“You know what they say about the crazy ones…” – Captain Boomerang
Enjoyable, likeable in parts, but ultimately forgettable, and short of the charming, cool film you hoped for.
+ A team of bad guys!
+ Will Smith is solid as ever
+ Harley Quinn’s in a movie!
+ Diverse cast
– The one-liners don’t really land
– Weak plot
– Ironically, an uninteresting villain
– Loads of peripheral characters in the squad
Batman has a superb rogue’s gallery. His stories become twice as interesting to take in because the villains are fascinating, disturbing, scary. Some are funny, others ingenious, and some are even relatable. The Dark Knight’s enemies have considerable appeal, and it’s not exactly surprising that 3 of them – the Joker, Harley Quinn and Deadshot – were the standout characters in the charm, energy and intrigue of the great Suicide Squad trailers we were treated to, particularly early in 2016.
The film itself has performed well in its first weeks; its release timing, diverse cast and great trailers clearly didn’t harm its chances for box office takings. But does the film itself match the blitz of the dollar bills making their way to Warner Bros?
Suicide Squad’s premise is simple, with loads of concepts that are easy to get excited about. There’s the ensemble of super-villains (downplayed to “misfits”) somehow meant to work together against their will for good rather than nefarious intent. Within that, there’s the veiled debate about “who and what is a bad guy”, poised by the ruthless Amanda Waller in contrast to the nasty prison regulars she’s collecting. There’s the growing story arc from Man of Steel and Batman v Superman about the world making sense of how to deal with meta-humans. There’s even the potential of exploring the twisted and unhealthy relationship between the psychopathic Joker and his psychiatrist turned lover Harley Quinn.
Some of the above gets delivered on. Some of it well, some of it not so much. Most of it too forgettably, and that’s what’s so frustrating about the film; this canvas already had some shape to it before the colour palette even needed some paint strokes.
The film’s first act flies into fast gear, wasting little time in making introductions to Amanda Waller and the prospective team of press-ganged anti-villains she wants to assemble. But there are loads of examples where great submits to good, or good submits to missed opportunity.
Viola Davis wastes little time making herself unlikable and unpleasant, even if the dialogue does little to explain her deeper motivations or even the back story to who she represents, or works for. Does she have financial ambitions? Is she angling for political control? Is the assembly of the Suicide Squad some twisted way for her to manifest prejudices towards meta humans? It’s unclear. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work; Amanda Waller’s malice and ruthlessness certainly land very well throughout the film, in fact. It just doesn’t grow from there.
Because of that, you never have a clear sense of what the squad’s key reason for existence is. In the comics, the Suicide Squad typically gets involved in black ops-type missions, or tasks where the supervillains’ underground skill-set becomes more pivotal than the superheroes’ altruism. The film chooses to play off the squad against a supernatural enemy well beyond their abilities, and while the plot somehow resolves itself, it’s not initially clear how bullets, boomerangs and a baseball bat are meant to overcome the dark magic of a witch.
It’s also in the first act where Amanda Waller describes the different recruits she has secured, though not all squad members receive this treatment. These sections are a highlight; some of the squad are introduced with flashbacks of how they were caught, and it’s here that Batfleck gets some brief screen time alongside Deadshot, Harley and the Joker.
Dead on Target
Speaking of which, Will Smith’s Deadshot is arguably the high point of this film. The Hollywood veteran managed to highlight some of the moral ambiguity that Deadshot embodies. It’s great that the emotional arc was explored with his daughter…and even if it’s a little weird that Bats would confront him while his daughter is by his side, it largely works, especially since the marksman tries a couple of times to use this to leverage some bargaining chips against Waller’s cold demands. Deadshot has most of the one-liners in the film that land effectively, and his one-man wrecking crew scene taking apart the Enchantress’ forces solo is terrific. Much of the film’s pivotal moments where the plans and intentions of Flag and Waller are questioned happen largely with Smith’s Deadshot behind the wheel, and it does a solid job of making the assassin likeable. As mentioned earlier, the concept of who exactly the bad guys are is a promising sketch provided by Suicide Squad’s premise, and by the end of the film, Deadshot feels far more like a bad guy making some good choices, as opposed to Waller who just feels plain nasty.
Crazy in Love
It’s surprising to make the admission about Deadshot being a highlight, because by the account of the trailers, the star of this show was supposed to be Harley Quinn. Now, this isn’t to criticize Margot Robbie’s portrayal. The actress does a superb job in fact of embodying the character and her delivery of many of Harley’s funny, cute and twisted one liners are pretty good in isolation. The trailers are (once again) evidence of this. And she’s great to watch, and she does largely steal the scenes in which she’s in.
Instead, the issue is one of editing, context and storytelling; Suicide Squad does little to serve the character effectively except for brief moments. Some of the one-liners feel way too forced in the cut of the film, making the lines appear to hang pointlessly in the air as if her lines weren’t seamlessly connected to the prior scenes or dialogue, but instead, feel like awkward attempts at lightening the mood in a tense setting.
The story doesn’t serve the character either. While the introductory montage showing brief snippets of Harley with Joker and her getting caught by Bats are cool, not once does Suicide Squad sell to us why Harley is an asset to an elite supervillain meta-human team about to battle a witch with magical powers. Instead she feels like a glitzy accessory to the whole trip, which is fine for entertainment purposes, but it’s not hard to understand why some critics have found her role in the squad a touch hollow. By comparison, it’s completely clear why Diablo (who is a far less interesting character, even with this simple, but developed arc) would have been of use to the squad against the Enchantress.
Harley remains a missed opportunity here. The reasons for her even falling in love with Joker; her actual value to the squad; her relationship dynamics with Joker post imprisonment – all of them remain underdeveloped. But Harley is a fantastic villain, unlike most we’ve seen before, and that’s why she’s worthy of discussion from the film, and worthy of leveraging for future screen time too.
The Joker in the Pack
That said, it was always obvious who the biggest responsibility fell to. And no, Jared Leto’s Joker wasn’t as good as Heath Ledger’s or Jack Nicholson’s portrayals. In fairness, Leto shouldn’t have been expected to reprise the same roles. Joker is a dynamic character in the comics, and there could have been some interesting potential unearthed by looking at the psychopath rather than the anarchist (Ledger) or the gangster (Nicholson). But instead, Leto’s portrayal fell short because while Joker got some valued screen time, largely linked to Harley, we never got one sense of why this version was special, different, unique and memorable.
Joker’s role wasn’t as disturbing as the trailers (and Leto’s behind the scenes antics) implied, and he felt like an unnecessary interference in the plot rather than an interesting antagonist within it. The scenes with Harley were intriguing and compelling, yet felt incomplete; and while his relationship to Harley is the main reason for him even pursuing the squad during their travels, this isn’t woven into the plot in such a meaningful way that the likes of Waller, Flag or even other squad mates become particularly concerned about Joker’s involvement.
It’s unclear if scenes for this just didn’t make the final cut (Leto has already expressed concerns about this ), but Joker as a result feels like a wasted resource in this film, but that’s valuable real estate to mess with. What if Warner Bros had instead planned to make Joker the villain, and portray Harley as a complicated double agent to use to get close to him while the squad handles things, not only could that have escalated the relevance of the Joker and Harley to the core plot, but also by design forced additional development to their relationship, while adding an interesting betrayal dynamic? Even if Warner Bros had chosen to adapt a live action version of the excellent Suicide Squad animated featureAssault on Arkham, where the Joker is a meaningful and relevant hindrance to the squad’s efforts, it would have presented a far better angle to write Joker into the story.
Worst Heroes Ever?
Now while it can be expected for audiences to have some investment in the star power of Will Smith and Margot Robbie, the reputation of the Joker, the rest of the squad leaves much to be desired. Bizarrely, Rick Flag has both the Suicide Squad and some elite troops at his command in the film, but it’s unclear why the latter are necessary (and in that context, why the Suicide Squad too) for the mission at hand. Of the other characters in the squad, only Diablo feels important and developed in the film.
Boomerang’s funny trailer-fare is largely ineffective in the film. Killer Croc isn’t the brutal savage he should be but instead plays very cooperative muscle for hire. Katana’s got an interesting sword with loads of stories to tell, but the film brushes past this, as if it was a deliberate plan to include a great character but not use them in full. I feel sympathy for Slipknot – he’s the unlucky chosen as cannon fodder to indicate how serious Waller is about the squad’s restraints, but even he only pushes his luck on Boomerang’s whim (as opposed to sheer cheek of his own choosing, liking KG Beast did in the animated featureAssault on Arkham).
It’s another missed opportunity to be ruthless about which characters are chosen and what their role is in the story. Yes, the diverse cast may even be a reason why the film has landed some support on international shores, but Suicide Squad didn’t really spend any time exploring the dynamics of individuals with different backgrounds.
The Bad Guys Never Win
Easily the biggest challenge Suicide Squad faces though, is its plot. It’s not hard to create excitement by throwing in loads of characters of value, and even if they’re not all used to full tilt, that’s still not exactly going to upset keen fans of the characters. But the reason the squad comes together is where the film struggles. The initial reason – the rescue of Amanda Waller – is confusing; it also seems like overkill to use the squad when Flag’s elite troops did quite well up to that point in the story. There’s no sense at all that Waller sees the squad as expensive cannon fodder and acceptable collateral, and yet that’s exactly what they should be.
Enchantress also didn’t work as a villain. Her origin is clumsy, her relationship with Flag forced. Her power appears immensely beyond the squad’s ability to beat, and even though they do win in the end, it feels too contrived, almost fortunate rather than a result of well-designed team effort. It’s also unclear what she’s she trying to do, or why the squad is best placed to beat her.
Now, this is not to say weak plots always hurt films. Deadpool’s plot (for example) was simplistic and weak too, but the film’s charm and execution were so effective that the plot was more than compensated for. Suicide Squad’s plot does too much to hurt its characters, rather than empower them to make you laugh, cry or squeal.
There’s no I in Team
The sum of the parts above once again can be traced to the core issue that seems to be hurting DC’s cinematic universe. While comparisons to Marvel aren’t necessarily always appropriate, the reality is that much of the great DC canvas is being undermined in aspects that Marvel and Disney get right, and DC and Warner Bros get wrong. Who is behind the strategy of the latter? Have they got the right influence over the details, or are they the wrong person to handle these delicate properties?
Suicide Squad, like Batman v Superman before it, will entertain and delight many. But many too will feel that it’s not the movie it should be. It was allegedly rushed (a script written in 6 weeks); it struggles from pacing issues; it has a tremendous soundtrack and yet, in the editing room, it feels like the musical queues don’t serve the dialogue (especially the jokes). There’s loads of stuff in the trailers which didn’t even appear in the final cut – why were these scenes cut? Why was so much of the Joker stuff cut? David Ayer suggests different cuts exist… was the best one chosen? It’s unclear if the directors are being trusted, and whether or not the heads behind this are even willing to slow the pace of the releases to ensure that the films become the full versions of what they should. Suicide Squad is the last of the films to be produced outside of the Geoff Johns era, so one would think this problem should disappear.
Suicide Squad is a film with so much potential. It could have been R-rated, or full of anti-hero charm, or dark humour, or a tight plot and cohesive action… hell, ironically – even though it would be seen as a cop out – even a live action version of the excellent Assault on Arkham would have made more sense on all levels. This should have been the Guardians of the Galaxy equivalent of the DC universe. But instead it’s a movie with potential and some cool stuff that you’re at risk of forgetting because the film doesn’t do enough to capitalize on its appealing foundation. Some will hate it, some will love it, most will find it meh… but that’s exactly the pity. Suicide Squad deserved much better than that.