What the Hell Is 'Suicide Squad'? We Have All the Answers.

Suicide Squad
Warner Bros. Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures

Suicide Squad is either going to be the post-Batman v Superman shot of adrenaline that DC Comics' "cinematic universe" needs or another slap to moviegoers looking for a breezy time at the multiplex. It could go either way for one major reason: no one really knows what Suicide Squad is all about. Or what a Suicide Squad even is.

Seriously, if you'd told this longtime comic reader a few years ago that we'd be getting a Squad movie before Wonder Woman, I'd have laughed in your face. Yet here we are!

Jared Leto's Joker, Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn, Will Smith's Deadshot, and the rest of the villains-turned-heroes dominated the summer movie conversation, but there's more to the Squad than one-liners and method-acting pranks. Here's a down-and-dirty primer on DC's long-running bad-guy team-ups.

Suicide Squad comics
DC Comics, Inc.

What is the Suicide Squad and should we be worried about its health?

When it debuted in a 1959 issue of DC's The Brave and the Bold, the Suicide Squad was a gang of regular men and women putting their lives on the line during World War II. Fast-forward to the late 1980s, when the criminally underrated John Ostrander revamped the Squad as a crew of expendable supervillains culled from the maximum-security Belle Reve Penitentiary and tasked with impossible black-ops missions by government agent (and all-around badass) Amanda Waller.

Reading Suicide Squad you expect the clash of outlandish personalities, ultra-violence, a healthy amount of snark, and inner-team rivalry, but the book took off because it went political, explicitly exploring the real-world consequences of superheroes incorporating the real-world politics of the time. The Squad's relatively unknown staples -- Deadshot, Captain Boomerang, Enchantress, Slipknot -- run the walk-of-life gamut. Daddy issues, dead wives, masochism, domestic violence, amnesia -- you name it, someone on the team's been screwed up by it. Suicide Squad stories are thrilling, intense forays into the deepest corners of the DC Universe.

The Squad is inclusive to all evil-doers (almost)

Since Ostrander's '80s update, the Suicide Squad has had a revolving door for members of DC's rogue gallery. I can't list every villain to have ever walked through the Squad (do you have a week?) but Poison Ivy, Bronze Tiger, Plastique, Killer Frost, Black Manta, Reverse-Flash, and Cheetah all stopped by for a mission or two. Apologies to Angle Man, who never made the cut.

Will Smith in Suicide Squad
Warner Bros. Pictures

Deadshot is the Squad's de facto team leader

Since assuming the leader role in the '80s, Deadshot, aka Floyd Lawton, has turned from outright villain to super-assassin with a heart of gold. Family will do that to you. Deadshot's a consummate professional and known as the best marksman in the DC Universe having only missed once (Batman, of course). Try 2013's Deadshot: Beginnings, a miniseries that finds Deadshot hunting down his son's kidnappers, if you want to know more about the man behind the mask.

Yes, Captain Boomerang is really his name

George Harkness, aka Captain Boomerang, is as inept as his name suggests. He's frequently annoying, screws up missions, and is pretty racist -- I'm guessing the film nixes that part. He can also throw boomerangs really, really, really well, making him the least-threatening comic-book team member since Hawkeye. Jai Courtney plays Captain Boomerang in the movie, and says he burned himself with cigarettes to better understand the character. OK, sure! The best thing we can say about Captain Boomerang is that he's responsible for a brief look at Ezra Miller's Batman v Superman and Justice League character the Flash. In the comics, the speedster can often be found taking down the disc-chucking villain.

Enchantress is like the manifestation of your worst hangover

Poor June Moone. She went to a costume party and ended up possessed by an ancient magical force known as "Enchantress." The two personas have been at odds ever since. If her name didn't give it away, Enchantress is one of the many magical entities in the DC Universe who can fly, teleport, and manipulate magical energy, amongst other cool abilities that would make life much easier (trying not to be jealous). Suicide Squad doesn't delve too deep into her dual personas, but a recent run of DC's Justice League Dark fleshes it out, flinging Enchantress into a state of madness after being separated from Moone. The one thing she'll never escape? Ridiculous costumes.

Harley Quinn rules them all, on and off the page

Beloved by many a Hot Topic-obsessed teenager, Harley Quinn actually originated in the '90s FOX cartoon, Batman: The Animated Series, just as Ostrander ended his Suicide Squad run. She started out as an accomplished psychiatrist, but once the Joker became her patient in Arkham Asylum, Harley's fate was sealed. Their relationship has always been downright abusive, though her acrobatic, violent, pithy personality hides most of the inner turmoil.

Recently in the comics, her character has evolved to include a relationship with Poison Ivy, allowing Harley to step out of the Joker's shadow. We'll see if Margot Robbie's portrayal has the zest of her animated counterpart or veers into exploitation -- which has always been a major point of contention amongst fans and comic creators. As for the Joker, he's not a part of the team in the comics. Or the movie. But he finds a way to bring some chaos in the name of Harley.

Amanda Waller is the squad's real mastermind (and someone Batman wouldn't mess with)

Of all the morally ambiguous Suicide Squad characters, Amanda "The Wall" Waller stands out as the true "anti-hero." Created by Ostrander, writer Len Wein, and artist John Byrne, Waller is an overweight black woman who left the Cabrini-Green projects of Chicago and became an antagonistic agent -- heck, she even scares Batman. She doesn't have superpowers, instead using intelligence, connections, and sheer cutthroat determination to protect the United States by any means necessary, and is the rare female comic character who isn't eye candy (well, until DC's "New 52" reboot, but that's best forgotten). Waller's been adapted to live action with mixed results (don't even get me started on Arrow). But her best incarnation outside of the comics is thanks to the amazing voice work of C.C.H. Pounder in animated series like Justice League Unlimited and Batman Beyond. She's just badass.

Suicide squad comics
DC Comics, Inc.

The movie doesn't lift from any one Suicide Squad story

The movie makes plenty of changes to Squad lore: the sword-wielding heroine Katana has never been associated with the team. Neither has Batman's foe Killer Croc (with animalistic villains relegated to Wonder Woman's Cheetah and, more regularly, King Shark, a giant talking shark).

El Diablo and Slipknot are relatively minor villains appearing on the team. The pro: they're now played by men of color, adding a little diversity to the superhero genre. The con: they're insignificant. The most memorable thing Slipknot has done in the Suicide Squad comics is get his arm blown off during a mission. If anyone in the movie's going to die as an example of Waller's control over the group, I'd bet on Slipknot. Any takers?

The Suicide Squad issues you should read

The Suicide Squad can be found constantly wreaking havoc across DC titles like Superman, Booster Gold, Manhunter, and Green Lantern's Blackest Night. The original group makes an appearance in Darwyn Cooke's World War II-set miniseries, DC: The New Frontier, which presents an alternate take on all your favorite heroes. Suicide Squad Vol.1: Kicked in the Teeth, from DC's 2011 reboot, is actually the closest to the Suicide Squad movie: bonkers personality, lots of violence, and with Harley Quinn front and center.

But the hands-down best Suicide Squad comic is the first volume of John Ostrander's revamp, a collection that mixes politics, villain psychology, and an investigation of the DC Universe that more heroic titles couldn't muster. It even reckons with the fallout of Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, a legendary comic currently finding second life in movie theaters.

There's a Suicide Squad movie you can watch right now

2014's Batman: Assault on Arkham is another animated film born of the Batman: The Animated Series lineage. Don't let the title fool you: this is a Suicide Squad story, though with so many of his villains in the lineup, and DC's seeming inability to not mention Batman in everything (the Bat sells!), it's not surprising the Dark Knight pops up. Assault on Arkham lays out the team dynamics you'll see in the live-action Squad, with some notable additions to the team, including King Shark, the Riddler, and Killer Frost. For more of the team in motion, see a string of Smallville episodes, with the great Pam Grier taking on the Waller role, or the animated series Justice League Unlimited.

The future of Suicide Squad

No matter how the movie goes over, expect a future for these characters, including Leto's ultra-violent Joker, who could step up into the Ben Affleck-directed Batman film currently on the horizon. What I'm most hyped up about? The Harley Quinn spinoff set to involve DC's female villains and heroes. Margot Robbie herself pitched it to the studio after falling in love with the character.

Suicide Squad has always existed in the more fun, weird corners of the DC Comics Universe -- something the movie's have never seen. Let's hope it pulls it off. Of course, if you're reading the newest run of the Suicide Squad comics, whose team resembles the film, you know that President Obama does not approve of the villainous team-up. We'll see if we agree with the commander-in-chief when the movie arrives August 5th.

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Angelica Jade Bastién is a freelance critic and essayist based in Chicago. She's written for Vulture, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and RogerEbert.com. You can find her on Twitter @angelicabastien.