Let me get the obvious comparison out of the way (at least for the first time): Suicide Squad, the latest addition to the DC Cinematic Universe, is a mess; choppy and lurid counterpart where Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice — God help us — was muggy and self-serious.
It’s also, strangely, more watchable for it.
Side note: DC prefer that the franchise be called the DC Extended Universe, presumably to differentiate it from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Marvel have popularized the term MCU by making films that are generally worth watching, so…
Veering from try-hard, neon-hued anarchy to ambivalent, psychologically-dubious anti-heroism, Suicide Squad is, on the face of it, a tonal mismatch. Behind the scenes, this would seem to be largely due to the released film being a studio-mandated mashup of various cuts — apparently the result of all the Deadpool love and BVS criticism — though at the première writer-director David Ayers claimed it definitively as still “his” movie.
Okay, so, after the death of Superman at the end of BVS, high-ranking government official Amanda Waller (multiple Oscar nominee Viola Davis, reduced to glaring and offering cryptic threats) sets about assembling a special unit of “meta-humans” to carry out off-the-book wet-work.
Suicide Squad loads her down with reams of expositions, whole backstories for each of the eponymous team, shown in introductory flashbacks, as well as pithy one-liners that more or less sum up their character motivations. They even have baseball-card-style stats shown in eye-popping graphics. The whole thing allows for all the subtlety and nuance of speed-dating and, like speed-dating, they’re mostly duds.
There’s cocky hitman Deadshot (Will Smith), Warner’s very own Merc With A Mouth — minus halfway decent quips. Introduced exercising in his prison cell to The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun (all the team get equally imaginative intro tracks, presumably straight off Ayers’ iPod playlist), the role sees Smith doing his usual tough-guy role, though with his usual charm and charisma stripped away. Only a single scene set on a firing range — to Eminem’s Without Me, no less — gives him another note to play: infectious glee, and then only in the face of Michael Bay levels of gun porn.
More than anything, though, Deadshot just wants to be a good dad to his young daughter — except when the film decides his overriding ambition is, in fact, to kill Batman.
Then there’s Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), a demented cheerleader-jester determined to get back to her equally nutso paramour, Jared Leto’s Joker — more on him in a bit. Attired in a “Daddy’s Little Monster” t-shirt and a truly micro pair of hot pants, and sporting a gum-popping Brooklyn accent — the same Robbie used in Wolf of Wall Street — she’s just about the most fetishized version of the character you could imagine. When she wiggles un-self-consciously into her “costume”, the whole world stops to look.
Harley’s traditional costume makes a brief appearance in flashback, though its classic elegance meant it was never getting going to fit with Ayers’ acid-blotter aesthetic. It may masquerade as female empowerment, but this is male titillation, impure and simplistic.
There’s also pryo-kinetic Mexican gang-banger El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a newly avowed pacifist who’s seeking redemption for his role in the deaths of his family. Arguably the most dangerous of the bunch, he gets a nice moment of personal reflection — a dancing woman wrought in frame, like the figure in a music box, slowly smothering beneath a glass.
The character of projectile-wielding Aussie scumbag Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) succeeds in getting more mileage than we’re used to from cognizant cardboard cinema cutout Courtney — simply by having him play a lager-swilling bogan instead of Generic Hero; even if the pink unicorn fetish the film inexplicably gives him is lifted more or less wholesale from Deadpool.
Man-eating reptilian super-human Killer Croc (Adewale Akkinuoye-Agbaje) is given nothing to do, despite being the most outwardly monstrous of the bunch, how interesting he sounds, and rope guy/presumed heavy metal enthusiast Slipknot (Adam Beach) is just a bit of a non-starter.
Meanwhile, on the non-criminal front, the hard-ass Colonel Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman) has his own reasons for venturing into the newly under-threat Midway City alongside this cadre of criminals; reasons concerning his lover, Dr. June Moone (Carla Delevigne) AKA the Enchantress.
The villain of the piece, she’s an ancient demigod in soiled I Dream Of Jeannie fetish-wear with unspecified powers, a generic grudge against humanity, and a penchant for magical belly-dancing. Ayers definitely misses an opportunity here to shoehorn in some generic rock with her introductory track: Witchy Woman, anyone?
Oh yes, and last and almost certainly least, Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a soul-reaving samurai grieving for her dead husband who is given no opportunity to explore that fact nor, indeed, any dialogue.
Then, the baddest (sorry, worst) of the bunch, there’s Jared Leto’s Joker. A bleach-skinned, skull-headed, hypno-eyed, eyebrow-less, pimp-suited, grill-sporting gangster who’s as blatant as the ‘Damaged’ tattoo on his forehead and about as genuinely edgy.
Worse still, as with Killer Croc, Katana, et al, Ayers’ script gives him next to nothing to do. The Joker, once an agent of destructive chaos, is reduced wandering incidentally from scene to scene with a handful of goons, threatening non-entities and growling like a jungle cat.
Where Heath Ledger’s incarnation (a necessary, if unfortunate, invocation) made an impression based largely on sheer magnetism and the occasional “magic trick”, Leto turns up howling, dressed in a white dinner jacket and wielding a solid gold AK-47. He’s flamboyant in a way closer to Nicholson’s showman than Ledger’s grungy anarchist, but there’s no ideology to him besides the desire to reacquire Harley (having previously abandoned her).
Throw in a literal kiss-the-ring moment and this incarnation of Batman’s ultimate foe is basically just a slightly unhinged gang boss, which raises a few issues by itself. For instance, did The Joker write all out all that HA HA HA graffiti himself or did he have a henchman do it? Doesn’t he have a business to run? Does being crazy interfere with the money-making or does it offer some tactical advantage in the marketplace?
Admittedly, Leto’s role was largely cut — there’s a scene from the trailer where he’s got a burned face and is holding a grenade — so perhaps there’s a more fulfilling, or at least coherent, version of the character not limited to roughly ten minutes screen-time.
Then again, reportedly one of the cuts involved Joker throwing Harley out a plane in order to kill rather than save her. The film’s blasé approach to male on female violence would be easier to shrug off if there wasn’t also a point were it not also often played for laughs.
In light of all this, Leto’s swanning around, harassing his costars, sending them dead rats and used condoms, sounds less like Method — or madness for that matter — than simple self-indulgent dickheadedness. In interviews Leto, who is, let’s remember, an Oscar-winning actor, talked about wanting to “strike new ground”. While he certainly succeeds in that, it seems like he may have hit the sewer line.
BVS strove to be operatic, mythopoeiac, with some ill-considered sociopolitical commentary thrown in. Suicide Squad wants to be subversive AND heartfelt, but trying to be both prevents it being either. The film tries to fuse the emotional heft of Fury, Ayers’ 2014 tank drama, with the offbeat humor of Guardians of the Galaxy, but lacks the heart or wit to do justice to either.
The film hammers home that this bunch of self-serving psychos are bad guys forced into doing good while simultaneously expecting us to believe that they’re also just misunderstood misfits who might also come to refer to each other as “family”, seemingly within 24 hours of knowing each other. There’s too much emphasis on redemption without enough lead-in or build-up. Without this investment a scene at a bar, featured prominently in the trailer, where the squad all sits around and talks about their feelings can’t help but resonate as slightly tin-eared.
A generic beam-of-light-into-the-sky threat and final boss battle that goes full-on video-game — complete with one character “leveling up” — suggest that the real point of comparison for Suicide Squad is less BVS than Josh Trank’s ill-fated F4nt4stic AKA Fantastic Four (2015).
That too was taken from its director and heavily recut, though it may ultimately have the dubious distinction of being the worse film. For all its flaws, there’s nothing in Suicide Squad to match that movie’s reaction-shot-heavy final battle with the LED-eyed, pie-dish-faced Doom.
At Suicide Squad‘s premiere, that most revealing of events, Ayers also gave something of a mission statement when he said “Fuck Marvel”; as any moody, maladjusted teen might say of their more successful older sibling. And sure, it’s true that Marvel have a tried-and-tested formula; a movie-making template that, while leaving little room for narrative surprises, has so far guaranteed a base level of quality for their output.
DC, on the other hand, does not have a formula, or, to use a different analogy, a recipe. They also don’t seem to be natural cooks. Everything they’ve produced so far, starting with Man Of Steel back in 2013, has been, at best, overdone; good in parts but largely inedible.
As such, Ayers’ claim at the première that he made the film for “the real fans” would, apart from trying to No True Scotsman its way past the quality threshold, suggest the intended audience is those who prefer their cinematic steaks well-done (if not, well, well done).
Suicide Squad is not good; in fact, it’s pretty bad. It is, however, a step up from Batman V Superman, in a way that Limbo is a step up from Lust in Dante’s nine circles of hell.
If BVS was a full-on Exxon Valdez-type oil spill, an environmental disaster of catastrophic proportions — oil-soaked seagulls, the whole shebang —then Suicide Squad is more akin to a can of petrol poured in a rock pool: shallower, more self-contained, not harmful of itself (though perhaps an indicator that something may have gone horribly wrong elsewhere), and resulting in an iridescent sheen on the surface of the water that’s at least curious to look at. There may even be a good movie in there, somewhere; lost amidst the missteps and the cuts.
With the long-awaited Wonder Woman already visible on the horizon, maybe, just maybe, Warners will — heaven forbid — listen to their critics (not just the critics) and set about cleaning up the DCEU ecosystem.
In Gadot we trust.