Spoilers ahead for The Suicide Squad. Between the child-killing Weasel and the violent vigilante Peacemaker, there’s a lot of rotten people in The Suicide Squad. Amid all of the gore is a bright spot though: Daniela Melchior’s Cleo Cazo, aka Ratcatcher 2, who holds everything together when the story threatens to get too heavy. “She’s the only character that has any access to her heart whatsoever,” director James Gunn explained to WWAC and other journalists after a press screening. “She’s thrust into this world where she’s around really nasty people, and [she] becomes the heart of the movie in that respect.”
Unlike well-known antagonists like Harley Quinn, Amanda Waller, and King Shark, Cleo is not a character you’ll find in the DC Comics. Though she’s unique to Gunn’s movie, she is the daughter of an extremely B-grade villain in the comics. Otis Flannegan, aka the Ratcatcher, was created by Alan Grant, John Wagner, and Norm Breyfogle and first appeared in the 1988 Detective Comics #585. A former rat-catcher with Gotham City’s sanitation department, Otis spent years in jail after stabbing a man in a street brawl. When he was released, he kidnapped the people who sentenced him and kept them imprisoned using an army of controlled rats. He managed to briefly best Batman — who got his pants chewed through and nearly drowned in the sewers — but was eventually taken into custody. Otis briefly reappeared again in issue #679 but was quickly beaten again by Batman (who, at that point, was actually Dick Grayson under the cowl).
That’s all to say that the original Ratcatcher was never a remarkable, memorable, or even remotely likable character. Aside from his ability to control rats, Otis’ main trait was that he was cruel and selfish. The rats helped him imprison his former judges, for example, yet he also fed his rats to his prisoners. “If I’ve learned anything from my little friends, it’s about survival,” he said as he escaped Blackgate Penitentiary in issue #679. “A rat will do anything to survive, anything to be free.”
On a team full of villains, Ratcatcher 2 could’ve been exactly like Otis and she would’ve fit right in. But Gunn wanted an emotional conscience at the center of his gory war movie, and rewriting the Ratcatcher story was the key to that. Describing Cleo as his favorite Task Force X member, Gunn said it was important that the movie had a character “who we could see ourselves in” and who “sees the good in everybody, even King Shark.” Unlike the rest, Cleo doesn’t have an affinity for violence. She naps and talks to her rat Sebastian and says grand things like, “If I die because I gambled on love, it will be a worthy death.”
We later learn that Cleo’s kindness comes from her own father (Taika Waititi, in a surprise cameo), who shares nothing in common with Otis aside from the gas mask and the rats. When Idris Elba’s Bloodsport tries to mock Cleo’s “daddy issues,” she pushes back and says she had a loving relationship with her dad. He was never vindictive like Otis; rather, he was a genius whose downfall was being a heavy substance user. The rat-controlling technology he built was used to steal trinkets, and Cleo and he survived on the streets that way until he overdosed. When Cleo escaped to the U.S. to live the mythic “American Dream,” she tells Bloodsport, she got arrested for armed robbery — as a child, it’s implied — because “the state considered the rats a weapon.”
This backstory ends up being an integral part of Bloodsport’s character arc. As the main protagonist of the film, Bloodsport initially seems like an irredeemable villain — and an absolutely terrible father, to boot. “The whole time he’s known [his daughter], he’s treated her like total shit, [especially] in the beginning of the movie,” Gunn said. But then he’s thrown together with Cleo, who is like a mirror of what his own daughter is on the verge of experiencing: being eaten up by the prison system at a young age because her father wasn’t there for her.
“[Cleo’s] relationship with Bloodsport is incredibly important to the movie. It’s probably the primary relationship in the movie,” Gunn said, adding that it was integral that “it wasn’t a romantic relationship,” either. Rather, their story is about Bloodsport slowly seeing Cleo as a young and flawed but “pure human being” worth fighting for, and realizing how that “also connects to his daughter.“
The result of flipping the Ratcatcher story is an emotional found family and father-daughter tale at the center of The Suicide Squad — a movie where a man also gets ripped in half by a shark. It’s a tonal whiplash that shouldn’t work, and yet Ratcatcher 2 and Bloodsport carry it through when they trade lines like “No, I’m going to get you out of here alive.” It helps that Melchior and Elba are both fantastic in their roles, playing the heartbroken daughter and cynical father with aplomb. When Bloodsport raises his gun to protect Cleo, you can feel all his anger at his own failings, mixed with the hope that if they both get out of there alive, maybe he can be better, too.
In the end, there was a lot of theorizing leading up to this film: who would die, if it was going to be good, and how violent it would be. Who knew that amid it all, a character named Ratcatcher 2 would end up being the heart and soul of the film.