“We’re bad guys; it’s what we do.”
To say that the DC Extended Universe got off to a bumpy start is an understatement. Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice were both met with a polarizing reception, with the release of BvS‘s so-called “Ultimate Cut” only fueling the debate even further. There’s a frankly unfair amount of pressure on Suicide Squad to put the DCEU in good standing with critics and general audiences before The Justice League comes out in November 2017. Ignoring the baggage of prior and future movies, can Suicide Squad stand tall on its own merits? Or does it cower in the shadows of its mega-budget big brothers?
The answer, strangely and disappointingly, is both. Suicide Squad‘s first half, dedicated to setting up the world’s post-BvS landscape and assembling the motley crew of would-be heroes, shines with an irreverent tone and occasional moments of outright brilliance; once the mission begins, however, the script quickly segues into generic and familiar “CGI Destruction” territory, with a simple and weak villain, poor computer effects, and a half-cocked slow-motion “coup de grace” sequence that we’ve already seen a million times.
David Ayer did incredible work writing gritty, street-level thrillers like Dark Blue and Training Day, and directing brutally realistic snapshots of American culture like End of Watch and Fury. He both writes and directs Suicide Squad, and the film, when it’s at its best, feels like a caustic comic book come to life, with a unique big-screen visual language, vividly over-the-top characterization, and frequent and prolonged action scenes which showcase the distinct personalities of our anti-heroes. Sadly, the intriguing set-ups in the first half, particularly with the deliciously evil Amanda Waller, are all hastily shuffled aside once a giant interdimensional lightning storm (or whatever) opens up in the sky above Midway City, and the squad is forced to fight in a battle with stakes so comically out of scale with the type of movie we were all hoping Suicide Squad would be.
The cast are all game for the ride, even though some of them have significantly smaller roles than others. Adam Beach as Slipknot, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbage as Killer Croc, Karen Fukuhara as Katana, and Scott Eastwood’s generic army guy are all wasted as one-note window-dressing characters, if not outright cameos, who serve little-to-no purpose in the story. Meanwhile, other members of Task Force X fare much more strongly. Suicide Squad is the first film in which I’ve enjoyed a performance from Jai Courtney; after shuffling through Terminator 5 and Die Hard 5 like some kind of franchise-killing zombie, he really hams it up as an enjoyably unhinged Captain Boomerang, complete with a safety-blanket stuffed unicorn called Pinky. Likewise, the always-hilarious Ike Barenholtz shines as a sadistic prison guard who unfortunately disappears just before the movie starts to get boring.
Margot Robbie, Will Smith, and Joel Kinnaman are undeniably the three leads of the picture. Smith’s Deadshot, while entertaining, sometimes reeks of Smith surely insisting on getting the best lines and dramatic beats, regardless of how appropriate to his character they might be. Kinnaman (who co-starred in the underappreciated Run All Night) does a great job as Rick Flag, though his character is less morally conflicted then he really ought to be, especially when he (or rather, the script) fumbles a crucial scene with Viola Davis’s Amanda Waller, the evil bureaucrat who put the team together and is the cause of the film’s entire conflict. Finally, Margot Robbie is very watchable and only somewhat overly-sexualized as a very Batman: Arkham-esque version of Harley Quinn, the muse to Jared Leto’s highly-anticipated turn as The Joker.
Going in, we were all expecting The Joker to take over the villain role in the film, since the conflict was never a big part of the movie’s marketing, and Mr. J is front and center on most promotional materials. However, this never comes to pass, and the initial conflict of the film, Enchantress going rogue and deciding to destroy humanity (yawn), is never usurped by anything remotely interesting or suitable for the talents of Task Force X or the sensibilities of David Ayer and the imaginative first half of Suicide Squad. It seems like, no matter the intentions of these films, they always wind up falling back on superfluous images of mass destruction.
The film has a general disregard for human life, and the unexpectedly macro scale of the action comes as a detriment to the characters, the story, and the tone of the film. The film is so overly reliant on its aesthetic and having fun with its characters at the expense of telling an actual story, which works well with the music video sequences introducing the characters (although the use of Lesley Gore’s You Don’t Own Me is kind of the opposite of Harley Quinn’s character), but quickly runs out of steam once the paper-thin main story kicks in. The bored workmanlike finale is completely deflated of all tension and entertainment, since there is pitifully little narrative buildup. The worst part about this is that the film has a lot of character-oriented potential; Rick Flag’s relationship with Enchantress works well (even though Cara Delivigne without Enchantress makeup is practically a cameo compared to her turn as the ancient witch alter-ego) and brings a relatable human element to the story, as does the film’s willingness to contextualize some of the other characters, like El Diabl0 (Jay Hernandez) and Harley Quinn, in cut-away flashbacks. These flash-backs are the setting for the bulk of The Joker’s screen time, as well as Batman himself, and a completely unjustified Justice League cameo.
Suicide Squad is a movie with a lot to like, but with a few fundamentally bone-headed decisions which throw the whole experience irreparably off-balance. The villain is all wrong, and the overused CGI effects lack the craftsmanship of other superhero flicks and are painfully inappropriate for the type of movie Suicide Squad is trying to be. It’s bold enough to not have The Joker hijack the film’s final act like we were all expecting, though, in hindsight, Suicide Squad have definitely have benefited from Leto’s inclusion in the anemic finale. Suicide Squad is good, and there are times when it is great; when the film wants to be a comic book, with trippy imagery and snappy dialogue, and when it aspires to be a “men on a mission” genre throwback, like a 21st century version of The Wild Geese or Where Eagles Dare, it is excellent; but when it is forced, kicking and screaming, into being just another generic dose of sensory overload, that’s when things fall apart, as they so often do in this season of summer blockbusters.