Suicide Squad finds itself in a somewhat different position opening now than I imagine Warner Bros had envisioned for it when it was first announced. Batman v Superman should have solidified the DC Extended Universe, and Suicide Squad should have been a chance to expand it by looking into a few of its weirder corners, and introducing a ragtag bunch of supervillains cum antiheroes most of the general public won’t have much familiarity with. Instead, in the wake of BvS’s critical savaging and box office underperformance, the responsibility of course correcting and fan reassurance has fallen upon this oddball team movie. Can the Suicide Squad save the DCEU? Short answer; no, but don’t despair just yet.
This film is not a total disaster, but a lot of it is a complete mess. Now this is the time when I have to acknowledge that we *know* this went through extensive reshoots and studio-enforced edits in the months before release. Even if we didn’t though, it’s fairly clear watching it. This is by no means 2015 Fantastic Four levels of nonsensical tinkering, but I’m sure there’s a quite different cut of this movie out there that may well be more coherent than this. As such, I don’t know whether to lay the blame for the numerous inconsistencies of this movie at the feet of writer/director David Ayer or the studio. But it is what it is, and that’s a huge muddled mess.
There is at least one positive thing we can confirm about the DCEU from Suicide Squad though, that the dour, “grim and gritty” tone of BvS is not something that’s going to be enforced across all of its movies. This is more compact, less convoluted and crucially; more fun (it’s trying to be at least). Something I’ve often admired about DC is that, for better or worse, they tend to let filmmakers adapt their characters to suit their personal visions, and that’s what Ayer appears to have been able to do here. These are all recognizable versions of the DC characters, but also new takes on them.
The first act of the film plays out like an extended montage for a lot of its time, introducing various members of the core team one by one interspersed with flashbacks with their time before being incarcerated. For the most part, these intros are fun and efficient primers, even if they can be a bit repetitive (Deadshot in particular gets introduced multiple times –it’s unnecessary but the individual scenes are all good).
Floyd ‘Deadshot’ Lawton is played here by Will Smith and is essentially the film’s lead. It was a bit surprising to see a star as big as Smith sign on for a character as undistinguished as Deadshot – a third or fourth tier Batman villain at best. He has the natural likability and charisma to have played any of the major superheroes under the right circumstances. After a string of underwhelming genre roles (MiB3, After Earth, Winter’s Tale) this could have been more of a payday role for Smith but no, he’s very good here. He’s not taking this chance to subvert his image and play a despicable villain either mind, he’s an expert contract killer but his primary motivation is providing for his young daughter. An early flashback scene between him and Ben Affleck’s cameoing Batman is one of the definite highlights of this movie. I’d be quite happy to see more of him in future DCEU projects.
He’s not the only morally complex character here though, more surprising is Chato ‘El Diablo’ Santana (Jay Hernandez), a character I have next-to no familiarity with who can shoot fire out of his body. He has a more tragic backstory similar to a member of the X-Men revolving around his inability to fully maintain control over his superpowers. Even once recruited to the team, he’s extremely reluctant to fight at all.
Similarly the woman who brings them all together Amanda Waller, played with a cool authority by Viola Davis, is on another moral spectrum. She acts firmly for what she believes is the right thing to do for the good of humanity, but has no qualms employing nefarious methods to achieve them.
Among the less effective other members of the squad is the rather silly Captain Boomerang, played by walking punchline Jai Courtney. This was supposed to be something of a turnaround for Jai, often accurately described as one of the blandest actors in Hollywood. While he drops the straight-laced dullard routine and act a bit unhinged with his natural accent, he serves very little purpose and what abilities he has beyond drinking cans of beer and throwing boomerangs is not communicated.
He doesn’t draw the shortest straw though, that distinction goes to poor Adam Beach as Christopher ‘Slipknot’ Weiss, who enters the film late in the game and then exits it so quickly and unceremoniously that I genuinely didn’t even notice what had happened to him. Similarly, Scott Eastwood (who played the lead role in his last two movies) is apparently in this, but I have no clue where he appeared.
There are also smaller roles for the sword-wielding Tatsu ‘Katana ‘ Yamashiro (Karen Fukuhara) (apparently it’s some sort of soul-capturing magic sword, though that’s another thing that’s not entirely clear), and Waylon ‘Killer Croc’ Jones (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) – a sewer-dwelling mutant crocodile man who despite sounding like a totally ridiculous character fits in fairly well here.
The boring member is Col. Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman) who unlike the others is not a supervillain but an army veteran assigned to lead the group. Kinnaman unfortunately brings as little to the role as he did to the RoboCop remake, (it was originally to be played by Tom Hardy, how different would that have been?). The situation the team is in – that they must keep Flagg alive during their mission if they wish to as well – and the begrudging mutual respect he and Deadshot come to feel for one another are both potentially great angles that the film doesn’t manage to really get the best of.
I know, I know, I’ve left someone out, but don’t worry, Margot Robbie is excellent as fan-favourite character Harley Quinn. She brings just the right level of enthusiasm, craziness and danger to the role that has made Harley so enduringly popular. Some may take exception to the fact that she wears very short shorts for most of the movie, but other than that I’d imagine she’s one aspect even DC fans who dislike the film will be happy to see more of in the future. Her and Smith are definitely the star draws here.
The same cannot be said for Harley’s boyfriend, the Joker himself played here by Jared Leto. Leto’s an easy target for mockery, mainly by his own doing, and I’ve feared the worst for his take on this iconic villain ever since the ridiculous first image of him appeared online. He’s not trying to imitate Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning iteration at all (or anyone else’s) instead playing the character as a sort of freakish urban gangster/pimp type. He’s not totally awful, but he’s not particularly good. He’s also barely in the movie at all. His brief appearances, primarily in Harley’s flashbacks, amount to little more than a glorified cameo. Additionally, he’s almost completely superfluous to the plot, he could probably have been easily excised if required with few other changes needed. Whether he was always intended to be this way or there’s a ton of Joker material left on the cutting room floor, Suicide Squad renders the DC universe’s most famed villain as something of a nothing character. Aside from a couple of memorable images, there’s not much to the Joker/Harley scenes beside one moment in a club involving rapper Common that’s particularly unpleasant. If this were a standalone movie, it would be relatively easy to forget about Leto’s turn as the Joker and move on, but knowing that he’s the DCEU Joker does give me some pause. The fact that I’d be far more interested in Deadshot being the primary villain in a future Batman movie really tells you all you need to know.
The Joker is not Suicide Squad’s antagonist then, that honour goes to Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), alongside her brother who’s a large humanoid being made of ugly CGI. Enchantress is initially introduced remarkably well, intermittently possessing the body of Dr. June Moone (also Delevingne), her first couple of appearances are great horror beats. Once she gains power though, she becomes far less interesting, mainly gyrating in front of some huge CGI laser beam/portal thing while creating an army of lumpy, faceless goons for the team to bloodlessly dispatch.
He fast-montage first act of the film builds into a much slower second one (and there are really only 2) in which the team take on Enchantress, who’s trying to destroy various military sites using blue beams from the sky…or something…I don’t really know. Given that Ayer gave us what was probably the best action sequence of 2014 with the tank battle in his last movie Fury, I had hoped that he might have been able to deliver a more impressive finale than he does. Instead we get a serviceable, very standard superhero showdown similar to ones we’ve seen plenty of times before. It’s one of the few moments that feels like the studio may have requested a climax reminiscent of the typical Marvel ones.
Since I’ve wound up mentioning Marvel, the MCU movie that this is most obviously comparable to is Guardians of the Galaxy, which is probably intentional. On the positive side, I think Suicide Squad does a decent job of introducing magical elements to the DCEU as GotG did for cosmic ones in the MCU. The other less fortunate way it resembles Guardians though, is by having a soundtrack heavy on older rock songs. Suicide Squad overlooks the opportunity to spring out a fitting collection of eccentric musical choices and instead submits us to a hoard of overplayed, classic rock radio standards. There’s Sympathy for the Devil, Bohemian Rhapsody, a bit of AC/DC, Black Sabbath, and many more, some of which play at horribly on-the-nose moments.
Considering that upon their releases, Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman have wound up with about equal pressure on them to deliver, this is less of a disappointment, but it’s still a far cry from the slam-dunk success that DC needs. There are enough elements in this messy movie to not wholly dismiss it, and it sounds like we’re going to see Harley again in a female-focused movie soon, which may well turn out to be a good idea. So DC, let’s concentrate on the positives, onwards and upwards. Some of us are still desperately trying to root for you, and hey, Wonder Woman looks good right?