Full of scorpions is my mind. Or so it seemed, walking out of Suicide Squad. I felt not a little like Lady Macbeth who could not wash her mind of what she had experienced. The mythology of the comic book universes, both DC and Marvel, has the potential to be a lasting commentary on such weighty matters as the battle between good and evil, the desire for power, the consequences of crime, and the inevitability (or not) of fate. Instead, we are treated to dreck like Suicide Squad.
Even now, as we are making movies like this, in which such matters are wildly mishandled and messily slapped up on the screen, we are also still making and remaking the same great stories. And thus I turned to Macbeth.
The most recent adaptation of The Scottish Play stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as Macbeth and his Lady. They are both glorious actors in their own right, having proven themselves again and again capable of handling the dark and weighty matters upon which this play must meditate. Their relationship builds their separate characters into murderers and madmen. It makes them strong at first, but their deeds and the power that descends on them are crushing weights. In Macbeth we see the consequences of using the strength a relationship should give as a bolster for wickedness. Their separate and collective madness eats away at them, which is why the audience can feel sympathy for them. In Sucide Squad, the Joker and Harley Quinn are a pale imitation of this insane duo. They too, are the self-styled King and Queen of their universe, roles they took by force and which they do not deserve. But though we want to feel sympathy for the poor tortured Dr. Harleen Quinzel, and even admire the strength of the murderous Harley Quinn, there are no consequences for their actions. We are instead asked to admire the panache and the tattoos and the very madness they revel in. We cannot care when they take lives, but we should.Pretenders to the throne do not fair well in Shakespeare. Madness lies that way, for to kill a king is to stain oneself eternally. Fassbender’s Macbeth wastes little time descending into his own private hell. As soon as the crown rests on his head he becomes tenfold more the merciless brute, burning women and children at the stake to feed his paranoia and thirst for revenge. His madness is not funny. It is not bright or garish or stylish. It is the madness of repentance when repentance is impossible and he can see no course but to heap more bodies on the pyre. It’s not easy being king, that’s for sure. This Macbeth makes that pointedly clear. There isn’t a moment when it is even fun. Fun, however, is the Joker’s raison d’etre. And love, perhaps. As the Joker flits in and out of this sad excuse for a story we see that everything he touches is touched carelessly. He maddens his psychiatrist and almost leaves her for dead, he rescues her when she is taken from him but then lets her fall out of the back of a plane, or nearly drown in a submerged car. From what we know of him so far she is a doll he enjoys playing with until he carelessly puts her down or pops off her head. But what of her? Madness does not give Lady Macbeth her strength. That is not what screws her courage to the sticking place. Her own ambitious humanity does that. It is not madness that compels her or her husband to act, it is the judgment they exercise. How much more powerful then, to have madness follow her as she confronts the consequences of her actions. The alternative mythology offered to us in a movie like Suicide Squad is that madness gives you strength, that it makes you fearless in battle. Perhaps the greatest sin of the movie is to give us the notion that any squad is not a suicide squad. As Macbeth prepares young boys for battle at the beginning of his movie, he knows, they know, and we know that they will all die that day.But I will end with Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. That, though full of problems in its own right, was the saving grace of this movie. She manages to eke out of the script something I am not sure was ever written in it: fragility. Her madness and the choices that came out of it do have some consequences for her and her toughness hides a dream of normality. “Are you God?” she asks in this shot. The fear and wonder in her eyes mirrors our poor mad Lady’s.