Like a pixie stick being used to prop up a wounded elephant, Suicide Squad is not fit for the task to which it has been set – namely, convincing movie audiences that the DC Expanded Universe is a place they want to invest their time and attention. What could – should – have been a weird, cynical little movie about villains being press-ganged into black ops by a ruthless government agent is instead a weird, non-viable hybrid of a movie that trades all its strengths for, well, not much, really.
Following the events of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, shadowy intelligence officer Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has a plan: rather than relying on the hoped-for benevolence of a free range hero, she wants to get her eggs from caged metahumans, namely career criminals, that she can coerce into acting as a last-resort strike force against extraordinary threats to the US. The team – lethal assassin Deadshot (Will Smith), crazy Joker gal pal Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), scaly cannibal Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), craven bank robber Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), pyrokinetic gang banger El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and just-here-to-pad-out-the-numbers Slipknot (Adam Beach), plus army dude Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman) and sword-swinging 2IC Katana (Karen Fukuhara) – is barely assembled before they’re sent into action against one of their own – Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), an archaeologist possessed by an ancient demon who wants to bring about the end of the world. And so we’re off to the races.
Or we would be, if Suicide Squad wasn’t the worst-structured and paced major movie in recent memory. On paper, the concept is great – it is, as has been frequently observed, The Dirty Dozen in the DC Universe – but it seems the good people of DC/Warner were clearly not happy with that remit. Suicide Squad feels like it’s been micro-managed to within an inch of its life, subjected to an endless barrage of notes, second-guesses and reshoots, all designed to glean some velocity from riffs that worked for others. Deadpool was funny? Make it more funny (most of the humour is DOA)! Guardians of the Galaxy had a classic rock soundtrack? To the music archives (you will never want to hear another needle drop in your life after this movie)! All this stuff seems to have been shoe-horned in willy-nilly, with no thought as to how each element would play next to the others. The result is a hodgepodge of style and tone that rushes when it should linger – as in the clunky first act character intros – and lurches when it should sprint – as in the second act, where the Squad spend way too much time woodenly wandering around a deserted city, fighting generic CGI mooks.
Still, in the mix there are elements that do work. The over-designed, hyper-stylised visual aesthetic is fun; Suicide Squad, despite its pretensions to grittiness and compromised anti-heroes, feels like a very comic-book world, like a dark mirror of the Schumacher Batman movies, where the look of the thing is way more important than the plausibility. And yes, you don’t get poor performances out of the likes of Smith, Leto and Davis without seriously going off the rails. Smith in particular is the glue that holds the narrative together; his Deadshot is a ruthless killer who wants to do right by his young daughter, giving him a fairly flattened but nonetheless fleshed-out arc that we can root for. Davis is all steely, ruthless pragmatism as Waller, and manages to be believably cold and calculating, even when the script has her doing ludicrously over the top stuff like personally executing a room full of potential witnesses to her black-bag skullduggery. And let it be known that Leto is a pretty great Joker. His take on the character is more “unhinged mob boss” than “unknowable agent of chaos and evil”, but that fits in with Ayer’s ghetto bling aesthetic. Indeed, Leto is such a watchable presence that you almost forget that he has no plot function whatsoever in the film (The Joker shows up because Waller has recruited Harley. The Enchantress is a world-destroying threat because Waller thought using an ancient spirit as an intelligence asset was a good idea. Every problem in this movie is self-created).
The dark horse candidate for best character is Jay Hernandez’s El Diablo, a heavily tattooed LA gang boss with the power to control fire who has forsworn violence after killing his family in a rage. He’s clearly Ayer’s favourite and brings more pathos to the table than any other character.
The worst? Well, putting aside any of the really underwritten characters (Croc, Slipknot, Katana, Boomerang – although Courtney is great, there’s no justification for him being on the team), the obvious high profile misfire is Harley Quinn, here a hyper-sexualised, living, breathing example of male gaze that’s just a mess of inconsistent characterisation and increasingly short shorts. Which is not to say that she isn’t – ahem – aesthetically pleasing, but Quinn is a character who requires deft handling to avoid a whole boatload of unfortunate implications. The same kind of people who think Mickey and Mallory in Natural Born Killers are relationship role models are gonna see the Joker and Harley as aspirational figures, god help them.
Suicide Squad is a conceit and a set of characters that deserves a better airing, and it’d be interesting to see where they’d go with a sequel. You can see the skeleton of something strong under the piled-on flab of studio interference, and the notion of an unfettered David Ayer take on the material has plenty of merit. But really, so far every DC movie has been an attempt to desperately course-correct from the failings of the previous one. How much good will are they owed? A forgiving fan will find moments to enjoy here, but as a whole it’s a monumental misfire.