There was once a time when comic villains who were ethnic minorities were terrible stereotypes. That was bad. As comic-book and movie writers became more attuned to a diverse audience, they stopped using caricatures of minorities as villains. That was generally good.
Today, unfortunately, villains are overwhelmingly white men with English accents. The last James Bond villain who was not a European aristocrat literally had white skin put on him and turned into a European aristocrat (Die Another Day). Even Deadpool, who was aware of the trope, still had to settle for some English upper-crust male villain in his film. Villainy has never been less diverse outside of the handful of middle-aged power women in the Hunger-Games-Maze-Runner-Divergent genre.
That’s why Suicide Squad’s casting and promotion of a diverse group of villains-turned-anti-heroes is a welcome change. The team of outcasts includes people of many different races and backgrounds and has women in key roles. The members of Suicide Squad are from all over the world. If the trailers are any indication, the characters aren’t token sidekicks but are all full-fledged characters in their own right.
It’s an important step because villainy is empowering. A stereotype – even a positive one – can be dehumanizing and reductive. If women and minorities must always be depicted as morally superior (like all of the women and aliens in Avatar), it reduces the characters, and often places them in a position in which they’re reacting to the choices of a white male villain. Making characters more one-dimensional – even if it is a “good” dimension – is like asking people to play poker without bluffing: the game is less interesting because there are far fewer options and a lot less ambiguity.
That’s why you should be happy with Suicide Squad. From Loki to Darth Vader, the villain is often the most memorable character in an action movie. The villain gets to chew the scenery. They get all the fun lines. They also have a high degree of agency. The villains get to create the events that the heroes need to overcome. As a powerful team of people from diverse backgrounds – including the casting of Will Smith as Deadshot, a white character in the comics – Suicide Squad is pushing villainy in a welcome new direction.
Having villains from diverse backgrounds makes those villains far more entertaining. In the X-Men series, Magneto’s minority-identity was based in real historical events and he was able to channel that in compelling ways, providing an explanation for his mistrust and even hatred that motivates his actions. Characters from more diverse backgrounds offer more opportunities for motive and character development, and that in turn allows for more layered, complex, and relatable villains.
If you’re a cynical movie executive from Warner Bros, you should be happy with Suicide Squad because diversity sells, a fact that becomes more noteworthy given the tepid response to Batman v Superman, a movie sorely lacking in characters people could identify with. For the rest of us, it’s simply a chance to see more diverse and more interesting characters on screen. Minority characters don’t always have to be the heroes. That’s why there’s reason to be optimistic about Suicide Squad, so here’s hoping it doesn’t suck.