Suicide Squad will go down as one of the most promising and most infuriating films of the year, and possibly in the superhero genre. It’s a not a film you can easily dismiss because there’s plenty of potential at every turn. But by the same token, that potential is constantly trampled by atrocious editing, haphazard storytelling, and tonal inconsistency that make for a maddening experience. The film struggles with how to relate to its female characters, how to include the Joker (Jared Leto), how to bring the team together, and the soundness of their very existence. It’s a movie where you can see the competing visions between writer-director David Ayer and the studio and the result is a film where everyone loses, especially the audience.
Government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has an idea. In the wake of Superman’s life and death, she feels that the U.S. needs a task force of meta-humans to fight any supernatural threats. Rather than try to find good people for this mission, she believes her gift is making people work against their own self-interest, so she prefers to enlist “the worst of the worst”. For her project, she recruits the hitman Deadshot (Will Smith), the Joker’s girlfriend Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the monstrous Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), pyro-kinetic Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Aussie thief Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), rope guy Slipknot (Adam Beach), and the witch Enchantress (Cara Delevingne). To keep this gang of supervillains in line, she implants a small explosive in their necks that will detonate if they rebel or try to escape. She also puts the dutiful soldier Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) in charge with the help of his right-hand woman Katana (Karen Fukuhara).
However, Enchantress, who possesses the body of archeologist/Flag’s girlfriend Dr. June Moone, has other plans. She wishes to reunite with her brother and punish the world for her centuries-long imprisonment. Since she can teleport and Amanda Waller is kind of a dummy, it doesn’t take much work to restore her powerful brother, take over Midway City, turn its citizens into trash monsters by making out with them, and then it’s time to send in the squad to rescue a high-value target (as opposed to stopping Enchantress, which is the obvious thing to do from the start).
Suicide Squad is one of the most poorly put together films I have ever seen. The movie has three opening scenes as if Ayer and/or Warner Bros. couldn’t decide how to start their movie so they just decided to start it three times—first with an introduction of Deadshot, then an introduction of Harley Quinn, and then an introduction of Waller who proceeds to provide a briefing on the main Suicide Squad members, which then re-introduces Deadshot and Harley Quinn. This leads us to a massive exposition dump where rather than getting to know these characters naturally and through their actions, we get brief vignettes that still leave us woefully uninformed unless their motives are so basic that you wonder why that person is “the worst of the worst” (e.g. Deadshot loves his adorable daughter, so he’s not all bad).
That’s a problem when you have a more complicated character like Harley Quinn. With the exception of Waller, Suicide Squad has a deeply troubling relationship with its female characters. June Moone is quivering mess and when the Enchantress takes over she’s an undulating, scantily clad, talking set piece; Katana lets Flag speak for her even though we later learn she can speak English just fine; and then there’s Harley.
I’ve been a big fan of Harley Quinn since she debuted on Batman: The Animated Series, but she’s a tricky character because you want to like her and yet she’s in love with a sociopath, which in turn makes her a sociopath. She’s in an abusive relationship, but she seems to relish being Joker’s girlfriend. She is both submissive and powerful, and it’s not easy to pull off what makes the character sympathetic and endearing. While Robbie nails the character’s mannerisms and attitude, the script does Harley a disservice by failing to dig deeper into her relationship with Joker and with other people. She’s reduced down to a comical sexpot who hits things with a baseball bat.
The movie doesn’t know how to handle the Joker either. When you see how little screentime he has and how utterly unnecessary he is to the story, you can almost hear the pre-production meeting where someone said, “No one knows who these characters are; we need a villain with name-recognition,” and that’s how Joker got shoehorned into the script. It doesn’t help that, for all of his highly publicized on-set antics to “get into character”, Leto is a lousy Joker. His performance is a collection of tics, and since the movie doesn’t spend any real time developing his character, he’s merely a crazy guy with green hair. Rather than exist in the movie, Leto wants the audience to know how hard he’s working, and so while his co-stars actually inhabit and make their characters oddly likable, Leto scrambles just to keep up.
You can’t watch Leto over-acting his heart out and not roll your eyes, especially when he’s in the company of a great actor like Viola Davis. On the page, Waller is the worst. She’s callow, arrogant, but most of all, her plan is stupid. But Davis is so good that you have no problem believing that when this woman comes up with an idea, everyone listens because she’s absolutely ruthless. In a movie filled with killers and psychopaths, Waller is by far the scariest character of the bunch and that’s because of Davis, who did not need to annoy her co-stars in order to give a good performance.
While Davis is the MVP of the cast, everyone else is also terrific. The script and the editing may not do anyone any favors when it comes to organically building a character (the movie starts with an exposition dump, skips the second act, and just has one big third act finish where the team comes together without any turbulence whatsoever), everyone is just riding off sheer charisma. I wouldn’t go so far as to describe any of these characters as “interesting”, but they’re totally compelling.
Will Smith is basically playing Will Smith, but after misfires like Focus and After Earth, that’s a welcome sight. Given better material and a director who appreciates the character’s complexities, I would love to see Robbie lead a Harley Quinn spinoff. Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Courtney barely have anything to do, but they look like they’re having a lot of fun doing it. Kinnaman is an admirable straight man and he doesn’t try to outshine his colorful co-stars, but instead tries to ground their situation. And Hernandez is the breakout by making Diablo the sorrowful center and being the one villain who actually has remorse for his actions. These are worthwhile characters, but they’re trapped in an abysmal story.
It’s a shame that Warner Bros. can’t get its act together with its DC movies. This isn’t a zero-sum game. There’s room for more than one studio making great superhero movies. The problem is that while Warner Bros. is eyeing Marvel’s formula, it can’t get the concoction to work. Suicide Squad owes a lot to Guardians of the Galaxy, but it can’t replicate that film’s heart or its humor. Part of the problem is that Suicide Squad is trying to handle a much larger cast, but even by trying to be funnier and more colorful, the DC movie only works in fits and starts, which makes it such an infuriating experience. Rather than carve out its own personality, Suicide Squad is copying over Marvel’s shoulder right down to the overbearing needledrops in an attempt to recreate Guardians’ expert use of music.
This isn’t like Batman v Superman where you have to struggle to find anything redeeming about the film, but it does share many of the same weaknesses. The film is bloated, it leans too heavily on fan-service (a more confident film would have ditched the Joker entirely or limited him to Harley’s flashbacks), and the story looks like it was fed through a wood-chipper. While the endearing characters and occasional humor are welcome additions to the DC universe, Suicide Squad shows that Warner Bros. still has a long way to go in figuring out how to properly make a quality superhero film in its new DCEU.