'Suicide Squad': A Brief History of the Black-Ops Bad Guys
As the casting announcements this week made clear, David Ayer’s Suicide Squad is a movie that’s likely to draw a lot of attention when it’s released in 2016. The second of Warner Bros’ upcoming slate of movies based around DC Entertainment properties — and third movie in the current DCU movie universe, following Man of Steel and the upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice — the relative obscurity of the property makes it look as if Marvel went directly from Iron Man 2 to Guardians of the Galaxy. For those who might be wondering just what kind of characters gather together to kill themselves, then, here’s a quick primer on who, what and why when it comes to DC’s black-ops bad guys.
Although the concept as it appears today debuted in 1986, the name “Suicide Squad” dates back to 1959, when it was used for a concept created by Robert Kanigher and Ross Andru for anthology series The Brave and The Bold. The original Squad was made up of non-superpowered government agents dealing with threats to the U.S. outside of the norm (If you ever wanted to see G-Men fight against dinosaurs, this was the place to be). As a series, it was a relative flop, lasting just six issues before fading into obscurity.
The title was resurrected by writer John Ostrander following the success of DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths event and subsequent soft-relaunch (The new Squad made their debut in a mini-series titled Legends, which also introduced new takes on the Flash, Wonder Woman and the Justice League). Keeping the name and little else, Ostrander introduced the concept of “Task Force X,” a secret government agency headed by Amanda Waller, a character who remains almost unique in superhero comics: a black woman in a position of authority whose morality is murky at best, but whose ability to get things done is unparalleled (Following her introduction, Waller quickly assumed a position of power throughout the entire DC line, and was often portrayed as an equal to Batman in the badass stakes, to give you an impression of how powerful she was).
Task Force X was a program that worked on the simple understanding that there are some missions that are too dangerous for even the most capable spies or soldiers — and so they should be carried out by convicted supervillains instead, because (a) they have superpowers, and (b) it’s not a big deal if they end up getting killed in the process. Even if they get captured, Waller figured, it wouldn’t be a problem because in the unlikely possibility that someone would believe anything a supervillain had to say, all of them were fitted with remote control explosive devices that could kill them at the flick of a switch. Win-win, surely…?
That dark high concept powered over five years of Ostrander’s Suicide Squad title — it ran 66 issues, from 1987 through 1992 — with the team featuring a revolving cast as new characters were cycled in to replace the dead, the disgraced and the rare villains and anti-heroes that managed to survive missions and get out in one piece. At the core were a number of characters who will show up in Ayer’s movie: Rick Flagg Jr., soldier and son of the head of the original, 1950s, Squad (to be played by Tom Hardy); Deadshot, Batman villain and world’s greatest assassin — albeit one with a death wish of his own (Will Smith); Captain Boomerang, longtime opponent of the Flash and general ne’er-do-well (Jai Courtney); and the Enchantress, a schizophrenic sorceress whose loyalties could never be predicted (Cara Delevingne).
Although the Suicide Squad comic disappeared in the early 1990s, the team didn’t. In addition to irregular appearances in other comic books — they showed up in Adventures of Superman and the event series 52, amongst other places — the team would also make appearances in episodes of the Justice League Unlimited animated series and Smallville and Arrow, and receive the spotlight in the animated direct-to-DVD movie with this year’s Batman: Assault on Arkham. They’d also be the subject of three comic book revivals, with new series in 2001, 2007 and 2011 (That latter series was, itself, relaunched again earlier this year after a matter of months).
The appeal of the Suicide Squad is an easy one to grasp: it’s essentially Mission: Impossible for superheroes, with the added bonus of the tension implicit in the idea that not everyone will make it out alive. That its characters are all villains to one degree or another creates a moral ambiguity that feels unusually “correct” in a superhero context, just as the spy-centric concept allows for political commentary equally unusual in superhero stories. It is, in other words, a series that is built to expand the superhero genre in new directions while playing with tropes that the audience is already familiar with — all the while featuring a character called “Captain Boomerang.”
That level of metatextual genre mash-up is one of the reasons why Ostrander’s concept — and, indeed, his original series — is so fondly-remembered today, and remains so potent in terms of inspiring new stories and takes. Done right, Suicide Squad is unlike any other superhero property out there: smarter, nastier and given to the kind of machiavellian backstabbing commonplace in House of Cards, Scandal or, if you want to be highfalutin’, Shakespeare. Imagine the character dynamics and snark of The Avengers turned up to 11, and you’re almost there. The question now is simple: will the 2016 movie manage to do Suicide Squad right?
The original John Ostrander Suicide Squad series is available in its entirety on ComiXology, with the first six issues available in a collected print edition titled Suicide Squad: Trial By Fire. Consider them essential reading. Also recommended, the 2011 series and 2014 relaunch, which are also available on ComiXology, with all of the 2011 series available in five collected print editions: Kicked in The Teeth, Basilisk Rising, Death is for Suckers, Discipline and Punish and Walled In.