I’ve been in love with the concept of the Suicide Squad ever since I saw the “Task Force X” episode of Justice League Unlimited. Unfortunately, it’s exceedingly difficult to be a fan of the franchise; despite the simplicity of the premise (it’s basically The Dirty Dozen with C-list super villains), the post-Ostrander comic books have mostly missed the mark, and the less said about David Ayer’s live action adaptation, the better.
In my opinion, the only interpretation that comes close to capturing the spirit of the source material is Batman: Assault on Arkham, released by Warner Bros. Animation in 2014. It’s not perfect, but it remembers that its protagonists are thoroughly rotten bad guys, rather than misunderstood outcasts; once they break free from Waller’s control, they immediately turn on each other, even though it would be in their best interest to continue working together. Because they’re just that selfish and shortsighted.
And now, the studio has produced a new feature-length cartoon to introduce the team into its “DC Universe Original Movie” canon (which also includes Justice League: War, Justice League vs. Teen Titans, and Teen Titans: The Judas Contract). So how does Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay measure up to its predecessors?
To my immeasurable delight, it is quite possibly the best incarnation of the property since it first hit newsstands way back in 1987. The Bond-esque cold open immediately makes three things absolutely clear:
The “R” rating is no joke; blood gushes, bones shatter, and brains and innards spill all over the damn place.
Every character has a personal agenda—even the ones with bombs implanted in their necks. We are, after all, talking about the kinds of costumed freaks whose megalomaniacal ambitions are, more often than not, thwarted by their own arrogance; of course they’re delusional enough to believe that they’re capable of outsmarting their government handlers.
Nobody is safe; popularity doesn’t necessarily equate to immunity from suffering a messy, painful demise.
Better still, writer Alan Burnett doesn’t merely ride the coattails of the stories that inspired him; his script is also an insightful deconstruction of what makes Suicide Squad so appealing. The MacGuffin du jour is a literal “Get Out of Hell Free” card, and while the symbolism is a bit… overt, it does invite the disparate members of the sizable ensemble cast—from the morally-ambiguous Bronze Tiger (an oft-overlooked Task Force X O.G.) to the utterly irredeemable Vandal Savage and Professor Zoom—to contemplate the consequences of their past misdeeds. The result is significantly more introspective than your typical direct-to-DVD superhero fare; indeed, it’s a positively engrossing meditation on the nature of mortality, spirituality, sin, and absolution…
…that happens to feature a metric shit-ton of exploding heads and severed limbs.
[Originally written April 12, 2018.]