It’s been a rough summer movie season, and a rough year for DC fans. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice proved to be massive critical and financial disappointment, and the entire future of the DC Cinematic Universe has been called into question. There’s a love for these characters, and while there are undeniably positive aspects seen so far in the franchise, they’ve failed to maximize their potential.
Suicide Squad is not the film to save the DC brand. It’s a mess. But, while Suicide Squad is flawed, it’s flawed for a lot of the right reasons. It’s bold, original, and does its darnedest to be stylized and different. There are way too many editing and story flaws to condone a strong recommendation, but Suicide Squad is a step in the right direction for the DC Universe.
With the world still adjusting to the concept of meta-humans, government operative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) asks a serious question: what if every superpower person wasn’t as nice as Superman? Her solution: Task Force X, a secret squad of convicted criminals brought together to hopefully “do some good”.
This so-called “Suicide Squad” consists of the charming hitman Deadshot (Will Smith), the Joker’s swoon Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), psychopathic thief Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), the aptly named Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and flame-weilding family man El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), all wrangled together by the no-nonsense Sergeant Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman), a military veteran who’s girlfriend June Moon (Cara Delevigne) has been possessed by a witch, called the Enchantress. The squad is charged with protecting the free world from the Enchantress, with aspirations of freedom following their mission.
Sound like a lot? It’s because it is. This isn’t Captain America: Civil War, where the previous knowledge of each character makes them compelling, and the film struggles to make each of the squad members relevant. Will Smith stands out by far; Smith never relinquishes the charisma or wit that made him a star in the first places, and the quickness of his voice quickly proves to be of the upmost importance as the film dredges from one dreary set-piece to the next. Also spectacular is Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn; Quinn’s quirks may go too far in their attempts to prove how crazy she is, and while the character’s overtly sexualized nature will inspire countless think pieces, Robbie does seem to be having a genuinely great time here.
The rest of the team, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jay Hernandez, and Jai Courtney, aren’t given nearly enough to screen time to provoke serious analysis, and as much as the film tries to sell itself as a “team picture”, this is all about Smith and Robbie. As for Kinnaman, his character suffers most from the script, padded with a throwaway romantic subplot and an “orders are orders” attitude that do a disservice to Kinnaman’s talents as a performer.
While much of the film’s marketing may focus on Jared Leto’s Joker, Leto’s role is little more than a glorified cameo. Leto is genuinely terrifying at points, giving a sensual and seductive side to the character that rises above some of the weaker material. Following up the work of Health Ledger, in one of the greatest performances in motion picture history, was always going to be tough, but there’s a unique, mobster-style take on the Joker here, and Leto steals each and every one of his scenes. It’s a good thing he’s so good, as the film’s primary antagonist Enchantress is next-level awful, a CGI monstrosity that’s as campy as it is boring. Neither character has much in terms of development or motivation, but at least Leto has style.
The development and motivation is really where the film falters. It’s not out of lack of trying, but lack of originality. Why are these guys here to do good? Deadshot has a daughter. Harley misses her boyfriend. Rick Flagg misses his girlfriend. El Diablo feels guilty. These are valid reasons, but they’re only instilled in the film through a haphazard series of flashbacks and forced emotional scenes, all of which feel as if David Ayer just remembered that characters are kind of important. He’s lucky the cast can sell some of the thin material, but it doesn’t help that every scene a character reminds us “we’re the bad guys”. We should know they’re bad guys and we should know why they’re here. You shouldn’t have to tell us.
One of the few highlights of the largely disappointing Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was the action, and while Zack Snyder benefited from the stylized set pieces, Ayer skims by. There’s nothing here that’s poorly shot or choreographed, it’s just the individual conflicts seem rather bland, and the team’s unique fighting styles aren’t coordinated in the fist-pumping type of spectacle you’d expect. Ayer’s visual style works though, and the boldness and grimness of the color palettes illuminates an otherwise dreary set.
Outside of forced emotional moments or obvious trailer cues, the dialogue is relatively strong, with a great knack for quips and character interactions. It’s not the script’s fault the film is so inconsistent, as once again Warner Bros and DC have botched a film with editing. The film’s opening moments is so desperate to cram in exposition that it feels like a quick recap of what could’ve been a solid hour of interesting storytelling. Time will tell if David Ayer’s definitive version of the film is the one currently in multiplexes, but the film has more than a few obvious moments of scene splicing and removed content. While the film doesn’t feel neutered for the PG-13 rating, you can’t help but thinking it might’ve been more fun and brutal with the freedom of an R-Rating.
And yes, the soundtrack is fantastic. Ayer seems to be doing his best to put in as much music as was available in the budget, and although it would’ve been better to focus on a few key scenes (in the vein of Star Trek Beyond‘s “Sabotage”), the haphazard use of music fits the haphazard nature of the film. Also, any film that’s eclectic range includes such powerhouse tracks as “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Sympathy for the Devil”, and “Without Me” is due a fair amount of forgiveness.
In the end, Suicide Squad reveals the flaw that DC faces with their franchise. It seems as if these are films created by a board room, trying to calculate a film that will appeal to the largest audience possible. Just the right amount of comedy, a fair amount of action, a romance, and just enough sequel-baiting to guarantee future ticket sales. But what will surely attract a broader fanbase is to create something bold, and committed to the style of each unique filmmaker. There are glimpses of this in Suicide Squad, and they’re not just the highlights, but the moments that legitimize the attention paid to this universe.
It may seem that I’m overtly critical of Suicide Squad. The truth is, I enjoyed watching the film. I appreciate the performances, the stylistic choices, and the clever, smart humor. But as a fan of the DC characters and universe, I want these films to be great. I’m a fan, and I remain a fan, not because I blindly accept anything but forward by the brand, but because I recognize the potential this mythology has. Under less studio control and more creative freedom, I believe DC could find similar success to what Marvel has seen.
Suicide Squad is a mess in every sense of the word, but the method within the madness is what I find hopeful. While it’s easy to focus on the boring action, terrible villain, or awkward editing, it’s hard to deny the charisma given off by Will Smith, the kick-ass soundtrack, or the quippy humor. I can recommend Suicide Squad, not as a good film, but as a more than entertaining ride that’s glaring flaws only accentuate how much it does right. Grade: C+