This post contains spoilers for The Suicide Squad.
In recent years, superhero movie endings have fallen into a rut. The final act of any given example will involve a gigantic fight, often one that devolves into muddy CGI dreck (see: the dismally grey airport fight in Captain America: Civil War, the mass of computer-generated aliens in Justice League) but doesn’t actually leave any question as to whether the heroes will win or lose. The Suicide Squad, a sequel to 2016’s similarly titled Suicide Squad, isn’t an exception to the rule, exactly—eventually its “heroes” do wind up preventing a giant alien starfish from wreaking havoc on Earth. But it is the rare movie that actually gives its finale real stakes. The entire premise of the Suicide Squad movies is that captured supervillains are deployed as expendable soldiers on black-ops missions. Dying is in the job description—it’s even right there in the title. But The Suicide Squad successfully convinces viewers that most of the characters really are in danger of biting the dust.
It’s difficult to build stakes in franchises dependent on popular characters. Lead characters don’t die, or if they do, they rarely stay dead. Infinity War, for instance, nuked half of the world’s population, but brought them back in the next Avengers installment. Groot resurrected as Baby Groot. Superman resurrected as Not-Baby Superman. (Missed opportunity!) Death, in the superhero world, has largely been ephemeral, and not really something to fear. Only a few heroes—Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, and Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine—have actually shuffled off, and all have been relatively grand deaths, sacrifices made for the sake of saving the world, or at least the future generation of superheroes.
Even in superhero films that have no qualms about killing most of their casts (the first Suicide Squad, Deadpool 2), there’s no weight to character deaths—it’s immediately obvious who’s considered expendable and who’s not. The Suicide Squad does suffer the same problem to a certain extent: Harley Quinn is arguably the DCEU’s most popular character at the moment, and DC has already announced a spinoff Peacemaker series. But the death of Joel Kinnaman’s Rick Flag at the hands of Peacemaker is genuinely surprising given his status as a lead in both Suicide Squad movies thus far. In being willing and able to kill off the kind of character we’ve come to consider bulletproof, The Suicide Squad instantly differentiates itself, and ramps up the stakes leading into the film’s final act. If Flag can be erased from the board, then so can almost anyone else.
The same is true of Polka Dot Man. The Suicide Squad benefits from spending more time fleshing out its characters than, say, Suicide Squad, which barely established who Slipknot and El Diablo were—I’ll give you a moment to refresh your memory on Wikipedia—before blowing them away. Polka Dot Man, in part thanks to a sweetly awkward performance from David Dastmalchian, is given enough time to reveal his personality and past fairly naturally, rather than in just one exposition dump, so that he actually becomes sympathetic. When he’s unceremoniously squashed by Starro, right after excitedly declaring that he has finally become a superhero, it’s crushing—no pun intended.
In other words, it’s just not The Suicide Squad’s comedy-forward attitude that makes it work. It helps, yes, that the film doesn’t take itself too seriously—again, its final fight pits a bunch of humans against a giant starfish reminiscent of Beebo in Legends of Tomorrow—but Deadpool didn’t take itself seriously either, and it still failed to reach quite the same level of emotional resonance. There’s a little bit of risk involved in Deadpool helping the other characters see eye-to-eye rather than killing each other, but there’s never really any question as to who will and won’t survive. Deadpool’s ending feels triumphant, whereas The Suicide Squad’s is bittersweet. They’ve stopped Starro, yes, but the nefarious doings of the American government are still kept secret, so that the semi-reformed supervillains we see can maintain a little bit of leverage. Not all of the world’s problems have been solved.
The Suicide Squad still isn’t a perfect movie, but it avoids many of the pitfalls that tend to derail its peers, and succeeds in making what could have been a generic final battle feel perilous. It’s all about even character development—and, crucially, the willingness to then let those characters go—rather than focusing so much on “lead” heroes and marking everyone else out as cannon fodder. I can’t really remember ever feeling sad for any Marvel heroes before—but, days after watching The Suicide Squad, I still mourn for Polka Dot Man.
For more on The Suicide Squad, listen to Karen Han and Sam Adams discuss the movie in spoiler-filled detail.