The latest film from the Warner Bros./DC stable, Suicide Squad, is a mess. To be fair, sometimes you can find some valuable trinkets in a mess. In a post-Nolan DC world, Suicide Squad was always fighting an uphill battle. MoS and BvS force-fed us conflicted heroism. Additionally they opened the door for DC to talk about who is really good, and what it means to be bad.
David Ayer, whose most recent film Fury actually improved my low interest in anything containing Shia LaBeouf, has shown he knows how to craft on-screen teams. Sabotage and Street Kings delivered team elements lacking in Suicide Squad. There’s so much you want to love about these misanthropic characters but they never seem to jell enough to convince you that they’re fighting for each other, or care enough about saving anyone, even themselves. It’s some excellent material to play with. Throw some B, C, or even F Grade villains onto the screen, have them tear apart the superhero genre, and surely that will breathe life into their flailing film franchises?
Machiavellian Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) wants to put together the worst criminals DC-land has to offer. A strike force of metahumans to deal with an “evil Superman” scenario. These stone cold killers can be cast aside at a moment’s notice. Waller is more comfortable in a room of Washington politicians than getting her hands dirty, but is not above it. Special operative Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), himself blackmailed into running this misfit outfit, is their overseer and day release warden. All-around nice-bad-guy Deadshot quickly stands out as de facto leader. Will Smith is refreshingly reserved in what could easily have been a careening ego car crash down the casting agent freeway. It’s a wise move keeping Smith and Leto apart as much as possible. While his father/daughter motivational relationship ventures close to BvS’s “Martha” factor, it never falls headlong into the cheese grater of forced emotion.
Unless you’ve managed to avoid pretty much all of the marketing for Suicide Squad, you already know this film has a bit to do with Harley Quinn and the Joker. Their flawed relationship and Bat-cameo backstory provides insight into just how this version of the anti-dynamic duo came to be. This Joker. This punk-rock-star of the criminal world. For something that could have gone so, so wrong, Suicide Squad got that one right. Imperfect, sure, but this Joker is all his own beast and Jared Leto seems to inhabit the underlying psyche quite well. Full of psychotic machinations, completely unperturbed by his own appearance or the opinions of others. A ticking time bomb that shares a scary realism with Tuco Salamanca. Everyone is a plaything to this Joker and that’s exactly what makes him malevolent. Harley is a favoured pet; someone raised and loved, punished and coddled until it becomes what he wants it to be. Smartly Suicide Squad never lingers on the reason behind this twisted relationship, avoiding some trickier questions.
Margot Robbie inhabits the contortionist-cum-serial-killer-cum-anarchist as necessary to become Harley Quinn. Never boring. Never stable. Always formidable. Only her accent lets her physical performance down as it powerwalks between New York, New Jersey and Dalby, Queensland (there’s a very Australian “no” hiding in there). A vibrant whirlwind to watch when compared to her muted-palette compatriots. A lost puppy without her “Puddin’”, she’s more pit bull than Pomeranian. At times, Ayer becomes confused as to where focus should go: Margot Robbie’s pigtailed face or her derrière, as each was given equal screen time.
Those characters are the top tier of Suicide Squad, but there were some other notable elements. Jekyll/Hyde siren Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) is the most visually interesting of the newly-introduced members. Credit to both actor and visual design team, who made it work so well. Of all the characters in Suicide Squad hers was the most promising, and unfortunately the most disappointing by film’s end. El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) promised a deeper mystery from his introduction, and then actually delivered. Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) suffered as one of the least interesting characters recently introduced into the genre, even if his makeup is amazing. At least he got more character exposition than Slipknot (Adam Beach) and Katana (Karen Fukuhara), who seem to appear as though they had been forgotten from the concept art. Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang feels refreshingly genuine. His dirty tracksuit wearing, beer quaffing Aussie bogan persona matches well with his self-interested attitude. To read his character description is to dismiss him as a leftover from an Adam West marathon, but he provides a welcome reminder that this is a team of criminals and misfits, and he’s pure thief. Maybe being Australian is a superpower?
The most difficult thing to understand is the villain. Why has Waller greenlit this suicide mission? There’s got to be a good reason, surely? Not really. It’s… complicated. And ridiculous. And since it’s a comic book movie, the stakes are high. The insistence on having villains whose only end game is world domination/annihilation is frustrating. There’s no good motivation and even less understanding as to why any of it is important. No mad scientist Lex Luthor. No mad general Zod. Nothing on a human level. Suicide Squad goes to great lengths to expand on the humanity of its flawed characters. It focuses on love, family, and relationships but there’s no investment in any of those things when it comes to fighting the villain. I say investment because there’s exposition and dialogue, but no heart. It’s one of the (many) strange choices in a film full of bland reasons. Suicide Squad shines when exploring each team member, but lets us down when presenting someone who is both the most powerful being in the universe, and a rejected Bond villain allergic to common sense. I question why wonderful interactions seen in the trailers never made it into the final cut. Those were golden opportunities at team bonding but somehow they didn’t make it to the theatre. When push comes to shove these characters band together because that’s what’s written in the script and shooting wraps in three days.
*It’s interesting to note that Superman, and even Batman, have higher body counts on film than any of the Squad so far. Faceless enemies are mass-produced to provide a steady stream of bloodless foils for both the US military and psychopaths to destroy without moral conflict. The recent uptick of genre zombies means that once you’re “turned” the best solution is to provide you with a quick death. Thank goodness that in Suicide Squad there’s nothing so ghastly as blood to blemish your carefully crafted outfit.
What’s great about Suicide Squad? Where are the valuable trinkets found in this trash heap? The film succeeds in the oddest ways. Harley Quinn is a reflection of the Joker’s unhinged mind, without an underlying malevolence that would make her truly evil. El Diablo satisfyingly went against expectations to deliver on his broody set up. I dig the anarchistic vibe that you see in the advertising. I dig how the characters are introduced and presented. The mysterious/smoky/witchy early-version Enchantress. Deadshot shooting things. Amanda Waller shooting things. Harley Quinn. I dig Joker, King of Gotham. Captain Boomerang and his narcissistic self-interest. I dug a lot of it but that still means I’ve dug a hole full of: reliance on style over substance; too many pointless characters vying for attention; some truly awful onscreen decisions; unsatisfying villains.
Suicide Squad is death by a thousand cuts. There are moments where you can see how truly excited people were about those individual glimpses of what could have been. No one bad decision, shoddy line, unpolished effect, or strange hip wiggle was enough to fatally wound this film. It limps over the line, drained of energy while everyone shrugs a little and starts talking about Wonder Woman.
That’s going to be good, right?