[WARNING – This review contains MINOR SPOILERS.]
At only two films deep and nary a fresh rating between them, the DC Extended Universe needs a win. And after two sorry showings from Zack Snyder, it falls to David Ayer (End of Watch, Fury) and his ragtag group of comic book misfits to buck up the suffering franchise with Suicide Squad. It’s a tall order, and one, I might add, that no one would have asked of either Guardians of the Galaxy or Deadpool (the two films with which Suicide Squad is most compared).
Suicide Squad was never going to be the savior of the DCEU and saddling it with that task was unfair – to the film, the filmmakers, and fans. Already, sources are coming forward to share stories of studio interference and executives determined to avoid another disaster like BVS, but their meddling has likely done more harm than good. Not to suggest that leaving writer/director Ayer to make the film with absolutely no oversight would have been any better, as there are parts of the film which suggest otherwise, but the end result feels like a movie that never developed much beyond its most basic premise.
A missed opportunity is always disappointing, but especially when the premise is this good: Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), the meanest, baddest lady in all of the DCU, assembling a team of villains – each with their own quirks and abilities – to do battle with an even bigger threat, allowing the government to keep the operation of the books and, if needed, lay the blame with the criminals of Task Force X.
The allure of the Suicide Squad usually lies in just who comprises the team, and for the film, Ayer chose an interesting bunch: Deadshot (Will Smith), an assassin who never misses, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the Joker’s (Jared Leto) deranged and dangerous girlfriend, Diablo (Jay Hernandez), former Angeleno gang member with serious fire power, Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a cannibal with reptilian features, and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), an Aussie bank robber armed with deadly boomerangs. In charge of the team is Colonel Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman), with backup provided by skilled swordswoman, Katana (Karen Fukuhara). Then there’s Enchantress (Cara Delevigne), a centuries-old witch currently inhabiting the body of archeologist Dr. June Moon and no longer keen about being kept on Waller’s leash.
What we get with such a large cast and a plot that never really coalesces into anything substantial is a hodge-podge of neat ideas – a few of which are executed rather well, but as a whole Suicide Squad never really hits its stride. There are a string of introductions to each member of Task Force X in the beginning, all of which work well in the film, ramping up our excitement for the moment these nutcases get together. We’re never given much explanation for why these are the villains chosen, and beyond Deadshot and Diablo none are shown to have particularly useful skills for the coming operation, but it’s a fun group all the same.
Once the team is assembled, they’re sent into a Midway City that’s been besieged by supernatural forces and where practically everyone has been transformed into cannon fodder for our “heroes” to mow down. That, sadly, is about the extent of the plot: kill a bunch indiscernible gooey creature-people, complete a rescue mission, kill the big bad – a villain that is easily the laziest to date for a genre rife with lame, worthless villains. And were its plot just that simple but peppered full of scenes in where these zany characters argue and bicker and crack wise and eventually bond, that’d be fine.
Instead, those choice moments where actors get to relish the weirdos they’re tasked with bringing to life are few and far between. What seems to have been favored – perhaps even forced into the film during reshoots – are countless scenes of monotonous action; sequences of the Skwad facing heaps of bad guy minions who crumble with every impact. It isn’t exciting, there’s no remarkable choreography (except, perhaps, a couple of Harley’s maneuvers), and the final battle is in the dark, in the rain, and mostly obscured because of it.
The plot is a mess, though not quite as convoluted as BVS, and at just about two hours long it doesn’t drag quite as much either. Plus, unlike its DCEU predecessors, what Suicide Squad has going for it are lively characters and actors clearly having fun with their roles. That we can even buy any camaraderie shared among the Skwad lies with the cast and their chemistry (achieved in part because of the intense behind the scenes bonding Ayer subjected them to).
Starting at the top and working on through, Viola Davis is magnificent as Amanda Waller. She’s steely, intimidating, and can silence an entire room of top brass or criminal wackos with a single look. That Davis can manage that while also spouting off pages of exposition is amazing, and she brings real gravitas to what should become an integral role in the DCEU moving forward.
Casting Will Smith as Deadshot was a genius decision because though he may not be an entirely accurate portrayal of Floyd Lawton, Smith is a bonafide Movie Star and he brings a “swagger” to the role he hasn’t displayed much since the 1990s. Smith is having a blast in Suicide Squad and it’s infectious, for the cast and audience. He is also one of the few characters who can be described as having an arc, and Smith is quite affecting as a dad trying to do better for his daughter but struggles because all he’s ever been good at is murder.
After Deadshot, the only other member of Task Force X who receives much characterization is Harley Quinn. The film marks the popular character’s very first appearance in a live-action movie and fans should be more than pleased with Robbie’s performance. Described as “crazier” and “more dangerous” than the Joker, Robbie’s Harley is a volatile mix of childlike wonderment and untapped aggression, only needing the slightest provocation to be set off. She is unpredictable and funny and makes every scene she’s in all the more enjoyable. Harley is a tricky character, but Ayers and Robbie seem to have found a version that works for their story but doesn’t abandon what made her so popular in the first place. As for her origin (one of the few depicted on screen), it is a strange amalgamation of her original and New 52 origin – she falls in love with the Joker at Arkham, is driven mad by him through electroshock, and later chooses to prove her love by falling in a vat of acid. It’s not my preferred origin, but it’s still less icky than what the New 52 delivered.
Speaking of the Joker, Jared Leto delivers a fine performance. It is… serviceable, which in itself is pretty hilarious considering the initial backlash his design received and all the bizarre antics Leto employed to stay in character on set. He’s in the movie for maybe 10 minutes and his chief concern is getting Harley back. The pair do share a few scenes and Robbie and Leto have good chemistry, but to be honest, this was an unusual depiction of the Joker/Harley relationship. Beyond the instance where he uses electroshock on her (the “I’m just gonna hurt you really, really bad” scene from every trailer) their relationship isn’t depicted as toxic as I’d have expected. Sure, the movie tells us they’re bad guys over and over, but their interactions don’t include the abuse that is prevalent in both the comics and cartoons. These are likely strange complaints for those unfamiliar with the pairing, surely, but this is probably one of the more romantic depictions of their relationship and that is problematic. Theirs isn’t a relationship to be envied, it’s abusive, but Suicide Squad seems unwilling to take it to that level.
Of the rest of the Skwad, only Diablo receives a detailed backstory and any chance at redemption, which surprisingly works well thanks in large part to Hernandez. It’s not an entirely thankless role – that award goes to Jai Courtney and his on point yet criminally underused Captain Boomerang – but for the pathos Hernadez musters with Diablo, Suicide Squad could have served him better. Adewale’s Killer Croc and Fukuhara’s Katana are also quite good, but their only significant contribution is to kill things. (And I’ve yet to even mention Adam Beach’s Slipknot, but for anyone familiar with the Suicide Squad property, you’ll know why.)
The story is weak, the dialogue at times clunky, but the cast is surprisingly good regardless – that is, except for Kinnaman’s Col. Flagg and by extension Delevigne’s Enchantress. Flagg, it turns out, was the role originally meant for Tom Hardy until he had to leave the project because of scheduling conflicts, and it’s painfully obvious Kinnaman wasn’t the right choice as a replacement. That he and Delevigne – who does very little other than stare menacingly and gyrate – must carry one of the film’s main plot threads is a huge misstep, one that proves detrimental to the film as a whole.
Suicide Squad is not a great film, but at times it is a great music video, with an eclectic mix used throughout. The cues can be a little on the nose, and around halfway through the pop songs gets used less and less, but the soundtrack does liven up the film. Then again, it can’t be denied Guardians of the Galaxy did it better and the comparison is unavoidable.
Suicide Squad is sadly not the full course correction the DCEU so desperately needs. Whether due to studio interference or a concept that never fully developed, the plot is a mess, the action unremarkable, the overall threat is dumb – yet, despite all of this, I found myself enjoying the film fors its offbeat style, memorable characters, and genuinely good performances. Perhaps I understand better those who found more to love about BVS than I did, because Suicide Squad is not a great movie but I know I’ll be seeing it again.