How do you choose someone knowing you’re sending them to their death?
It’s a provocative question, even if we’re just talking about The Suicide Squad, the latest big screen take on DC’s iconic team of super-villains enticed into doing good by the promise of shorter prison sentences and the threat of an exploded head. Unlike other comic book protagonists, the members of the Suicide Squad are not guaranteed to survive. In fact, the only thing that is guaranteed is that not all of them will make it to the end. Heck, many of them won’t even make it past their first scene.
Who chooses which characters will live and which will end up a twitchy pile of gore? That would be writer and director James Gunn, the wonderfully warped mind behind both The Suicide Squad and the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. A longtime fan of the Suicide Squad comic, Gunn knew that directing a Suicide Squad movie came with the opportunity to dig deeply into the well of lesser-known DC villains, but that the opportunity came with a cost—not all of them would survive.
“There were a certain number of characters that I knew were going to die from the time I put them in the movie,” Gunn explains. “When I first pitched this idea to Warner Bros., I went into (Warner Bros. Film Chairman) Toby Emmerich's office and I had made copies or made photos of every single character, and I had them all on a wall because it's a lot of characters. To throw, like, Mongal at Toby Emmerich can be really confusing. Going through them in that way, I knew some characters were going to die early and then other characters died as I told the story.”
Deciding on which characters fit into which of those two camps—to say nothing of the movie’s illusive third camp, the characters who survive—largely had to do with what the characters brought to the film. Were they largely there to add a layer of ridiculousness to a film that joyfully refuses to take itself too seriously, or did they have a bit more depth to offer? For Gunn, the answer was usually apparent from the start, but there were some surprises.
“The way I write is I do have a basic structure of what the movie is,” he says. “The structure of this movie was really about the group as a whole, but there were deaths that took me by surprise because I go into a sort of fugue state when I'm writing. Some things happened very organically. It was really about what does the story need at this point. How does it work? How do we take a turn here that's unexpected?”
The list of characters in The Suicide Squad is undeniably impressive. Viola Davis’ formidable Amanda Waller returns, along with Margot Robbie’s effervescent Harley Quinn, Joel Kinnaman’s reluctant Rick Flag and Jai Courtney’s crass Captain Boomerang. Debuting alongside them are Bloodsport, Peacemaker, King Shark, the Thinker, Savant, Javelin, Weasel, Ratcatcher II, Blackguard, TDK, Mongal and Polka-Dot Man. And those are just the Squad members, there are also dozens of antagonists and supporting cast members you’ll meet along the way.
With so many characters in the film, one has to wonder, were there any characters that didn’t quite make the cut?
“So many,” Gunn reveals. “I have a file folder full of all the characters I initially considered and there’s everyone from Gunhawk to Man-Bat to Bane to Deathstroke. Man-Bat is one of my favorite characters, so I really wanted to do Man-Bat, but I think I chose Weasel and King Shark instead. There are a lot of characters who I love in the DC Universe. The DC Universe is just such an incredibly rich trove of characters and to be able to choose was very difficult.”
Still, if you’re thinking that each character was given careful deliberation and focused contemplation before making it into Gunn’s script, think again.
“Some of them were almost random,” he admits. “Like why did I do Javelin? I still can't remember why I chose Javelin. I think I just thought it was so stupid that his weapon was a javelin. He seemed so useless!”
Occasionally, those so-called “useless” characters wound up surprising Gunn, revealing themselves to have layers of substance that was previously unacknowledged or nonexistent.
“Characters like Polka-Dot Man,” Gunn mentions as an example. “He has a reputation as being useless, but ends up being probably the most powerful character in the whole movie. Taking a character like that, who's a joke and who's thought of as a joke and looking behind the curtain and seeing that he's so sad. He's Polka-Dot Man for a really tragic and sad reason. You're giving depth to something.”
One member of Task Force X who didn’t need any additional fleshing out was Robbie’s Harley Quinn, who after debuting in the 2016 Squad film went on to star in 2020’s Birds of Prey.
“One of the reasons why I think people loved and were so attracted to Margot in this role from the beginning is because she so perfectly embodies a character who is one of the most well-written characters in superhero comics that's ever existed,” posits Gunn. “It really is about Paul Dini's initial character and staying true to that. But I also felt like there were things that we could bring out in this movie that we didn't see as much in the other two movies. She is the chaotic trickster.
“To me, Harley Quinn belongs on the wall next to Batman and Spider-Man and Wonder Woman and Superman and the Hulk. When you're talking about the all-time greatest comic book characters, she's up there. And she deserves to be there, so to give her full, chaotic life onscreen was a big goal of mine. Usually with most of the characters I've written, I'm sort of recreating them for the screen. It's probably one of the reasons why I'm attracted to characters like Star-Lord—who never really had a well-defined personality in the comic books—where you can kind of recreate them for the screen. I mean, Bloodsport isn't especially well-known. And so, when I take him to the screen, he becomes this sort of Bill Munny Unforgiven character. With Harley, she is really well-drawn in the comics, and so I just wanted to be true to that.”
Ultimately, whether it’s a little known villain like Polka-Dot Man, a brand new character like Ratcatcher II or one of the most recognized characters like Harley Quinn, it all comes down to the same thing—writing and treating them with respect and heart, even if they’re not destined to survive.
“It’s a story that is first and foremost about characters above all else,” Gunn promises. “It is about spectacle. It is about action. It is about comedy. But first and foremost, it's about this group of ne'er-do-wells who aren't very good at connecting with other human beings and find through this pretty tragic experience small ways of connecting. In the end, it's bittersweet because some of them are going on to a better life and then some of them are going on to no life at all.”
In other words, The Suicide Squad does have a happy ending…for the few people who manage to make it to the end.
The Suicide Squad, directed by James Gunn, hits theaters and HBO Max on August 6, 2021. Not yet an HBO Max subscriber? Sign up today to enjoy the best of DC movies and TV.
Will you be seeing The Suicide Squad this weekend? What do you think of the characters on the Squad...and who do you think will survive? Let us know all your thoughts and speculation over in the DC Community!