I originally made plans to skip Suicide Squad after seeing the press about it. Additionally, director David Ayer directed one of the few films I’ve ever been morally disgusted enough with to shut off. (End of Watch – specifically, I turned it off at that scene in which a cop fights a suspect on a dare and his partner is egging him on while recording it for some community college class.)
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Suicide Squad needs to be discussed regardless of its quality. First, it is the perfect film that illustrates the state of the film industry. Marvel has been successful in creating a “universe” that requires people to buy tickets to twenty films in order to understand what’s happening. Filmmakers are not doing this because of some huge artistic ambition. It’s because of the potential for higher grosses.
I don’t fault studios for coming up with new plans to fit a changing market. That’s what running a business entails. But it also means that big tent pole films are slowly morphing into a product that is turning people off. Batman V Superman crashed and burned earlier this year after people realized that it was not so much a film as a trade show to introduce the new fall superhero design. I have not seen Batman V Superman, but the marketing campaign was a mess. Instead of focusing on two of the most famous pop culture characters, the studio dictated that every single character be introduced at the same time. And, rather than letting the audience discover these characters on our own, the ad campaign gave every new character their own trailer. It was impossible to understand how so many elements would come together.
Suicide Squad works much the same way. Even after having watch the complete cut, I still am challenged to explain who the characters are, how they relate to each other, or what they accomplish in the film. Suicide Squad doesn’t work as a dramatic work. It works to introduce characters that we’ll see later and to generate excitement about future films. It’s an extended trailer. Maybe, somehow, this will pay off in the long run as Warner Bros puts out more DC Comics movies. But it doesn’t pay off in the short term.
The plot is simultaneously simple and incomprehensible. Viola Davis is Amanda Waller, a high-ranking intelligence officer who wants to put together a team made up of “famous” comic book villains to go on deadly missions. This includes Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) a former psychiatrist from Arkham who fell in love with The Joker (Jared Leto), Deadshot (Will Smith) who is trying to balance his life as the world’s greatest assassin with being a dad to his eleven year old daughter, Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who has a skin disease, Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), an ancient witch who inhabits the body of an archeologist, and someone named Captain Boomerang who I am still not entirely convinced is an actual character from DC Comics. The team is promised time off their prison sentences in exchange for helping Weller on missions. But Enchantress uses her freedom to resurrect her brother to do…something…that will somehow cause the end of the world. The rest of the squad has to stop her before it’s too late. Oh, and The Joker is in it and trying to help Harley break free of the Squad.
I will focus on the two elements that I thought worked for the film. The first is Robbie. Harley Quinn has been a fan favorite for almost 25 years. There was a bizarre quality about her in every adaptation – she somehow brings the closest thing to humanity The Joker has while somehow showing why so many people are attracted to the dark side of Gotham. The Joker is as physically and emotionally abusive towards her as anyone would expect, but Harley seems to think that it’s her who ends up with power through their relationship.
Margot Robbie captures all these aspect of the character in her performance. Besides the “Mistah J” and “Puddin” lines, Robbie’s Quinn is simultaneously strong and tortured. She uses her sex appeal to drive her captors crazy but is unwilling to face what The Joker is doing to her. That character should have carried the film on her own.
I also liked Will Smith’s Deadshot. Smith has been a very talented performer for many years and hasn’t lost his edge. He’s simultaneous funny while also being very human. Smith has a talent for taking weak material and bringing out the most he can from it. That’s the case in Suicide Squad – the hitman with the heart of gold has been outdated for decades. Smith makes it seem fresh and finds the emotional core that audiences need in the film.
But that’s really all the positive I can say about Suicide Squad. The rest is a disjointed mess, filled with too many characters and so many leaps in logic that it became impossible to follow.
For example, as I stated in the plot summary, Enchantress becomes the main villain after being recruited for the team. You would think this means that everyone involved sees the immediate flaws in the plan and squashes the idea of setting a bunch of dangerous criminals loose. But no, it’s full steam ahead the entire time. The film also takes care to reveal that Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) is the Enchantress’ lover. And then, the film reveals it again as though that was a big dramatic twist in the second act. Characters are pointlessly introduced multiple times. And the big finale fight is an incomprehensible hodge-podge of CGI. I’d rather watch a cartoon if I’m going to end up watching two digital characters fighting.
And Jared Leto’s Joker is terrible. He’s barely in the film, and what few scenes he gets are of Leto trying his best to impersonate Heath Ledger’s performance. There’s no sense of a character being created. You wouldn’t know who the Joker is unless you were already familiar with the character walking into the movie.
That sums up the movie’s flaws in a nutshell. It exists as a checklist so producers can say, “we introduced this character now so we can bring them back later.” I’m sure there are plans for The Joker later, but nothing is realized here. And I’m not going to excuse this by saying that he “may be better utilized” in a later film. This film doesn’t work because everyone involved was too eager to get to the next step.
Suicide Squad is an important film that should be examined for what it reveals about Hollywood’s business side. But such an academic exercise is not going to be fun for the average audience. It’s not going to be fun for those critics either, who are going to walk away very depressed. This should not be the future of Hollywood, where films are made on an assembly line or as a stop-gap. There have been some great films made in the past based on comic book properties. But as they’ve become more popular, they’ve become diluted in their impact. Suicide Squad demonstrates not a need for a competitor to the Marvel Universe but a moratorium on superheroes until we can all agree that a character named “Captain Boomerang” does not need to be seen outside of a children’s TV show.