You know, I don’t think there has been a superhero film I’ve known what to make of less before seeing it than Suicide Squad. The initial announcements had me very interested: a director whose work I admired, and a cast full of really top names, including an interesting roll of the dice for the Joker. And the premise itself is just interesting, and promised to be a unique experience, something sorely lacking in the larger genre.
But then, but then, but then. Poor trailers with an inconsistent tone, reshoots, director troubles, seeing Will Smith and Margot Robbie with an alarming lack of chemistry in another film…suffice to say that Suicide Squad has had a troubled jump from production to the big screen, and at a time when WB/DC are presumably desperate to get their shared universe going properly after the poor reception and iffy financial success of Batman V Superman. I went into Suicide Squad with some trepidation but some hope: was it all it could be, or every inch the mess I feared?
In the aftermath of Superman’s death, intelligence operative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) assembles a task force of various criminals to act as disposable agents in high-risk missions. Expert assassin Deadshot (Smith), crazed former psychiatrist Harley Quinn (Robbie), pyrokinetic gangbanger El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), crude Australian bankrobber Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), deformed cannibal Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and sword wielding Katana (Karen Fukahara) are commanded by Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), and soon face a dangerous task: to advance into Midway City and stop the demi-god Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) from destroying the world. All the while, the deranged Joker (Leto) plans to rescue Quinn.
If there is one word that I have been reading over and over again in appraisals of Suicide Squad, it’s “mess”, usually proceeded by other words like “incoherent” and much more rarely by “interesting”. And, while I don’t mean to simply parrot the consensus, that is exactly what Suicide Squad is. From start to finish, it’s a film so obviously ripped to pieces by multiple edits and studio interference, that what was put back together seems like three different creative directions masquerading as one entity, and poorly at that.
And it really is obvious right from the start, when a prison montage to “House of the Rising Sun” melds into another montage scene to “Sympathy For The Devil” without pause, giving the suddenly created ambience absolutely no time to breathe, giving the audience no time to let it sink in, before some other thing is trying to ram it down our throats (and never mind that the film’s actual soundtrack, with interesting new songs like twenty one pilots’ “Heathens” gets relegated to the credits. It feels off, and that’s what so much of Suicide Squad is: off.
No worse victim than the general pacing, with the films first hour crawling towards the main point with all the verve and excitement of someone who has never actually read a comic book making a comic book movie (or at least editing one). The film stumbles through rapid-fire introductions of its key cast and key villains, repeats the same points multiple times (Amanda Waller outlines the film’s basic premise twice in consecutive scenes for some reason) and just takes so long to get to the fun stuff.
And the fun stuff is there. No, really. There are moments, brief moments, when Suicide Squad comes together and showcases the kind of fun, inventive, inverted trip it could have been, as a group of desperate bad guys try to muddle through a bad situation. But there’s too much crammed in here overshadowing everything else, as Suicide Squad struggles to have consistent script work and tone.
With such an overload of characters – the brief plot description above doesn’t even cover the entirety of the Squad, some of whom are introduced and dispatched with alarming speed – there isn’t enough time for anyone. The truly key character relationship, that between Flagg and Moone, which is actually driving everything forward whether some characters know it or not, is so quickly and poorly developed – getting little more than a throwaway line from the Waller character – that everything else just sags. The villain herself is an uninspiring and uninteresting one, a basic evil witch with freaky powers, and very little else, so stuck for time that we barely get a sense of her or what she wants before the conclusion. Waller is actually better – a lot better – but isn’t in the right position to serve as the primary antagonist.
And then there is Jared Leto, an abysmal failure as the Clown Prince of Crime. I’ve never seen a version of the Joker, in print, animation or live-action, that was so uninteresting, or so superfluous to the story being told. Leto’s Joker is just sort of there, for flashbacks and a weirdly inserted scene before the third act, at no point actually making a firm impact on the story. More Marilyn Manson than manic, he doesn’t even tell a joke at any point, walking around, as a friend put it, like he’s living his life in a music video, floating through the plot and acting weird and creepy. Leto and Ayers just didn’t seem to get the Joker at all, or what people find him so fascinating. He’s more than the look and being a weirdo to people, he’s a deeper character than that. In comparison to the recently watched The Killing Joke, the difference between the two interpretations couldn’t be more stark.
The team itself, beyond those all too brief moments where they connect properly as characters, suffer the same fate. Smith and Robbie’s interactions are head and shoulders above Focus, but there are only so many. Hernandez really comes into the El Diablo character late on, but the sudden appearance of a sense of family was unearned and hammy. Croc and Boomerang are just one note additions with nothing to them beyond throwing things and eating people. Katana literally just shows up as the action is set to start with a two-line introduction. The film wastes its first hour in lop-sided exposition and stalling, and then jumps from character to character, and scene to scene, so fast that nothing is allowed to truly blossom. You feel like, instead of one big mission taking up the second half being the lone thing, the film could have used a montage of earlier missions to make the sense of a team coming together stick, to paper over some of the cracks. Where Guardians Of The Galaxy and The Avengers managed to do a passable job with a lot of characters, Suicide Squad just stutters at a constant rate, schizophrenic in its focus.
One of the things that’s a concern in a film like this is that the characters, all self-admitted bad guys, will be too unlikeable for the audience to get behind, but Ayers actually manages to avoid this. Deadshot might be a killer, but he’s a Dad trying to do right as well. Quinn might be murdering psychopath, but it wasn’t entirely her fault she ended up that way. El Diablo lashed out once and paid a heavy price, and is trying to change. I can get behind these people, especially when they get behind each other, espousing that trite but useful “honour among thieves” sentiment the film needs to thrive on: a late bar scene manages to get the type of comradery, though unearned, just right.
And at least the cast is giving it a good go. Smith is fun as Deadshot, clearly enjoying playing a not so nice character, even as his typical good guy chops come into play later on. Robbie makes the Quinn role her own, capturing a nice bit of demented insanity that I wouldn’t mind seeing more of. Hernandez sort of steals the show at times with the surprisingly deep El Diablo. Even Kinnaman takes the grunting Flagg and makes something heartfelt out of him. And Davis is probably the best of the lot, really imbuing Waller with that ice cold sense of detachment. Everyone else, from Courtney to Fukahara, doesn’t have the time to make a true impact. And let’s not waste any more words over Leto.
Ayer’s script is not a bad one per say, it’s just so jumbled in the final cut that it ceases to make any coherent sense. When the various colourful characters get the chance to talk to each other without having to give out reams of exposition or curse, they actually have a flow and direction in their conversation, and I can’t fault the films attempts at humour, which is similar to Guardians Of The Galaxy in the snarkiness, just with additional crassness and sexual angles, which does sort of fit.
But where Suicide Squad is trying to be Guardians of The Galaxy so much in the way that everyone interacts and comes together – it even uses a song that James Gunn’s film did – it just can’t make it all work, the glibness and the trash talk not merging at all with the visuals and the dark direction that everything appears to take. Without the right kind of narrative to bind the characters together – the third act uniting comes out of left field and is so unearned it’s like robbery – and without the right sense of tone, the laughs don’t have the power they should have and the serious stuff seems goofy (Amanda Waller’s “I threw away the hole” explanation for her supervillain prison might be the worse line in the history of the genre).
The visual direction is important here, and is as messed up as the other elements of Suicide Squad. Ayers and cinematographer Roman Vasyanov can’t set on a tone, jumping from Snyder-esque grimdark to this strange neon tint. The neon works better with the characters, and I imagine that’s what Ayer wanted to do, but it is, if you’ll pardon the pun, overshadowed as we move into the crux of the plot, where the enemies are all dark coloured blobs being fought in darkness, making the PG-13 action scenes – and that’s another significant problem, considering the premise – a little hard to follow.
This film is populated by colourful, unique characters, and needed the kind of visual direction to go with that. And take that from someone who has defended the grimdark look of Man Of Steel and Batman V Superman quite vocally before now: Suicide Squad is a film that needed to brighten things more consistently, even if it was just with that garish neon. In the end, I fear that Ayers’ lack of experience with spectacle films of this nature was a serious deficit: Suicide Squad is yet another film that falls back on blue beams of light shooting up into the sky to demonstrate the power of the MacGuffin, and seems positively in love with the dingy surrounds of the prison complex that so much of the narrative regrettably takes place in.
This could have been great. Cut back on your Squad members to just five – say, Flagg, Deadshot, Quinn, Katana and El Diablo, the ones with the best potential for decent story – lose the Joker and use the extra time to flesh out the villain a bit more. Brighten things up a bit, even if it’s with garish neon. Risk some more violence. Go for the jokier tone to things. Make it a bit demented. That would have been something interesting. Something unique. Something cool. I mean, the premise is that the government wants someone like Harley Quinn to take on the next Zod: it’s so goofy that you have to have some fun with it.
But the fun is diluted by everything else about the production that is lacking. Even taking the scant bits of other Suicide Squad media – like the appearances of the group in episodes of Arrow, or Justice League Unlimited’s great “Task Force X” – you can see better approaches that had a firmer idea of the characters and the tone. Ayers’ version doesn’t have that. It’s more Fantastic Four than Guardians Of The Galaxy, with its studio interference difficulties, inconsistent vibe and narrative that doesn’t seem to go anywhere for so long. It’s the kind of film that should serve as an abject lesson to moviemakers everywhere. For that, it has a bare partial recommendation from me.
(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).