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The Suicide Squad puts James Gunn on a path to become the Gen X Clint Eastwood

The superhero film’s muddled skepticism of America has a surprising amount in common with American Sniper.

Harley Quinn points a gun at someone, blood dripping down her face. She’s wearing a lovely ballgown.
Margot Robbie plays the illustrious Harley Quinn in The Suicide Squad.
Warner Bros. Pictures
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, the recently released “standalone” sequel to the 2016 catastrophe Suicide Squad (which was, presumably, just a suicide squad), is a nasty piece of work.

Gory and gross, the movie revels in a blood-soaked aesthetic, which might come as a shock to fans of Gunn’s two Guardians of the Galaxy films, both of which are less gory and much cuddlier. The Suicide Squad is much closer to the work Gunn did at the start of his career, when he wrote films for Troma Entertainment, a company famous for low-budget horror films.

The Suicide Squad also crystallizes a theme that has been building in all five of Gunn’s films so far: a distrust of institutions. (He also directed the 2006 creature feature Slither and the 2010 superhero deconstruction Super.) The movie explicitly argues that if mad science existed, the US would be all too happy to fund its dark excesses, provided none of those transgressions played out on American shores.

The Suicide Squad follows Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Bloodshot (Idris Elba), and a variety of other supervillains as they undertake a deadly mission on the fictional island nation of Corto Maltese, after a political uprising there installs a government that is not particularly friendly to the United States.

In its mashup of America’s adventures on foreign soil, the movie nods to numerous things the US government has done, including its use of Nazi scientists to gain an advantage during the Cold War and the CIA’s fomenting of unrest in Central and South American countries. It even presents a pastiche of Guantanamo Bay. This commentary is all in the text of the film, which goes out of its way to say, “America? That’s the real bad guy!”

There are a number of natural comparison points one could draw to The Suicide Squad. Zack Snyder’s superhero films (particularly his cut of Justice League) are similarly anti-institutionalist, with many of the same qualms, though they have much more faith in superpowered cops to save us all. One might also nod to war movies such as The Dirty Dozen or samurai films like The Seven Samurai, which also fall under the umbrella of “one tiny group takes on an overwhelming onslaught of bad guys after the supposed good guys turn tail.”

What The Suicide Squad most strongly brings to mind for me, however, are the movies of Clint Eastwood, a director who’s similarly interested in the weight of violence and the grossness of American institutions (though he and Gunn come at those themes through different genres and different politics).

Clint Eastwood and James Gunn both question the genres that made them famous

James Gunn is flanked by several actors on the set of The Suicide Squad.
James Gunn (center) directs the cast of The Suicide Squad.
Warner Bros. Pictures

Clint Eastwood rose to fame in the Western genre, sort of the superhero movies of their day. (This comparison isn’t exactly correct, but it’s close enough for purposes of this article.) Eastwood might still be best known for starring in the stripped-down films of Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, etc.), in which he played an archetypal gunslinger wandering an empty, forbidding landscape. Later, he directed several of his own Westerns, including High Plains Drifter, Pale Rider, and (most famously) Unforgiven.

The five features Gunn has directed are almost all superhero movies, not Westerns. But at their most generic, the Western and the superhero film are having two sides of the same conversation: The Western is about the establishment of civilization, and the superhero movie is about upholding it at any cost. They’re mirror genres of each other.

In the most archetypal possible Western, a lawman comes to the frontier and protects a small town and its innocent (white) citizens from the bad guys (who might be criminals or might be Native Americans). In the most archetypal possible superhero movie, a superpowered individual embraces their truly heroic nature to preserve the world order after a superpowered villain threatens to destabilize it. At their core, Westerns are about the establishment of America as a superpower stretching across an entire continent, and superhero movies are about propping up that superpower against all who would collapse it.

You can surely point to Westerns and superhero movies that flout those generic descriptions (some of them directed by Eastwood and Gunn). The flouting of convention is good — we’d get awfully bored if every single movie adhered to established genre conventions.

In particular, Eastwood’s Westerns and Gunn’s superhero films both play with revisionism of genre tropes. Revisionist stories tend to pick apart one or all of the tropes that define a genre. The Suicide Squad, for instance, isn’t the first movie to suggest that supervillains might actually be the good guys, but it is one of just a handful of superhero films to hint that destabilizing the world order might be a good thing.

The revisionist Western is a rich tradition within that genre (1956’s The Searchers, 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, etc.), but perhaps the Western that became most famous as “a revisionist Western” — what pretty much every critic described it in reviews — is 1992’s Unforgiven, for which Eastwood won his first Oscar for directing. Unforgiven looks directly at the legacies of violence that built the American West, and stars Eastwood himself as a retired gunslinger who’s pulled back in for one last job: working to bring to justice two cowboys who disfigured a sex worker.

The film directly tackles several of the underlying assumptions of the “classic” Western. Civilization is ultimately just as lawless as the frontier, in Unforgiven’s estimation. After all, the gunslinger is only recruited — by a group of women seeking justice — because local law enforcement simply didn’t care about the woman who was harmed.

Unforgiven also plays off a trope familiar in a genre that’s closely related to the Western: the revenge thriller. In revenge thrillers, violence can solve maybe one problem but also creates more. Eventually, a character becomes so stuck in a cycle of violence that they can never escape it. The gunslinger in Unforgiven just wanted to retire to the middle of nowhere and be a farmer, but his past keeps coming back to claim him.

Revisionist takes can open up new ground in genres that have become ossified and boring. They can also introduce new tropes that become clichés themselves. (“Violence only begets more violence” was, at one time, a pretty new idea in the revenge thriller. Now it’s almost a standard of the genre.)

Regardless, they do have a tendency toward cynicism, and they tend to attract filmmakers who have a distrust of the way things are usually done. Eastwood is one of those filmmakers — and doesn’t that description also sound a lot like James Gunn?

James Gunn and Clint Eastwood seemingly have wildly different politics. But do they really?

American Sniper
Bradley Cooper played Chris Kyle in the Clint Eastwood-directed film American Sniper.
Warner Bros. Pictures

At first, comparing these two directors might seem odd. Eastwood is a famous conservative who once ranted at an empty chair meant to represent Barack Obama, while Gunn is a solid lefty. But the more you examine the politics of both men’s films, the more a libertarian streak emerges, one that unites them across our current political divide.

The Suicide Squad spends most of its runtime attempting (badly) to burnish its lefty credentials. The movie’s cast is casually diverse, and it has a supreme distrust of law enforcement. It is rare for any big American studio movie, let alone a superhero movie, to so much as glance at the idea that US foreign policy might be making the world a worse place, and even if I think The Suicide Squad gets only about 75 percent of the way to making a point centered on this idea, I appreciate its attempts to have a larger political message.

After leaving The Suicide Squad, I couldn’t stop thinking about Eastwood’s 2014 film American Sniper. In that Iraq War-centered drama, Eastwood uses the life of sniper Chris Kyle (a real person who, I should note, said several things that were horribly racist) to ruminate on something he’s always been interested in: namely, the ways American institutions grind up the men they supposedly support in the name of spreading violence.

The politics of both American Sniper and The Suicide Squad are vague and confusing in many ways. American Sniper is furious that men like Kyle were abandoned by their government once they returned stateside, and it has supreme empathy for American soldiers struggling with combat-related PTSD. It’s not particularly interested in the Iraqis whom Kyle killed, and it creates a villain who might as well be a stereotype of an Arab terrorist. Simply by making Kyle its protagonist, American Sniper could be seen as endorsing some of his most horrifying views about Arab people. (The A.V. Club’s Tom Breihan has more on this point.)

Seen in the context of Eastwood’s career, though, American Sniper seems to lean slightly more toward “skepticism about America,” rather than toward an explosion of patriotic cheerleading. His 2006 films — Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima — look at World War II’s Battle of Iwo Jima from the perspectives of both the American and Japanese soldiers. The two films have supreme empathy for the men enmeshed in these wars, and a deep skepticism of the military apparatus that put them there. Eastwood is frequently interested in violence and what it does to someone who indulges in it. He’s also compelled by notions about what it means to be a “hero,” if such a thing can even be defined.

James Gunn is interested in all those things too. Like American Sniper, The Suicide Squad is a movie about how American institutions will grind people up in the name of spreading violence abroad, and the ways those chickens can come home to roost.

Also like American Sniper, the film is profoundly uninterested in the perspectives of anyone who’s not American. When thousands of corpses — few of which are members of the Suicide Squad itself — litter the capital city of the fictional Corto Maltese at the film’s end, the movie essentially shrugs. They were zombies controlled by a horrible, psychic starfish monster, so they don’t matter. But the Suicide Squad teammate who died in the final battle? Now there’s a death that is worthy enough to mourn.

That uneasy divide is what I refer to when I say The Suicide Squad doesn’t quite have a point to make. It has heard of American foreign policy skepticism, but it doesn’t know what to do with that concept because it’s so wedded to the idea that there have to be good guys somewhere, even if they’re convicted criminal supervillains like Harley Quinn and her friends.

A superhero movie must end with a big battle, and we haven’t yet reached the stage of superhero revisionism where such a battle can complicate the idea that the final foe might have the correct point of view. Hence a giant starfish monster who wants to take over the planet, rather than a more direct depiction of the US as … a giant monster that wants to take over the planet. (The movie can work as metaphor, but you have to stretch a bit.)

Like Eastwood, Gunn is interested in making movies about how everything is fucked and only your comrades in arms can save you. The antagonists in both Guardians of the Galaxy films include ineffectual governments that can’t accomplish what the Guardians can. Those governments might not be actively villainous, but they still get in the way. Meanwhile, The Suicide Squad is actively contemptuous of the idea that any government anywhere could want something good for its citizens; in its view, once you have power, all you want is more of it.

Indeed, as The Suicide Squad ends, the members of the titular squad briefly toy with the idea of exposing everything the US government has done, but then decide to trade what intelligence they have for their lives and for the freedom of one of their daughters (who’s in danger of going to jail). In the end, everybody’s out for themselves, and no one can quite trust even their own motives. The world is a mean and dreadful place, and the best you can do is look out for you and yours.

But this is a theme that doesn’t really fall on either side of the political aisle. You can use that phrase to rally your leftist mutual-aid network or your conservative militia. Gunn can be a liberal; Eastwood can be a conservative. They can both believe the US government has profoundly failed us, and the only heroism to be found is on a smaller, more personal scale.

I do not think Gunn has yet made a movie as good as Eastwood’s best films, but The Suicide Squad shows that he’s growing ever more interested at subverting the conventions of the superhero genre. I hope he keeps plugging away at this task. Superhero films need someone like him, digging away at their underpinnings, trying to figure out the lies the genre would ask us to believe.