Hey, did you hear the big superhero-movie news? Warner Bros. cast the core roles for Suicide Squad! What’s that, you say? You don’t have any idea what the Suicide Squad is? It has zero brand-name recognition outside the comics world? And even comics fans only sorta care about it? It’s baffling that some of the biggest names in Hollywood, such as Will Smith and Jared Leto, would tie themselves to such an unknown property? Hmm, these are all solid points, my friend. Perhaps I can use my misspent years of comics-reading to shed some light for you. Here’s a six-point primer on the Suicide Squad, one of the strangest and most unpredictable ideas ever to come out of DC Comics.
1. They’re a villainous, superhuman Dirty Dozen.
The core idea of the Suicide Squad is simple: The U.S. government rounds up a team of supervillains and, in exchange for lightened sentences, the baddies have to carry out horrifically dangerous black-ops missions (y’know, suicide missions). DC has never strayed too far from that simple pitch since the team’s debut in 1987. And why should it? It’s genius! The team members hate each other. They hate their handlers even more. If the team fails, the government can always disavow them and leave them to die. If the team succeeds, they won’t get any credit, because the team doesn’t officially exist. And there are no meddling heroes to get in the way of the mustache-twirling. Are you starting to see why this is such a no-brainer pitch for a movie?
2. They’ve never been a top-tier comics property.
Although the concept is top-notch, the execution has been spotty and the readership has only intermittently shown up in meaningful numbers. (Before going further, I should note that, confusingly, there was another team called the Suicide Squad that debuted in DC Comics in 1959, but they’re more or less unrelated to the modern version of the team. Don’t worry about them.) Their first monthly series ran from 1987 to 1992, and when it was resurrected in 2001, the new run didn’t even last a year before getting canceled. Suicide Squad was relaunched in 2011, and it was immediately criticized for being sexist, blithely violent, and generally dull. DC rebooted the ailing series as New Suicide Squad this year, and sales have been poor. Commentators have compared Suicide Squad to Guardians of the Galaxy in that both were largely unknown comics properties when their respective movies were announced. It’s a faulty comparison: The Guardians were just minor players, whereas the Squad has a long history of franchise failure.
3. There have been a bajillion members, and they have a habit of violently dying.
If you’re a villain in the DC Comics universe, there’s a strong chance you’ve been affiliated with the Suicide Squad (with one extremely notable exception, which we’ll get to in a minute). That said, the biggest names have only served briefly — the team usually consists of D-listers scooped from the backwaters of the DC universe. Members come and go, and when they go, it’s often because they’ve shuffled off this mortal coil. (Famously, the first issue of the 2001 Suicide Squad series featured all but one of the members being murdered by issue’s end.) That’s actually one of the Squad archetype’s greatest delights: Anyone can die at any moment.
4. The most iconic Suicide Squad member is Deadshot.
Despite the revolving door, there are a few characters who are members more often than not. None is more important than a cold-blooded assassin named Deadshot (set to be played by Will Smith in the movie). There’s not a whole lot to the character’s archetype: He’s just a mercenary who is extremely good at killing people, usually by shooting them. He’s usually depicted as having some cybernetic implants that make him especially good at killing, but he’s otherwise just a human. (He is also, it should be noted, not African-American in the comics.) Given how unknown the character is in the wider world of culture, the movie kinda has carte blanche with the character. It’ll be interesting to see what it does with the Will Smith incarnation … though one has to assume he’ll have a kid he loves or some other bad-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold treacle, because c’mon, they’re not gonna let Will Smith play a full-on psychopath, no matter how incredible that would be.
5. The Joker has never been a member … until now.
The biggest headline from the Suicide Squad casting news, of course, was this: Jared Leto is our new Joker. It appears that the Crown Prince of Crime will be a Squadder, even though he’s never been on the team in the comics. However, his faithful sidekick (and domestic-abuse victim) Harley Quinn has been on the most recent comics incarnations of the team, and Margot Robbie will bring her to life on the big screen in 2016. Unlike the Squad, Harley is a huge moneymaking property for DC Comics (her solo series is regularly one of their best-sellers), so putting her in this movie adaptation was a foregone conclusion. And hey, the Joker remains the greatest and most recognizable villain in superhero history, so it can’t hurt to toss him in, too.
6. Their (still-uncast) handler is one of the most groundbreaking characters in comics history.
There’s still one extremely important character that Warner Bros. has yet to cast: the Squad’s government handler, Amanda Waller. It’s hard to overstate the uniqueness of Waller in the comics canon. In her classical depictions, she’s an overweight, middle-aged, short-haired, dead-eyed, supremely confident African-American woman with an enormous amount of governmental authority. No lead character in superhero comics had ever fit that description. Imagine a more energetic Dick Cheney, except black and female and (slightly) less evil. Since the 2011 Suicide Squad reboot, she’s been made younger and skinnier, much to the chagrin of readers. But this is an opportunity to rehabilitate the character for a new generation. Honestly, she’s the linchpin to most of the great Suicide Squad stories, so her casting will be crucial. There are rumors that Warner wants Oprah to fill the role. Dear reader, let us pray that it shall come to pass.