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Suicide Squad: Mental Illness For Fun And Profit

In recent years superhero movies have enjoyed an explosion in popularity. Almost every new release seems to be a major movie-going event, thanks to their colourful accessibility and widespread appeal.

Not one to be left out, the church has also taken the genre to its bosom, with youth outings or small group socials often planned around the latest offering. This is perhaps because of their high-budget, action-packed thrills, combined with a low statistical probability of encountering any naked bums (most depicted skin-on-skin contact will be a big manly fist connecting with a big manly face). Or perhaps it’s because the movies normally promise glossy blockbuster entertainment with a relatively straightforward good-verses-evil message; this message undoubtedly a wholesome influence on the church’s young men – teaching them to never give up in the fight against evil with the continual use of physical violence and an absolute faith in their own moral compass. Young women are also assuredly provided with a positive role model in the form of the obligatory female who Can Kick Just As Much Ass As The Boys (albeit one with a third of the dialogue and a mandatory skin-tight costume).  So we sit munching a £6.99 bag of popcorn, soaking up the bloodless violence and eagerly await the upcoming article about how the aforementioned manly fist represents Jesus and the aforementioned manly face represents satan (or perhaps, in the more subtle efforts, Western Consumerism).

The latest superhero movie, due to grace our screens on the 5th August 2016, has taken a slightly different approach. From the DC stable (trailing pitifully in the wake of the Marvel juggernaut) comes Suicide Squad – a movie adaptation of a comic series where a number of supervillains team up to do a thing. Judging by its title and promotion material, Suicide Squad has spurned the family blockbuster market and plumped for a ‘dark’ tone, mixed with wanton destruction and insufferable zAnY hUmOuR. For example, the initial trailer is largely set in a grimy cityscape and features a string of explosions interspersed by smug quips from the rounded-up roster of rapscallions.

Now I’m a surly sourpuss who doesn’t find the prospect of Suicide Squad particularly exciting or amusing. However, beyond the movie’s jarring technicolour kookiness there’s something else about its overall branding which perturbs me. Specifically I’m referring to the way that it seems to be using the ‘exoticism’ of mental illness in its promotion. [FOOTNOTE 1]

The most obvious target would be the movie’s title. However, I don’t see this as particularly offensive, given the reference to the concept of a ‘suicide mission’. It would also be remiss of me to pretend that I haven’t previously enjoyed the mythos of characters like the Joker. After all, who can truly resist the anarchic allure of an unhinged malefactor, whose loose grip on reality nonetheless fails to prevent him preparing several elaborate, city-wide traps (whose mechanics encompass a series of tricky moral quandaries)? However, whereas previous DC media seemed to encapsulate the Joker’s disposition by a kind of non-descript ‘madness’, things seem a little different this time.

Perhaps I was previously ignorant, but the employment of mental instability as a marketing tool feels more pointed around the release of Suicide Squad – particularly in reference to specific mental health experiences and terminology. For example, in promoting the upcoming movie, a number of entertainment blogs and websites seem to be confusing the terms ‘psychotic’ and ‘psychopathic’. Despite them both containing the same root word, this is not a mistake that should be made lightly.

Broadly speaking, ‘psychopathy’ is characterised by callousness, remorselessness and a lack of empathy. In comparison, ‘psychosis’ refers to a spectrum of psychological and sensory experiences which may involve, for example, unusual sensory experiences (e.g. hearing voices), or holding strong beliefs that others find odd (e.g. ideas that may be considered suspicious or paranoid).

What’s key about this distinction is the kind of behaviours assumed by each term. While high levels of psychopathic traits are associated with an increased risk of violent and antisocial behaviour, people with psychosis are much more likely to be at risk of violence themselves than perpetrators. This may be partly due to negative portrayals of mental illness in the media, including insinuations that psychosis leads to violence. And while there are tragic occasions where people with psychosis commit violent acts, these are rare, overrepresented by the media and often perpetrated by individuals who are responding in fear against a perceived threat to themselves. Furthermore, people with psychosis can internalise negative media portrayals of themselves as dangerous and immoral, which can result in more mental health difficulties and a fear of seeking support from others.

Granted, much of my beef is with various entertainment websites covering the film and not the film itself. However, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that Suicide Squad is trying to court a certain type of promotional material. For example, there’s the article boasting of the need of a therapist on set. Then there’s the interview with Jai Courtney (Captain Boomerang in the movie) where he refers to director David Ayer’s creative approach as ‘psychotic’. Perhaps a misjudged comment, but various websites lapped it up, running the term ‘psychotic’ within their main headline. One site reblogged the story by describing Ayer as ‘psychotic, but in a good way’, noting this was ‘rather fitting for a film about a group of dangerous criminal weirdos’.

Pre-release, the jury’s still out regarding the film itself. However, there is one moment in the trailer which doesn’t bode well. The clip features Harley Quin – former psychiatrist-turned-badwoman who Can Kick Just As Much Ass As The Boys (albeit one with seemingly too much of the dialogue and is featured in one scene stripping down to her bra and pants.) About a minute into the trailer, Harley makes a quip about voices in her head telling her to kill everybody. It’s a joke sure, but the tone in which it’s made is flippant and insensitive. Plus the fact that this was chosen as a crowd-pleasing, ‘sizzle reel’ moment is a sad indictment that people who hear voices presumably aren’t considered important enough to avoid offending, even from a purely commercial perspective.

I don’t believe that Suicide Squad holds deliberately malicious intentions. And it may seem churlish to attack a film on the strength of its trailer and a few misjudged quotes. However, there is something about the marketing of Suicide Squad which seems to be cashing in on the misplaced mystique around mental illness and in doing so co-opts a larger narrative, one which lumps psychosis with violence and moral bankruptcy. This is not a new problem, but it’s one which gives us a false understanding of psychosis and risks stigmatising those who may already be experiencing significant distress and difficulty. In other words, if mental illness is explained as justification for immorality (fictional or otherwise), we may begin to equate the two [FOOTNOTE 2]

Still, who’s excited for Aquaman (2018)!?!


1) Note that some people who experience psychotic experiences would reject the term ‘mental ill’, finding it unnecessarily victimising. There are also debates around the utility of terms such as ‘ill’ and ‘well’, given the continuum of experiences which could be classified as ‘psychotic’ and difficulty in establishing demarcation criteria for a valid and reliable medical diagnosis. In reference to this I have largely tried to avoid using traditional diagnostic terms, however, this discussion is beyond the scope of the current article. For further information, see here.

2) The waters get muddier when you consider that most people who commit violent atrocities and mass murders are presumably not completely mentally ‘healthy’. However, it could be argued that in high profile cases, the label of mental illness is often used post-hoc as a justification for amoral acts, excusing the perpetrators of responsibility and further stigmatising those with established mental health difficulties. It’s a complicated area, which I don’t have space to fully explore in the current article, however, see here for further discussion.

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