Suicide Squad finds itself in the curious space of being a lot of things to a lot of people before it ever hits theaters. Unfortunately, that seems to be happening a lot these days. At once it’s a mea culpa for a studio which still seems confused by how loudly its first entry into the Great Superhero Movies Arms Race Of The 2010s was rejected, an attempt to right the ship before all those other titles that were already promised go into production, a looser and weirder endeavor into the DC Comics library, and the culmination of decades of fan urging to look past the Supermen and Batmen of the catalog and tell the stories of some of those weirder heroes. Even the ones who aren’t actually heroes.
And believe you and me, Suicide Squad is damned well intent on making sure that you know that its literal murderer’s row of ne’er-do-wells isn’t your everyday cast of superheroes. David Ayer’s film, from the opening moments set to “House of the Rising Sun” onward, advertises itself as a different kind of superhero story, one less concerned with portentous dialogue about whether men are still good and more with the stuff people come to superhero movies to see, filtered through a snotty quasi-punk lens: the destruction, the banter, the triumphs over greater and more powerful evils. And if Ayer’s film were simply a well-told story of villains repurposed for the “greater good,” whatever that may mean at this point in human history, it might have been an effective piece of late-summer cacophony, a bloodier-minded Guardians of the Galaxy with a snarling pop-trash aesthetic.
But alas, Suicide Squad is indeed yet another case study in what happens to a film when it’s trapped in a maelstrom of industry obligations and table-setting narrative requirements. That it only feels like two or three films within one 130-minute blast instead of the roughly half-dozen or so that invaded Batman v Superman isn’t a compliment, and shouldn’t be considered as one. While this is certainly a more cohesive standalone film than its most direct antecedent, Suicide Squad is plagued from its prolonged early sequence to its vexing coda by the lingering sense that there’s just too goddamn much playing out for any single movie to sustain the weight.
Because modern Hollywood loves few things more than the origin story, Suicide Squad kicks off with a solid 20+ minutes of that and virtually nothing else. After a brief introduction works its way through the Louisiana black site at which the film’s many protagonists are being held, the film cuts away to a dinner, in which Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) is outlining her plan for a new government initiative. The ARGUS program would repurpose “metahumans” with lengthy criminal records into a secret task force, one for which the United States would be unaccountable on record and one which would use their powers to carry out various sordid and necessary missions. It’s the kind of team you assemble for a scared, paranoid world; as Waller puts it, “Superman shared our values. We got lucky. The next Superman might not.”
It’s a logical way in, and one that wisely plays off the consequences of Zack Snyder’s first introductions to the new Gotham, Metropolis, and Midway City, the latter of which serves as the backdrop for much of Suicide Squad’s action. But it’s also immediately followed by a deluge of leadenly unfolded backstory; Ayer fills in the necessary context for the film’s primary cast with a series of lengthy, neon-colored vignettes that run far too long to maintain the sense of giddy anarchy for which the film is clearly aiming.
Speaking of aim, one of the chief players in the Suicide Squad is Deadshot (Will Smith), an expert marksman who, in the grand tradition of Thomas Jane, just wants his kid back. In this case, it’s his daughter, who isn’t all that concerned with how her dad makes his living, just that it keeps him away from home for too long. There’s Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), a psychotherapist-turned-psychopath whose undying love for the Joker (Jared Leto) warped her mind into that of a sexually precocious, hyper-violent lunatic. Boomerang (Jai Courtney) is a master Aussie thief with a penchant for sharp objects. Diablo (Jay Hernandez) is an ex-gang member who’s reformed into pacifism after a destructive prison fight, despite being able to launch massive columns of fire from his body. Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is exactly as he sounds; after an accident, he’s now a resident of the sewers, able and willing to swim at rapid speeds with darkness as his ally. (One quality of the film worth acknowledging: The film might not be very good, but Suicide Squad might just be Hollywood’s most diverse comic adaptation to date.)
And lest you think we’re done unspooling characters yet, there’s also the central relationship that kicks Suicide Squad into motion. That’d be the one between Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), the decorated military leader tasked with whipping the whole motley band into functional shape and making sure they don’t kill each other, and June (Cara Delevingne), a metahuman doctor who can transform into an ancient witch known as The Enchantress on command, and sometimes without any command. (Kinnaman tries his best, but he’s the straight man here, and the total idiocy required to segue his relationship into the film’s central plot leaves Flag lacking in credibility from early on.) There’s also Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a master swordsmith and Flag’s right-hand protector, and Slipknot (Adam Beach), who’s…uh, good at climbing. Because Suicide Squad, for some reason, can’t simply linger on these characters and build relationships with and rapport between them without immediately launching into the kind of story that would normally characterize a second film, an entire movie’s exposition is whipped through in those early introductions.
This becomes a problem when that hasty, rushed exposition extends to the relationships on which the rest of the movie is supposed to be built. When June quickly loses control of the Enchantress (shocking!), Suicide Squad splits its time between establishing its broad cast during and between action scenes, and watching them battle their way back to the Enchantress, whose equally ancient brother she resurrects in an attempt to build a machine capable of destroying the world. Or casting it into eternal darkness. Or something. The film’s never a hundred percent clear on the machine’s parameters or functions beyond the point of “bad machine.” That the real purpose of Suicide Squad isn’t actually the squad’s battle against evil is just one of the many plot holes and inconsistencies left by the film’s rush into action, followed by its unwillingness to linger on any one idea long enough for it to stick, lest the film commit the unimaginable sin of asking for a second of patience.
The purpose is to watch talented actors get weird in weird roles, and on that basis, Suicide Squad is effective enough at points. To the expectations of some and disappointment of others, Smith hardly takes the chance to break out of the mold he’s inhabited for a solid 20 years; he gives a solid anchoring performance at Deadshot, but it’s familiar. There’s nothing particularly villainous or even antiheroic about Deadshot; he kills people for a living, but so does everyone else in Suicide Squad, good or bad, and the group’s history of savage violence is treated with only mildly more interest regarding Deadshot than it is anywhere else. Davis is a standout as the unflappable Waller, whose disinterest in and contempt for her new charges is only outmatched by her willingness to play dirty, life-threatening pool to keep them in check.
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Suicide Squad opens a big, wide door for reputable actors to gnaw on the scenery, and the relative restraint of Davis’ performance makes it a standout in a film rife with actors hell-bent on giving the showiest possible performances. Robbie’s turn as Harley has been so venerated by audiences who’ve waited years for the maniacal character to hit screens before the film even comes out that it’s easy to overlook just how all-out the actress goes. If Ayer’s screenplay saddles her with some of the film’s more excruciating one-liners (“Now that’s a killer app!,” she exclaims after a glorified redshirt is dispatched with the touch of a smartphone), Robbie brings a kind of manic inner life to the character that the film’s frantic storytelling doesn’t allow for much of the cast. She’s at once a tragic figure, forced into playing the Joker’s moll with a mixture of torture and psychological abuse, and a madwoman capable of less empathy than anyone else in the squad. And Courtney, who’s hovered around a number of forgettable big-budget films in recent years, gives a memorable, motormouthed turn; where so much of the film strains for edgy laughs, he turns in what might be the film’s most genuinely funny performance in brief.
And then there’s Leto’s Joker, one of the film’s most hyped prospects. Leto is at once right at home within the film’s generally manic tone and extraneous to it in the grander scheme. While it’d be difficult (at best) to imagine a story involving Harley Quinn that doesn’t also concern her whole raison d’etre, the film strains early and often to fit the character into the story. Leto plays it big, as any actor playing the Joker likely will until the end of time. There’ll undoubtedly be comparisons drawn between his Joker and that other famous one from eight years ago, and the snarling, animalistic tics Leto adopts don’t exactly help him distinguish himself. But it’s also a more menacing kind of performance; where Heath Ledger’s Joker existed at once as a source of menace and comic relief from that menace, Leto is a purer kind of villain. He’s a snake charmer, to be sure, but a villain.
The villain is central to Suicide Squad, in both the film’s core meditations on what exactly makes a bad guy a “bad guy” and in its storytelling. It’s then curious how listless the film feels for long stretches at a time; for the wealth of plot on hand, Suicide Squad opts to race through the moments of pathos and emotional payoffs to get to the action. But then, again, the film has a habit of interrupting that same action to do the kind of character building that was rushed through earlier and instead has to exist in quick breaths between lines destined for jet-black T-shirts and lengthy action set pieces. (Just one example among several: Fairly late in the proceedings, the film flashes back to add even more backstory to Harley’s relationship with the Joker, just to add emotional heft to a moment that falls flat because of the backstory the film can’t manage to fit in until after the moment has already come and gone.) Because the antiheroes are really just foulmouthed heroes, and the villains are mostly drawn with the depth of a straight line, Suicide Squad never commits to the conceit on which it sells itself.
It’s strange that Ayer’s film should struggle so much at blending action and character beats, when it’s films like End of Watch and Fury that a) likely got him the job and b) made him famous for his uncommon skill in doing just that. But as Suicide Squad unfolds, it reveals itself as a character-heavy film that doesn’t articulate many of its characters in any lasting or satisfying way. After those rapid initial flashbacks, Deadshot and Harley emerge as the film’s driving forces (and Amanda, to a lesser degree), but the rest of the film’s game cast is shaded only in loose strokes, ones drowned out by the larger noise of everything else surrounding it. While Ayer makes an inspired call in pacing the brunt of the film’s action a’la Fury Road, framing the brunt of their pursuit as one hellish urban night, this approach only works when the cutaways and digressions are minimal and the film can charge ahead. But nothing lasts for any length of time in Suicide Squad, not even the garish neons and hallucinatory crossfades of the film’s early minutes on which it was heavily sold. Before long, even Ayer’s wildest stylistic choices settle down into DC Films’ house style: the muted tones and industrial black/blue that Zack Snyder used to build America’s visually dullest franchise of the moment.
Suicide Squad is practically custom-built to satisfy those who’ve already determined that it’s the film of the summer, but it’s harder to fathom it capturing the broader imagination. For all of the film’s nonstop, aggressive insistence on its subversive qualities, it’s about as radical and unconventional as a teenager buying a Leftover Crack shirt with their parent’s credit card from Amazon. There’s seemingly little point in critiquing the film’s attitudinal vibe; those receptive to it will devour it by the handful, those put off will continue to be so. (Actually, just one: whoever was tasked with tapping into the youth zeitgeist with the film’s music cues and came back with “Seven Nation Army” and Eminem’s “Without Me” probably shouldn’t be in charge of a movie soundtrack in 2016.) But there’s a pervasive obviousness to Suicide Squad that perhaps hits home best when Deadshot wonders aloud if “we’re like some kind of suicide squad,” and the film never quite shakes it off. For all of the non-sequiturs and crazy personae on hand, Suicide Squad ends up playing like the least interesting version of itself, an overstuffed franchise action movie that isn’t nearly as interesting as the sum of its parts.