Building a Better Wall
I don't mean to keep picking on Suicide Squad; I liked a lot about the movie and while it had its problems I kind of keep rooting for it to do well so that they'll make another, hopefully, better one. But there's one character in particular where I think they dropped the ball, and it might surprise you considering she had one of the better-reviewed performances of the film: Amanda Waller.
Honestly, this wasn't entirely the movie's fault. DC has struggled a bit with Amanda Waller in recent years, it seems, and I think it's because they've lost sight of what exactly it is that makes her work so well when she's handled properly, like in John Ostrander and Kim Yale's Suicide Squad of 1987, which she was created for. What is it that makes her work? Well, the simple answer is that she isn't a simple character; the writers who handle her best embrace the fact that she is a tremendously complex and nuanced character who cannot be easily simplified into just a few basic character traits. There is a lot to unpack about Amanda Waller, and she works best when you take the time to recognize it all.
Major spoilers for Suicide Squad the movie and Suicide Squad the 1987 comic
From a Different Point of View
Here's a part of the problem: Amanda Waller has a reputation right now as an antagonist or outright villain. In 2009, IGN ranked her as the 60th Greatest Comic Book Villain of All Time, in her appearances on the CW's Arrow she has gleefully advocated torture and killing her team members as integral parts of missions, and in the film Suicide Squad, she has a moment where she flat out murders a handful of innocent civilian staff working for her because 'they weren't read in' on what the current mission was. Take a moment to let that one sink in; in the film, we see Amanda Waller personally kill more innocent civilians than the Joker.
None of this fits Amanda Waller as she was created and portrayed in the original Suicide Squad, but the funny thing is, if you've only read, say, the first 25 issues of the series, then this seems like a logical progression to her personality. Amanda Waller first appeared in 1986's Legends, a 6 issue miniseries that served as a jumping-off point for several new titles (or new versions of existing titles) after DC's 1985 reboot Crisis on Infinite Earths. Suicide Squad was one of those titles, and that was where Amanda Waller would spend her time, but when the series began she was not the protagonist.
To a degree, it's sort of impossible to lay down a single character as the protagonist, considering it's an ensemble book, but the character that the narrative centered around most dominantly was Rick Flag. At least at first. Flag seemed a suitable lead; he was cool, tough, generally likable. He was essentially a good guy, even when his job description was leading a team of bad guys. He was a good soldier, but when he got orders from above (in this case, referring to Waller herself) that he couldn't agree with for moral reasons, he would buck authority and do things the way he felt they needed to be done.
And then he died.
The book's narrative adeptly shifted gears at this point and repositioned a few other characters into lead roles. Bronze Tiger, Flag's second in command took on the full-time field leader role from Flag, but it was Waller herself who slipped into position as the book's most prominent protagonist. And where Flag's moral center was illustrated by the times he refused to do what Waller told him when he knew it was wrong, Waller would get a similar treatment, with unscrupulous authority figures above her brought in so we could see the ways she bucked the system. As we see things more and more from her point of view, we begin to realize that her actions, while frequently of questionable morality, cannot be easily classified as evil or even straight up immoral. She has her reasons, she has her methods, and ultimately she still wants to do some good in the world, it's how she goes about it that can be problematic.
And this is important: she's shown to be a relatively secretive person, and she keeps her private things to herself, even if knowing them helps explain so much about why she is the way she is. So, without seeing things from her point of view, it's easy to overlook the much more nuanced person inside and just see the grim, ruthless, authority figure persona she puts on. But the book takes the time, and the effort to present things from her point of view, and when that happens is when she truly emerges as an incredible character. Unfortunately, not enough projects that attempt to feature her have granted her the exploration that makes her work, and you're left with versions of her that behave in a way that seems in line with her facade, without recognizing that that facade is just a front to make her seem strong.
Why does she need to seem strong? Well...
She's a Superhero Without the Privilege
Certain pieces of characters have gotten to be so famous that they become a part of the core language of comics itself. Batman's origin of a dead family leading to the creation of a superhero has become one of those character pieces, and almost any new character who includes this trope within their origin is in some way a riff on Batman. “Batman... if his parents were criminals killed by the police”; “Batman... if he did it”; etc. It takes a while to find out Amanda Waller's origins, but when you do the realization is made that Amanda Waller, to some degree, is “Batman without the privilege.”
Now, nobody is saying that what little Bruce Wayne went through when he saw his parents murdered in front of him wasn't challenging and traumatic, but he's far from alone in experiencing trauma within comics, and he had a better go of it than some other characters. His experience motivated him to become Batman, but he was able to accomplish that with little hindrance due to his excess of wealth and his loyal butler Alfred and his general lack of responsibilities elsewhere in life and his youth to devote to this crusade and the little fact that he's a white man. After seeing her husband, one of her sons, and one of her daughters murdered, Amanda Waller had a similar drive and absolutely none of those advantages in helping her achieve it. She was an impoverished, middle-aged, short, fat, black woman who was now the head of what was left of her family. If Batman is a case of life giving you lemons and you making lemonade, Amanda Waller is someone who got the lemons without the luxury of having a juicer.
Now here is where I think it's important to reiterate another similarity between her and Batman, the idea of family in both her and Batman's narrative. During everything to come, Waller was still a mother to her remaining children, and the comics never make any point of her being anything other than a good one. She also seems pretty close to her sister's daughter who even comes to work for her as an aide in the Squad. But, much like Batman, the fact is that her story sets off with the loss of family. Batman's response, over the years, is to create the Batman family, bringing in nearly all the youth he comes across and making them deputized crime fighters as part of his team. He gives them the guidance and the resources and the training that he had to figure out mostly on his own during his formative years, providing a ready network for them that he had to build from the ground up when he got started. Waller lost some of her family, in her case children and her husband, and her response, eventually, is to form a team of her own. Criminals, yes, and ones she must be prepared to lose should the missions they go on prove a little too dangerous, but primarily a makeshift family nonetheless, which is pretty clearly evidenced every time she refers to the people under her command as 'children.'
This is another area where she and Batman diverge. Batman, when forming a replacement family that helps him fight crime, mainly gets the pick of the litter. He finds young, strong people who he can help shape and guide, whose idealism he can protect and nurture. Waller, like always, makes do with what she can find, in her case hardened criminals who she has to bribe into service by offering reductions to their prison sentences. These criminals don't see her as a parental figure the way Batman is perceived, but she demonstrates an affection towards them in the form of loyalty, protectiveness, and sometimes tough love and discipline. She's still their prison warden, and she's still fighting to keep what positions of authority she's earned, so she needs to be tough, and she doesn't have the luxury of getting sentimental, but those feelings are there, just below the surface, and informing everything she does.
All of this background information helps explain her whole character. It's important to see how little she had when she entered the playing field so that the sacrifices she makes are all the more understandable. We've been conditioned to understand that, in comics, the kind of origin she experienced is the foundation of becoming a superhero, but given her circumstances that conclusion was simply not in the cards for her. So she became something else, something with a similar end goal, but made out of the pieces and things she had access to. Eventually, she earned a doctorate in political science. She then became a congressional aide. She then presented the concept of Task Force X to the White House and was put in charge of its development. All the way she faced opposition from people who didn't want her in these positions of power due to her gender or race or both. But she persevered, she compromised, she did what she had to, and to a degree she got lucky, and through this she accomplished.
How much did she compromise? Well, that's the thing.
A Question of Morality
Amanda Waller is probably one of the comics' truest anti-heroes. Granted, the term “Anti-hero” is pretty broad and in superheroes can be applied to anyone who doesn't qualify as a flat out hero or villain. Jason Todd, formerly Robin, comes back as an anti-hero when he still fights crime but doesn't have Batman's restraint; Harley Quinn, originally a villainous sidekick to the Joker, tends to be considered an anti-hero on her own when she fights crime but does it using her methods as a supervillain. Both characters are pretty simple when you break it down; what they're trying to accomplish is still something the audience can easily get behind, but they do it in a unique method that's less restrained than the standard heroes. They tend to stay on the audience's good side but are just bad enough to them to be fun and feel different, but not so much that it outweighs the good they accomplish. Amanda Waller, on the other hand, tends to cancel out most of her good and bad pieces with each other; she is motivated to achieve for both the good of the world and for personal gain, and when it comes to performing questionable actions necessary to the situation, her willingness extends quite far into both sides of good and bad. This is what makes her so complicated and so interesting. She isn't exactly a good guy, she's not a bad guy, and she's not even purely amoral; instead, she is a walking discussion about the uncomfortable middle ground between “moral in theory” and “moral in practice.”
Let's start with her motivation for her actions. Going back to the Batman comparison, Batman's motivations tend to change depending on the era; sometimes he's motivated purely out of a selfless desire to make sure the same tragedies that befell him don't happen to someone else, at times he's essentially a high-functioning crazy person who is undeniably compelled to do what he does. Batman tends to be one or the other at any given point, with writers of a period emphasizing one idea over the other as the primary motivation. But Amanda Waller is a little bit of both. Her life fell apart, and she hit rock bottom, the comic makes it clear that her response to this was a psychological need to gain control over things. She gains that power through government work that puts her in charge of a very dangerous team on some very dangerous missions; considering the wrist mounted explosives installed on the criminals, she has control over life and death for these people. And some of this is an urge she's satisfying in herself, but if that was it, she could easily be a supervillain in this world. She isn't. She chooses to apply this level of control towards something that will tangibly benefit the world, and in certain cases takes it upon herself to send her team (without permission) into situations because she knows someone needs to do something and no one else will. These two motivations may be somewhat at odds, but they are also inseparable.
And on the subject of the wrist-mounted explosives, take a closer look at her insurance policy. In adaptations of the Suicide Squad, like the CW's Arrow, the live action movie, or the direct to DVD Assault on Arkham animated feature, she uses microbombs injected into her team members' heads and they serve the purpose of keeping them in line while in the field but in some of these adaptations also forcing them to participate in the first place. That is not the case in the original Suicide Squad. Waller's explosives are wrist mounted bracelets, and they're there exclusively with the intention of keeping these dangerous people from escaping or wreaking undue damage while on their mission, and in some cases are even removed if the criminal in question has proven safe enough to be let loose. It's a safeguard to protect the people outside the team, if necessary, not a scare tactic to keep the team itself in line. Only once in the series is one of the bombs set off (surprise, it was Slipknot, convinced to try escaping by Captain Boomerang who's attempting to test the veracity of the bombs, and whose scene plays out almost exactly like in the movie), and the victim actually survives, is recaptured, and given treatment to save his (albeit one-armed) life. This is still bleak, considering worst case scenario, these people get purposefully maimed, but at the same time, it's not a constant threat of execution. While this is one area where almost every adaptation has tried to make Waller's actions clearly wrong, a bullying, intimidating fear factor (Waller of Arrow intends on setting off Deadshot's bomb as part of her plan to complete the mission; Waller of Assault on Arkham goads one of the criminals into trying to escape just so she can use him as an example to the rest of the team), the original series presents the explosives as a grim but necessary part of a larger, morally questionable yet undeniably useful whole.
One of the features that made the original Suicide Squad comic so unique were the periodical “Personal Files” issues; whole issues devoted to non-action stories that just fleshed out individual characters on the team, typically the government operatives who kept the team in line, rather than the supervillains who made up the workforce. Much of the information that changes how we view Amanda Waller came from these issues, either her Personal File issue, or the Personal File issues of Father Craemer, the priest who works in the Belle Reve prison the Squad is based out of, or Simon La Grieve, the prison's in-house psychologist. Through these issues, we see, bit by bit, where some of her lines are drawn morally. We're even informed via Father Craemer that she knows her methods can veer into darker territory than she should tread, and this is why she surrounds herself with people who buck her orders when necessary, people like Rick Flag; she's trying to keep herself in line. At a particularly climactic moment, she takes pretty extreme action, arguably justifiable and yet undeniably brutal, and she turns herself in for it, accepting prison as the consequence she feels she deserves. That said, she takes the first out she's offered. As she says, “she's no angel.”
Perhaps one of the more telling pieces of Waller's morality is the value she places on human life. This is not to say that she refrains from killing, or is even against it, but while she might spend time surrounded by assassins and murderers like Deadshot, who has no value for his life, let alone the lives of the people he kills, Waller is distinctly separate from them in that she really understands the value of life, and the loss of it on her watch weighs on her. On a mission into a jungle that confronts you with your darkest fears, she walks past image after image of the people she's lost on the job, hanging by nooses and calling her name. She feels guilt, but she also feels compelled to do what she does, even when she's only able to do that by throwing bodies at the problem and hoping for the best. Her answer to these torments is a simple one, but one that defines her character across all her actions: “Move on. Keep on.”
And this is why it's such a shame that so few interpretations of Amanda Waller since the original run have even attempted this level of depth. In other media, she frequently comes across as one note and purely amoral or even malicious. On Arrow and Assault on Arkham, she seems to perversely enjoy signing the death warrants of the people who work for her. In the Suicide Squad film, she gets a terribly short and underdeveloped appearance, and that includes personally gunning down civilians for the flimsiest of reasons. A part of this is that no one has taken the time to fully develop her in most of these adaptations. But that doesn't mean that a limited role cannot portray her correctly; take for instance perhaps her best appearance outside her original comic, the Justice League Unlimited.
In a show that already spent an enormous amount of its time introducing and developing a vast number of superheroes, there wasn't a whole lot of time left over for Amanda Waller, but limited as it was they managed to do just what they needed to get her character across. From her position and alliances within the government to a confrontation with Batman framed more from her perspective than his, the show manages to let us see exactly the kind of person she is, how she is neither purely good nor purely bad, how she may make morally questionable choices but she tries to make them for the right reasons, and how she is willing to reign herself back in when she recognizes that she's gone too far. Even in an all too brief series of sequences, she can be portrayed accurately and effectively You just have to try to understand her.
Ultimately, I think it's worth it. Considering the popularity of this kind of morally ambiguous anti-heroic protagonist, like Tony Soprano of The Sopranos, Don Draper of Mad Men, or Walter White of Breaking Bad, the current landscape of storytelling gives us a perfect moment in time to capitalize on the rich complexity of this character, perhaps now more than even the period she was created in. I stand by the belief that when explored fully, Amanda Waller stands as tall as these critically praised characters in respects to well-written, nuanced, complex characterization, and she has the added benefit of adding a severely underrepresented voice in the genre. While I have issues with the version as presented in this first Suicide Squad film, I hope that Warner Bros. and DC, should they choose to follow up on it with a sequel, will give some dramatic backing to the real star of the Suicide Squad, Amanda “the Wall” Waller.