Amanda Waller is both one of the most original characters in the DCU and one of the hardest to get right. With the Suicide Squad movie on the horizon, we’ll be seeing a new version of the Wall. Here’s what it takes to get her right.
In a medium that gives nearly all of its heroes the same body, Amanda Waller stood out because she had villain physiology. Short, stout, middle-aged, and determinedly frumpy, she was designed to let readers know who they were dealing with on sight, even if her name wasn’t on the cover.
It’s tempting to say that Amanda Waller looks powerful, but she doesn’t. If we didn’t know the character, her physical look could indicate that she’s an overwhelmed bureaucrat unable to deal with a threat, or a maternal figure, or even a funny character. Readers now know that they should take the Wall seriously the same way they know they should take a man wearing bat ears seriously. They respect Amanda Waller for the same reason they respect a grown man in a onesie with an “S” on his chest. They’ve been trained to. Amanda Waller is a DC icon, albeit a lesser-known DC icon.
Which is why the redesign of her character, which went along with the line-wide reboot The New 52, was so disastrous. In the first issue of the new Suicide Squad book, an instantly recognizable character became some lady who looks like every other lady in comics, except this one didn’t button her shirt high enough to hide her bra. Only the purple color of that shirt — like Lex Luthor, Amanda Waller is often shown wearing purple suits — offers us a visual cue as to who the character is.
While not all the panels are as egregiously bad as this one, the change was a huge blow to character design, and it’s one that seems to be reflected in all of DC’s current portrayals of Amanda Waller. It’s hard to fault the casting of Angela Bassett in the Green Lantern movie, but on Arrow, the part of Amanda Waller is played by chic, slender Cynthia Addai-Robinson, an actress who, when her character debuted on the show, was in her twenties. Movies and tv shows have to tweak characters, but those tweaks should show us new sides to an icon, not erase the icon completely.
Amanda Waller is a tough character to write because she’s almost always the antagonist. When she debuted as leader of the Suicide Squad in 1986, her squad didn’t care for her. Neither did her superiors. In later comics the she served under President Lex Luthor (Long story. Full of purple outfits.), pissing off the heroes, and then turned on him, pissing off Luthor. She made an enemy of the Justice League in the Justice League Unlimited TV series. She made an enemy of every supervillain in the DCU when she banished them to a distant planet in the Salvation Run comics series. The point is, nobody likes Amanda Waller.
Nor should they. Waller does some shockingly evil things. Operating clandestinely, she tortures people, presses them into dangerous missions, and obviously considers members of her own squad collateral-damage-in-waiting. Early in her comic book career, she went to prison for leading a massacre of the leaders of a criminal organization. Her darkest moment came in the Justice League Unlimited TV series: As older heroes retired, she authorized an ultimately unsuccessful hit on a young boy’s parents in an attempt to make a new Batman.
She is persuaded out of the hit, and later repents of planning it at all. While Amanda Waller is the personification of the ends justifying the means, she is a stickler for those ends. She wants a secure world with as little death and destruction as possible. Unfortunately, in comics or shows geared to have a dark tone, sometimes the “ends” are removed. We get stories in which Amanda Waller orders the deaths of tens of thousands of people on a whim or covers up illegal dealings of politicians for no real reason.
It gets worse when Waller is deviously clever when it comes to being evil but staggeringly obtuse when she could accomplish the same thing by being good. Arrow’s first season flashback revolved around the heroes foiling a plot to shoot down a commercial airliner. It was later revealed that Amanda Waller had hatched the plot because she wanted to kill a single crime boss on that airliner. In season three, that same crime boss kidnaps the wife of one of the heroes and holds her in exchange for a supervirus. The two heroes, knowing they can expect no help from Waller, arrive at the exchange with the virus, only to find that Waller anticipated their plan and switched out the virus for a decoy. The three manage to fight their way out of the situation and escape.
So Amanda Waller knew that they were going directly to the crime boss she was willing to murder hundreds of innocent people to kill, but chose not to give them any personnel support which could have led to the quick death of the same crime boss. Why? Because Amanda Waller, in this series, is simply there to do the evil thing at every turn. There’s no other reason for the character.
That’s the challenging thing about Amanda Waller as a character. If she’s in a story, she has to be there for a reason. And because she is a spymaster and a political operative, her reason is rarely obvious. She waits to let everyone know what she’s trying to accomplish. She’s a twist ending. A twist ending only works if it gives us a new way to understand the entire plot. This means, from Amanda Waller’s perspective, her part in the plot of someone else’s story has to make sense. It has to be working towards some concrete good, even if the hero of the story doesn’t see it.
One of the best versions of Amanda Waller comes from the excellent Justice League Unlimited TV series. Amanda Waller runs a department that keeps tabs on superheroes. The department’s actions, at several points, are openly antagonistic. They’re the villains, until this happens:
Her agency is still pretty villainous, and even Amanda Waller later admits that. But what she said, and what she did, makes sense to her, and to us. Waller isn’t representing a faceless bureaucratic evil. She isn’t just trying to make life harder for everyone. She’s not even working towards some nebulous “greater good.” She sees a threat, and she’s countering it. If we don’t see it as well, that’s just because we haven’t talked long enough with Amanda Waller.