“That’s just a whole lot of pretty and a whole lot of crazy.”
What does the DC Film Universe want to be? Does it want to ape the success of Marvel by making crowd-pleasing, fairly harmless films, or does it want to strike-out on its own path and cover new ground? DC apparently wants to have it both ways, cutting corners as they go. After the overwhelming chaos of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a lot of pressure rests on the shoulders of David Ayer’s Suicide Squad — can this strange film about a rag-tag group of villains succeed where Batman v Superman failed?
No. No it can not. Let’s get a few things out of the way: Suicide Squad is weird. And it’s an interesting kind of weird: awash in black magic, gooey eyeball monsters, and Escape From New York-like explosive neck devices. It has great potential to be a silly, pop-art infused action film in the vein of Guardians of the Galaxy. Or perhaps it could’ve been something darker — a character drama about people who do bad things suddenly learning to do good. Or, as it turns out, it could just be an excuse to have a bunch of costumed actors wander around, shoot guns and crack flat jokes. Ayer has constructed a monumental mess here — a film so haphazardly put together that you get the impression that it was edited using a blender on the “ice crush” setting.
The set up: cold-blooded government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) comes up with a plan to assemble an expendable team of criminals and metahumans to do the dirty work that good, honest individuals won’t touch. The team includes Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), girlfriend to the infamous Joker (Jared Leto); master hitman Deadshot (Will Smith); Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), half-man, half-crocodile; Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), a thief with a penchant for…boomerangs; and Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a man who can harness the power of fire. Leading the team is military man Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman), assisted by the sword-wielding Katana (Karen Fukuhara). After a painfully long introduction where Waller goes through each character’s file one by one in order to introduce us to them, all while their stats flash on the screen — because hey, who the hell needs character development when we can just throw it all up on the screen via text? — the main story kicks in. Sort of. Dr. June Moone (Cara Delevingne) has been possessed by a 6000-year-old witch dubbed Enchantress, and she and her giant monster brother set about constructing a doomsday device (oh good, another comic book movie with a big, vague doomsday device) to bring about the end of mankind. The only people who can stop her are Amanda Waller’s newly assembled Task Force X, or “Suicide Squad”, if you will (please don’t). Meanwhile, The Joker is on a quest to get Harley Quinn back, cutting a bloody path across the city towards her.
Suicide Squad could’ve been a breath of fresh air; something to wash the taste of Batman v Superman away and hint at great things to come. The actors are certainly game, and doing the best they can with what they have. Will Smith makes the biggest impression as Deadshot — there’s really not much to the character, but Smith’s natural charm and charisma make him a winner. Margot Robbie is immensely talented and seemed, in theory, a perfect choice to bring Harley Quinn to life. But the material she’s saddled with leaves much to be desired. Here’s the thing about the relationship between Joker and Harley: it’s terrible and abusive. This isn’t some great dream romance, it’s a nightmare. There are hints here and there that Harley will come to understand how terrible “Mr. J” is, and how better-off she would be without him. Perhaps that exists in a different cut of the film, because it gets totally forgotten here — pushed aside to make it seem as if these two crazy kids are just a couple of sweet lovebirds we’re rooting for. Jay Hernandez’s Diablo is the only character who has anything approaching an arc, and Hernandez is quite good in the part — a damaged soul trying to keep his destructive nature in check. Viola Davis is Viola Davis: one of the best actresses alive. Her Amanda Waller is scary and tough, and a better film would cut down most of the bullshit and spend more time with Waller.
As for Jared Leto, stepping into the iconic shoes of The Joker, don’t expect a game-changing performance like that of the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. Leto’s Joker, covered in tattoos and dressed like a flashy gangbanger, certainly looks menacing, but the actor plays the character as if he were doing a bad James Cagney impression — he seems moments away from uttering “You dirty rat!” Any chemistry or history that the Joker or Harley might have is glossed over with quick jump-cuts and poor editing. We never get any sense of who this Joker is, or what he’s about. Sure, he’s a bad guy who kills people — but so what? What makes him so unique? Is it all those tattoos? There’s none of the cunning and none of the mischievousness that’s made the character so iconic for so many years. Here he’s just some dumb thug with green hair.
Ayer’s direction is muddled, needlessly dark and comprised of confusing close-ups. To add insult to injury there are moments where scenes freeze and color and images pop off the screen. It’s goofy and distracting and serves to throw a wrench into any momentum the film is trying to build. Perhaps inspired by Guardians of the Galaxy, the soundtrack is loaded with pop songs. But where the songs in Guardians felt as if they came at just the right moment — used sparingly at the end of big scenes, as well as being tied to a narrative device — Suicide Squad adopts a terrible Top 40 Countdown method to its use of music — one song careens into another which careens into another. And for the love of god, can we please embargo “Sympathy For the Devil” from films for the next 50 years — it’s been done to death.
Suicide Squad works best when it stops blowing things up. There are only two or three scenes where Ayer lets his film, and characters, breathe and these are the best moments of the entire film. Moments like these make these walking, talking cartoons seem more human, and had the film used more of them, Suicide Squad would be in a lot better shape. Instead, there’s just one dull action scene after another. One moment has Will Smith fire approximately five million bullets as the camera lingers, fetishizing all that gunplay. It’s kind of reprehensible. As is the film’s gender politics — almost all of the women here are referred to as “bitches” at least once. You can argue that these characters are, as all the advertising points out, “bad guys”, so of course they’re going to talk like this. That’s fine, except that the film idolizes these people. No matter how many time they may refer to themselves as “bad” it’s clear that Ayer loves and glamorizes these vile jerks.
Where does the DC film universe go from here? Suicide Squad will no-doubt make big bank at the box office, encouraging execs to soldier on, likely unfazed by any negative reactions. But these films can be so much better. The people involved are talented and capable, so why do they keep falling on their face? Perhaps it’s the material itself — perhaps there’s nothing left to mine from it. Perhaps the joke’s on us.