'Suicide Squad' and When a Character Is Bigger Than a Star

Will Smith's recasting suggests that James Gunn has big plans for Deadshot.
Will Smith in 'Suicide Squad'; Idris Elba   |   Photofest; Presley Ann/Getty Images for Netflix
Will Smith's recasting suggests that James Gunn has big plans for Deadshot.

James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is quickly shaping up and starting to fill out its roster of villains-turned-government operatives. In the midst of its pre-production comes a major recasting. Last week came word that Will Smith won’t be returning as Floyd Lawton, aka Deadshot, with scheduling issues being the deciding factor rather than any bad blood between Smith and Warner Bros. On Wednesday, Idris Elba entered talks to replace Smith, with the actor being the first and only choice for Gunn and Warner Bros. The Suicide Squad won’t be Elba’s first foray into comic book movies. He previously played supporting roles The Losers (2010), Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2011), and most notably the Marvel Cinematic Universe where he took on the role of Asgardian sentry, Heimdall. Deadshot stands to be Elba’s most significant comic book movie role to date. While recasting is always a controversial move, the decision to recast Deadshot, rather than replace him with another member of the ever-rotating Suicide Squad, is evidence of just how important the character is to the film, and perhaps the DC film universe going forward.

Word is that Gunn’s script for The Suicide Squad draws heavily from Jon Ostrander and Kim Yale’s '80s run, rather than the more recent New 52 iteration that inspired Ayer’s film. Even though Smith was one of the biggest draws going into David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (2016), and he certainly gave a memorable performance, it was Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn who stole the show. Robbie is expected to return for The Suicide Squad once production wraps on the currently filming Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). Quinn is a relatively recent addition to the Suicide Squad, having first joined the team in 2011 and drawing most of the book’s attention. While we’re still expecting Robbie’s turn as Harley Quinn to be central to the film, the Ostrander/Yale influence suggests we’ll see an old-school iteration of the team, consisting primarily of new team members, of which there are plenty to draw from. But Deadshot’s importance to the Suicide Squad can’t be understated, and he serves a purpose no substitute character could quite fill in the same way.

When we last saw Deadshot in Suicide Squad, he was depicted as a morally conflicted hitman (complete with Christian devotions) who joined Amanda Waller’s Task Force X so that he could have the chance to reunite with his daughter Zoe. Most of Lawton’s recent appearances in the comics, DC Animated Movies, Arrow, and Ayer’s film have focused on his struggle to get back to his daughter. It has become his defining trait outside of his marksmanship. But Zoe didn’t become a part of Deadshot’s story until 2005, and The Suicide Squad has the opportunity to re-discover who the character is beyond those now familiar father-daughter ties. A Golden Age character who began his career as a tuxedo and top hat-clad Batman villain in Batman No. 59 (1960), Deadshot was pulled back from the depths of obscurity by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers’ 1977-1978 Detective Comics run, collected as Batman: Strange Apparitions, and later in Ostrander and Yale’s Suicide Squad. In the pages of Suicide Squad, Lawton gave new meaning to the title as the team’s sole member who was actually looking for a worthy way to die. Lawton’s death wish frequently saw the character making risky choices, and choosing missions with low-survival rates, efforts that put the rest of his teammates in the crosshairs.

Deadshot’s lack of consideration for life and his own suicidal tendencies seem like ripe material for Gunn to explore, as he has a knack for digging into the core of his characters and making both the seemingly despicable and badass emotional lynchpins. Ostrander and Yale dove into Lawton’s beginnings in their 1988 Deadshot miniseries. A child of abusive parents, a young Floyd Lawton and his brother Edward were drawn into a plot to assassinate their father, George, by their mother who had been paralyzed at George’s hands. Floyd backs out at the last minute but accidentally fires a shot that kills his brother. It’s this act that awakens Floyd to the fact that he cares nothing about life, even when it concerns the people he cares about. Years later, Deadshot is contracted by his mother to finish off his father, when his therapist, Marnie Herrs, who he has developed romantic feelings for interferes, he paralyzes her, a decision that highlights his feelings for her but his ultimate inability to move past violence and develop a sense of empathy. While there are parts of Deadshot’s history that are perhaps too dark, and potentially problematic, for contemporary comic book movies, there’s a lot of psychological damage that could be dealt with. Lawton’s particular condition and inability to see the value of life, and the effect of that, formed one of the central theses of Ostrander and Yale’s Suicide Squad.

Deadshot’s emotional struggles form the crux of the Suicide Squad, and that certainly feels like an angle that Gunn would want to explore. There’s no reason why he should be limited, and that The Suicide Squad shouldn’t be all it can be simply because of the unavailability of an actor. Elba’s replacement of Smith is comparable to the Marvel Cinematic Universe's recasting decisions in which Don Cheadle replaced Terrance Howard as James Rhodes/War Machine, and Mark Ruffalo replaced Edward Norton as Bruce Banner/Hulk. While the circumstances surrounding Deadshot’s recasting seem to be on more amicable terms than those MCU comparisons, they each serve as examples that showcase that these characters place within these worlds are more important than any one actor. There’s also the fact that Deadshot was one of the many projects Warner Bros. has expressed interest in as a feature film. While it always seemed somewhat unlikely with Smith given the actor’s schedule and choosiness over projects, it seems more likely with Elba.  With Warner Bros. learning that the DC Universe holds a lot more potential than just Batman and Superman, Deadshot could break out in a major way and finally give Idris Elba the long-earned opportunity to lead an action franchise.

  • Richard Newby
  1. by Carolyn Giardina , Aaron Couch