Some stories are driven by character. Others are driven by plot. But the best stories are driven by both. The easiest way to combine these two most essential aspects of storytelling is to create a great MacGuffin.
Alfred Hitchcock popularized this term to mean something like an essentially arbitrary object of desire that is central to triggering a film’s action. Some of the greatest MacGuffins are:
- “Casablanca’s” letters of transit
- “Citizen Kane’s” Rosebud
- The Maltese Falcon in “The Maltese Falcon”
- Harry Lime in “The Third Man”
- The Death Star plans in “Star Wars”
- The Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail in the Indiana Jones films
- The briefcase in “Pulp Fiction”
- The One Ring in “The Lord of the Rings”
A clever MacGuffin will actually generate a film’s plot when all the character’s relationships to this central element are made clear. In the film “Casablanca,” for example, the letters of transit are completely fictional documents that could get anybody out of French Morocco no matter what.
The idea that the Nazis would have respected any mere piece of paper so much is of course completely absurd. But creating a story means you get to determine the rules that govern its reality. So these essentially “magical” documents drive what is probably the greatest cinematic plot of all time.
That’s what a MacGuffin does. It generates intersecting lines of conflict for characters. It generates plot. That brings us to “Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay,” the latest offering from DC’s animated films line. This little superhero film is a textbook in MacGuffin. It even has an extra featurette discussing the nature of MacGuffins.
This is the third feature-length adaptation of the Suicide Squad, DC’s supervillain riff on “The Dirty Dozen.” The first two were the animated “Batman: Assualt on Arkham” and the live-action “Suicide Squad” from 2016. AoA was excellent but, as the title suggests, ultimately a Batman story. SS was a decent film undermined by an ill-conceived marketing campaign and a weak third act. This third attempt really gets it right, however, and mostly because of a great MacGuffin.
What All the Villains Want
The MacGuffin here is a literal get out of hell free card. That is of course an utterly ridiculous concept. But a MacGuffin’s strength is not in its inherent believability but the quality of story that it generates. While SS:H2P is clearly no “Casablanca,” it is actually a better lesson in MacGuffin storytelling because the premise is so much more ridiculous.
Even though it should be obvious that the letters of transit are a farcical notion, they do seem like the kind of thing that could exist. Modern society is very comfortable with bureaucracy and the idea that paperwork could stall the Nazis doesn’t seem as farfetched as it clearly is. But a get out of hell free card? The idea of hell isn’t exactly prevalent or credible anymore, even among the religious. But even for those of us who still take the concept seriously, why would God respect some card on judgment day?
In the world of DC Comics, however, these concepts are not that far afield. Both DC and Marvel have maintained many traditional metaphysical categories about the afterlife and spirit worlds. This is not widely known because their films operate on the basic assumption of Darwinistic materialism (“Doctor Strange,” directed by a Christian Biola University alum, is a notable exception). But in the pages of the comics the supernatural is relatively commonplace.
Also, a MacGuffin that would get you out of hell makes perfect sense for the characters that comprise the Suicide Squad. The modern incarnation of this team was created by John Ostrander and Luke McDonnell in the late 1980s but has come to be an essential, if minor, part of virtually every DC venture since.
They are a government black ops unit comprised of supervillians. The Machiavellian Amanda Waller runs the group as a high-ranking government intelligence officer. Usually when the team is sent on missions, they make a deal for reduced penal sentences. Since they are all criminals, their deaths do not matter to the cynical, scheming Waller. Hence the name Suicide Squad. They are sent on dangerous missions with no regard for their chances of success.
Villains Who Might Be Redeemable
This sort of story obviously lends itself to romanticizing antiheros. We are supposed to root for the bad guys. But it’s notable that the motley crew Waller assembles is never comprised of A-listers from DC’s various Rogues’ Galleries. Harley Quinn has become the team’s comedic pillar, but she’s only the Joker’s girlfriend. She’s never been a primary or even particularly formidable opponent for Batman or anyone else.
In other words the members of this antihero team aren’t really evil. Yes, they’re all bad guys and gals, but the Joker, Lex Luthor, Ra’s Al Ghul, Brainiac, Ares, Professor Zoom, Darkseid, and Vandal Savage are the truly evil characters in the DCU. Heavy hitters like them don’t make the Suicide Squad. Only B-listers need apply.
The bad guys on the SS are more like thugs and hired guns. They aren’t true believers in villainy full of unrighteous passion. They’re more like hard-luck cases. That’s why it feels okay to root for them. That’s also why a get out of hell free card would appeal to these characters.
They mostly feel bad about their life choices, and wish their lives could have been different. But now after years of murdering, pillaging, philandering, etc. they believe there’s no hope for them. They all know they deserve hell, even if they don’t believe it exists. That’s what makes a film like this interesting, because without trying very hard it reveals moral truths about human nature.
A Subtle Repudiation of Moral Nihilism
We conservatives often bemoan that flawed heroes have become the norm today. It seems like every TV show, movie, and other cultural artifact is loaded with cynicism or an attempt to deconstruct and repudiate some traditional value. This is of course a major trend of the second half of the twentieth century that has continued to the present.
Superficially, a film like SS:H2P is part of that. It’s apparent in its deliberate grindhouse aesthetic. Those are the dirty, roughly made exploitation films of the ‘60s and ‘70s that Quentin Tarantino continually romanticizes and re-explores. But these trappings cannot hide “Suicide Squad’s” moral groundwork, because this film actually is repudicates moral nihilism.
The subtitle says it all: Hell to pay. Our sins require an accounting. If they do not, then they are not sins. This is an essential aspect of the Abrahamic faiths that have shaped Western society. It is the foundation of the good news of Jesus Christ preached by his earliest followers 2,000 years ago. You see, in order for there to be good news there must first be bad news, as the cliché goes.
Strangely enough, the good news almost makes a brief appearance in this film through the obscure character Bronze Tiger. He interrupts a mostly facetious conversation about the nature of hell with a short but profound speech: “You joke about heaven and hell, Deadshot, but trust me they exist. There’s not a morning goes by I don’t get up wondering if this will be my judgment day. Will I end up with the woman I love or face the lake of hellfire with the same vermin who brought me down? The only thing any of us can hope for is divine intervention. Only through the grace of God can we be saved from eternal damnation for all the blood we spilled. Everything else is just talk.”
This speech is powerfully voice-acted by Billy Brown, who is best known as August Marks on “Sons of Anarchy.” These sort of sentiments aren’t voiced in popular media very often. But there’s more of the Meat Puppets in the speech than Saint Paul. Their song “Lake of Fire” was famously covered on Nirvana’s epic “Unplugged” album:
The people cry and the people moan
Look for a dry place to call their home
Try to find some place to rest their bones
While the angels and the devils try to make their own
Where do bad folks go when they die?
They don’t go to heaven where the angels fly
They go down to the lake of fire and fry
Won’t see ’em again till the Fourth of July
Many centuries before Jesus fulfilled these words, the prophet Isaiah wrote, “He was the one who lifted up our sicknesses, and he carried our pain, yet we ourselves assumed him stricken, struck down by God and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, crushed because of our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon him, and by his wounds we were healed. All of us have wandered about like sheep; we each have turned to his own way; and Yahweh let fall on him the iniquity of us all.”
The Bronze Tiger knows the Suicide Squad are all bad people because they’ve done very bad things by anybody’s standard. So he realizes they are not worthy of heaven. They require salvation. In fact, we all require salvation. We all require someone to pay hell for us. We all require divine intervention.
It has been provided in Jesus the Messiah. That makes him the ultimate MacGuffin, the true object of every desire and the driver of every plot. As Loretta Lynn pointed out, “Everybody wants to go to Heaven, But nobody wants to die.”
SS:H2P is essential viewing for DC fans. Unfortunately, this animated feature isn’t appropriate for children, which has become par for the course with these animated features. That really is too bad, because these movies are beautifully animated, wonderfully voice-acted, and most importantly a lot of fun. But this one stands out because it manages to entertain with classic B-movie thrills while dealing with some profound theological truths. 8/10.