We’re in a Golden Age of other-media adaptations of comics properties, with success after success leading movie producers to tap not only the A-list household names in comics fiction, but the B and C-lists as well. I had a great time when I went to Ant-Man this summer, each episode of The Flash is a viewing experience I relish and Jessica Jones has earned what seems like universal kudos. To think there are more live-action options available than animated ones is amazing.
Of all the upcoming TV and movie releases, one that has perhaps piqued my interest the most is director David Ayer’s vision of Suicide Squad. I was a huge fan of the John Ostrander-penned/Luke McDonnell-illustrated comic series of the 1980s (which was the second incarnation of the Suicide Squad, as it started out as a military/adventure property in the Silver Age). I own a couple of pages of McDonnell’s original art from Suicide Squad, and I’ve always checked out subsequent takes on the concept (though none of them boasted the same hook and skilled storytelling as Ostrander’s run).
There was a time in my teen years when I was going through what I’ll call my T.M. Maple phase. I noted a reader by that name (a pseudonym) appearing in letter column after letter column, over and over, and I set out to be a regular like him. I started writing fan letters to the comics I loved, and I recall once penning one about Suicide Squad. I addressed the letter in those pre-email days to DC Comics, but as was the custom, I also put the title of the letter column at the top.
The letter column was called “Suicide Notes.”
The envelope sat on my desk in my childhood bedroom for a couple of days along with some other fan letters, but that one was at the top of the pile, and I didn’t give it any thought. My mother, however, upon stopping into my room, absolutely took note of it. That led to an awkward talk with my parents, who’d had no idea I was writing these letters to comics publishers. I assure them that Teenage Donald was Ay-Oh-Kay, and the misunderstanding was soon set aside and forgotten. My lettercol campaign floundered as my interest in and dedication to it petered out. What stuck with me the most over the years was that exchange with my folks, my challenge to explain what was justifiably a red-flag phrase in my handwriting, and their relief.
As an aside, I learned from my online research for this column that the U.S. Postal Service objected to delivering “Suicide Notes,” which will connect to the main point I plan to make here.
Suicide Squad remained a relatively obscure concept for years, but slowly, its profile has grown, being included in animation (Justice League Unlimited and Batman: Assault on Arkham) and live-action television (Arrow). But now we have a big-budget movie in the works for next summer, and as promotional efforts for that film expand beyond the niche of the genre-fiction marketplace, the phrase “Suicide Squad” is going to make its way into the mainstream pop-culture consciousness.
I can’t tell for sure if it’s going to be a good movie (though I hope and suspect it will be), but I can guarantee this: the title is going to give rise to complaints and criticism.
A more left-leaning, accepting perspective has grown in western society in recent years and continues to do so. The social pendulum has swung — seemingly swiftly — on issues of race and gender, sexuality and disability, and that’s made for powerful and positive changes in attitudes and culture. One might argue the pendulum has swung too far, making for political correctness and oversensitivity, and that’s an important debate to have as well. If views and policies have shifted a little too far to the left, I personally see it as a logical and necessary development. It’s like western culture is a car that veered to the right on the road, out of its proper lane, and it’s in the midst of overcorrecting in the other direction.
As more and more people become aware of the Suicide Squad film, there are going to be those who pay attention as a result of the first of the two words in that title. “Suicide” is obviously a word that can bring with it pain for many who have other lost loved ones to self-inflicted injuries or those who have survived attempts. Criticisms that the title is insensitive to those suffering from mental illness (when clearly so many of the characters in the story are portrayed as mentally ill) are inevitable, in my opinion. I can envision people claiming the term’s prominence in the pop zeitgeist puts that notion in the heads of moody teens or vulnerable adults. We’re going to see the term “trigger” peppered in punditry and tweets more and more the closer we get to the film’s release.
I highly doubt Warner Bros. will alter the title, though it does have a less controversial, less interesting but nevertheless valid alternate title with “Task Force X,” another name for the titular team (though perhaps 20th Century Fox and/or Marvel might get their corporate panties in a bunch over that). The studio and people involved in the movie’s production have already begun promotional efforts, and early indications are that they’re paying off. Margot Robbie’s incarnation of Harley Quinn was a top Halloween costume in 2015, and that’s amazing for an incarnation of a character that’s yet to actually be seen outside of a brief trailer and promotional stills.
Nevertheless, I think a campaign or push against the term “Suicide Squad” is unavoidable. We’ve seen corporate entities cater to that market, but justifiably so in some cases. But while the property is definitely a commercial product, Suicide Squad is also an aspect of American pop culture. Changing names or terms to suit a new socio-cultural reality or sensitivity isn’t always a good thing.
Take, for example, M*A*S*H. While the original movie version was noteworthy, the television adaptation is considered a real achievement in the medium, and it promoted a progressive perspective. Can you imagine M*A*S*H without its iconic theme music, though? The song that plays in the opening credits montage is titled “Suicide Is Painless.” If M*A*S*H were to be produced today (or — shudder — rebooted or reimagined), couldn’t there be a contingent out there that feels that song and its title might be detrimental to a vulnerable segment of society? I’d argue it’s not a stretch to believe such an outcry would occur, but removing that music would alter our culture. It’s a soft, poignant piece of music that resonates and evokes emotion — positive and negative. An objection to its title is hardly a reason to ignore that piece of art.
While Suicide Squad will hardly be as important an aspect of western culture as M*A*S*H, it doesn’t merit interference either.
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