. There’s a reason young queer kids in particular tend to gravitate towards celebrating Disney villains, with their exaggerated bodies, angles and mannerisms contrasted so starkly with the generic Cal Arts hero/heroine design they usually face off against. The common wisdom tends to be that villains, not having to “appeal” to the audience the same way a generic hero does, end up more appealing because they get to be more unique and rounded characters. As more kids who grew up identifying with the “wrong” characters turned to writing genre fiction, sometimes in creative control of the very characters they grew up with, a lot of said villains get even more chances to be redeemed as cool sex-havers and misunderstood (except by the cooler readers) anti-heroes. There’s nothing wrong with that, I know I sure love a good transgressive anti-hero and enjoy good stories about hot characters getting to fuck.
The current resurgence in popularity of DC’s Suicide Squad is a good example of this phenomenon. While it was always a cult hit, its finally managed to now go mainstream in a way DC is still struggling to do with goddamn Superman. Despite the film’s goofily backfiring attempt to make a new sexy Joker, there’s no question that the film’s naked witches, rough mean muscle men, sexy lady clowns and handsome Deadshot contributed to the film’s success. This is what makes it so interesting to go back and reread the original breakout-hit 80s version of Suicide Squad, and see just how unsexy it is.
Ostrander’s original Suicide Squad is one of the greatest runs in Bronze-age comics. Its premise took several questions DC was facing at the time such as “how do we make goofy silver-age villains interesting in our serious post-Crisis, post-Watchmen world?” as well as fan over-thinking questions like “how do these villains keep getting out of prison every other issue?” and crafted a simple explanation that tied everything together. The comic reveals that the US government of the DC universe is covertly employing villains for suicide missions, with the promise that any who return successfully can get their sentences commuted or access to government aid or tech. In each mission, it is guaranteed someone is going to bite it, and since the characters are generally all d-list nobodies, that means ANYONE could go, creating real tension. From the very first issue, the comic wanted you to know it was going to be different than its silver-age cast would suggest. The opening pages quietly introduce the comic’s creators like the opening of a movie or cable miniseries, rather than the expected Stan Lee-esque bombastic splash page. At a time when comic creators were trying to attain maturity through “man I love pollution and crack!” storylines, this was a comic that let the reader know it was going to be hip, mature and fresh with subtlety. Like any comic from the late 80s/early 90s, its not without is faults of questionable politics, but as a whole it holds up remarkably.
But while most villain-focused comics, especially later Suicide Squad runs, tried to focus on their cast as sexy anti-heroes, Ostrander is under no illusions that his villains are fundamentally broken, unsexy people. Some are victims of circumstance or capable of greatness, but most are simply bad people who have utterly failed at life. They are characters we learn to understand and root for, but never in a “sexy” capacity. We may start out identifying with them as fellow outcasts, but all too quickly learn that a community based solely on that is not community at all. What’s notable is that each of the main recurring characters gets to be a failure in a different way. When this is looked at through the proper lens, an interesting pattern emerges. Of the biggest consistent failures in the series, and failures not always leading to their death, each represent a different archetype of presumed masculine success. Through these failed, flawed and decidedly unsexy characters, we see the illusions of that era’s ideals of masculinity laid bare.
Rick Flag isn’t a villain, he’s the army man expected to keep the villains from bolting or screwing up a mission with their bs. He’s a strong-jawed, dedicated, handsome man in uniform, and yet he’s completely out of touch with this new world. He’s a silver-age GI Joe-type in a complex post-comics code world of ambiguous morality. He more easily identifies with the villain’s he’s leading than with his bosses or former lovers, and that pisses him off because they’re all HORRIBLE. It is obvious he is heading toward mental catastrophe, but no one ever steps in to save him because, as the muscled hero, it is assumed he can weather it. He ends up snapping and killing himself in a last-ditch effort to prove his worth, because all he knows how to do is one thing and he’d rather die doing that one thing than have it end up not being useful anymore.
Bronze Tiger is another not-villain on the team. A government agent who was temporarily brain-washed by the League of Assassins, Bronze Tiger is a martial arts specialist doing this work as a kind of penance. He is also perhaps the least fucked up of the Suicide Squad men, but the fact that he is not white means the government will not trust him the same way. The government places Flag in command, against the wishes of the people running the Squad, and never really questions his crumbling mental state because he looks like them. Bronze Tiger, significantly less damaged than Flag, is constantly questioned and distrusted and his ultimate breakdown is largely instigated by the government itself. Bronze Tiger defines his problems as urges and needs to hurt others, but it seems pretty clear in the reading that the real “urges” that are bothering him aren’t entirely related to his time as an assassin.
Because he’s gay. As. Fuck. Bronze Tiger may get paired off with super model superheroine Vixen for a bit, but its clear that his real sexual outlet is the never-ending lineup of handsome musclemen with vendettas against him. Bronze Tiger collects ambiguous boyfriends throughout the series in a way that seems directly contrasted against every other character’s failed ability to hook up. Seriously, look at how Bronze Tiger talks to all these handsome men who want to get sweaty and punchy with him and compare it to his moments with Vixen. This is the most erotic this comic ever gets! A character who struggles with dealing with unseen, unspoken inner troubles and urges just HAPPENS to be so closeted he makes Captain America and Bucky look platonic.
Deadshot, with his dapper facial hair and handsome aloofness, seems poised to be the team heartthrob. He’s a straight shooter in both his mannerisms and skill set! He exudes a classic machismo and plays by his own rules! He’s a Batman villain! But Deadshot is an utter failure by the standards of that same machismo we project on him. He makes a big deal about going to “cathouses” when he “gets the itch” but as soon as one woman makes a move on him he collapses into confused frustration. It isn’t that he doesn’t “know what to do” so much as he doesn’t want it. He doesn’t want ANY of the things he’s “supposed” to want as a cool dude. He doesn’t care about sex or money or even respect. What he wants is to shoot things. Sometimes he wants one of his friends to not have to be as fucked up as he is, and sometimes he wants to be dead. Sometimes he just wants Batman to like him. Later comics tend to write Deadshot as a cool guy, hopping from bed to bed and quipping wise with everyone even as he just wants to be a good father. Honestly, none of those cool macho Deadshots come as close to being as compelling as the simple, sad, failed Deadshot who can get anything he wants, except he doesn’t want any of it.
The most surprising success, at least from a not-getting-horribly-killed standpoint, is Captain Boomerang. A goofy, shitty Flash villain with a silly costume and “trick boomerangs” as a gimmick, Boomer seemed destined to be one of the squad members who eats it. Except he never does. From the first mission to the last, Captain Boomerang manages to beat the odds not through luck, but by skill. Even as you hate him, and you will hate him, you can’t help but be impressed by him. Yet despite his success at not being killed, he is still an utter failure. Everyone despises him, he can’t pull off any scams, he never gets laid, his home country is convinced he’s a Yank pretending to be Australian and has disowned him, he’s constantly being humiliated and shown up by the women and people of color he feels so superior to, and he’s not balding gracefully. Even when this preening, narcissistic machismo he represents manages to survive in this new world, it is not in a position of power or respect, but neither is it willing to really examine why.
The other, less iconic male character don’t fail much better. Dr Light’s a child-killing coward, Punch is a shallow yuppie turned to “wacky” villainy with his wife because he can’t think of any actual sexual kinks, Briscoe only wants to fuck his helicopter, and then there’s Count Vertigo. Count Vertigo is another seemingly macho dream. He’s a handsome wealthy aristocrat. He’s got money, women fawn over him, and he’s the inheritor of a noble lineage. He’s also an inbred fuckup suffering from severe bi-polar disorder. He doesn’t have any illusions about this, he knows about his problems and despises himself for it, but he feels too much apathy and shame to do anything about it other than wish for death. He’s one of the only squaddies who has sex, but it comes from Poison Ivy turning him into a slave and its not only portrayed decidedly unsexy but as another source of intense shame and self-loathing. Considering how often Poison Ivy’s mind-control gets presented in the comics as a weird male fantasy, its striking how Suicide Squad presents it unambiguously as rape. Vertigo eventually comes to Deadshot in one of his lucid moments and asks if Deadshot would be willing to kill him if asked in the future. Deadshot says he would, because Deadshot likes shooting people, so to be damn sure that is what he wants when he asks.
While Poison Ivy gets used as a degenerate fraud and rapist, only succeeding because of the stupidity of men rather than any actual ability, the other women who survive the squad longest generally show their male companions up in major ways. Enchantress is a mess, but her power is rightly feared. Nightshade conquers her demons, ends up stronger for it, and even manages to escape the Squad’s grip. Lashina, aka Duchess, is a towering amazon who utterly emasculates any men sent against her, and fails after accomplishing all her goals only because of the very nature of evil in the DC universe (aka Darkseid is a petty asshole and hates initiative more than he hates failure). Vixen manages to pull off being a super-model, a fashion mogul, a super-hero AND a covert ops agent and her only real problem comes from trying to make Bronze Tiger straight and not suicidal. But in terms of success, none of them can hold a candle to Amanda Waller.
Amanda Waller is one of the most memorable characters from comics of her era. Short, stocky, ugly, black and mean, Waller is the antithesis of the expected superhero body type. She is ruthless, and in later stories often gets cast as a more generic villain. However in the original Suicide Squad run you really see the nuance being built with her. She does horrible things, but she does not try to hide or justify them. We know for a fact that the people who want to replace her are worse than she is. While she at least refuses for the Squad to be used as a tool for corrupt politicians, the people who want her job are eager to turn the weaponized villains on US citizens. Even if she gets whats coming to her, the vacuum she leaves behind is even scarier. There’s no question she does fucked up things, but there’s also no question that even though she’s horrible, she’s not nearly as horrible as her detractors want us to think she is. She is resented and despised not because she does these horrible things, but because she is an unapologetically unattractive black woman doing them.
But what does she actually accomplish? Does she make America a better place for marginalized people? Does she address the system that is slowly realizing that if it can’t displace her, it can at least co-opt her? The Squad stops a few terrorists groups in its time, ranging from domestic white-power groups to the only-in-80s-comics-level multicultural super villain team known as “the Jihad.” But of course each time they leave everything in place so that new ones can immediately pop up to replace them. The series ends with her ultimate victory being her quitting America entirely to run her own country alongside the less-fucked-up Squad survivors.
Waller represents everything dangerous about neoliberal America. On paper she’s everything we’re told is promising and good about the American dream. She’s a rags-to-riches story and a marginalized woman who’s attained incredible power. She’s the world’s policewoman, smarter than anyone else but still willing to work within the system (unless she absolutely has to break the rules to save our way of life). She’s better equipped to protect America than Rick Flag or any of the other old fashioned white men. She’s the original lean-in slay queen making drones and collateral damage look intersectional. She makes you honestly believe, even if just for a moment, that the idea of weaponizing goddamn sociopathic super villains with magic guns and mind-control is in your best interests. She’s one of the only characters in comics who can outsmart and outscare Batman, for goodness sake. Macho, imperialist American exceptionalism’s greatest salesperson ends up being a black woman. This shows both the innate hypocrisies within the system, as the reason the forces of the status quo hate her so much is revealed to be because it self-destructively hates how such a woman is better at their job, and also why said hypocrisies don’t matter. Even though the status quo sabotagues itself, the larger machine of capital and colonization doesn’t care. The old imperial system would rather shoot itself in the foot than let one of THOSE people accomplish everything they actually want to happen, and as a result the “new” neoliberal system gets to look subversive even as it accomplishes the same conservative agenda.
Suicide Squad ends up being a moral about how corrupting the system can be, turning outcasts (be they actual villains or marginalized people) into tools to support the status quo. In the end, the “cool” villains are all revealed as failures and cast-offs of that status quo, and the only hope for the genuinely good people stuck with them is to quit the entire system. The marginalized people of this modern world need to be careful and remember that just because the status quo TREATS them like villains and monsters, that does not make them so. We identify with villains because society hates us for existing, and we see these monsters fight againt said society. But true monsters will remain monsters, and solidarity with them is not real. The resolution of the series, as mentioned above, where Waller and some of the squad decide to run their own country, is strange to think of as a happy ending. It seems very, very clear that this could just be the same imperialist bs that has been destroying Waller and the Squad all along. But the tiny sliver of hope is that what is actually happening is these characters are realizing they can be more than just the next generation of rich, white, ultimately failed men.
Even the previous generation of failed men has a chance to be something else if they choose. The very last pages of the run show Vertigo and Deadshot together, Vertigo deciding once and for all if he wants to die. If his ultimate failure to be everything this world expected of him means he has nothing left to live for. If death is preferable to having to live as a different kind of man. If he cannot escape his self hatred. In the end, two of the characters let down the most by the twisted expectations of masculinity must decide if there’s something else worth living for.