Suicide Squad is a Misfit Mash of Mischief and Misfires

With the dark and gloomy mess that was Batman v Superman, all eyes were on Suicide Squad to be the giddy dose of enthusiasm for the DC Cinematic Universe. But was it supposed to be? This film appears to float between gritty, silly, nihilistic, cheeky, punk, and psychotic. And while the neon scattershot approach does help the picture avoid the steep missteps of Batman v Superman, it still finds itself stuck in a rut of average superhero movie shortcomings.

It’s a rather surprising mess by David Ayer, the filmmaker behind End of Watch, Sabotage, and Fury. Judging by his résumé, Ayer specializes in making movies with really gritty and immoral jerks as the protagonists—not “quirky” jerks but messed-up-in-the-head, mentally unstable jerks. I was very much looking forward to his depiction of the Suicide Squad as a nasty collective of villains who reluctantly work together. So why do his characters feel more like poor, lost souls than sinister forces? These characters have to stop the movie several times with base dialogue and petty crimes to remind us that they’re the bad guys, just in case the audience gets confused.

Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn

Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. Warner Bros.

Following the events of Batman v Superman, government shadow figure Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) views the presence of metahumans and mass destruction as a chance to push forward Task Force X. Under this secret program, villains are covertly recruited for dangerous missions; explosive nanomachines injected in their necks prevent them from going rogue. If they’re caught by local authorities, the government will deny their involvement. If they’re successful, they’ll receive time off their prison sentences. Naturally, this strategy seems too dangerous, expensive, and unethical, but one parlor trick of superpowers is all it takes to convince the government brass to approve the program.

Waller’s large team is introduced over the course of multiple backstories dragged out longer than they should be. We get the whole story on Deadshot (Will Smith) being an assassin for hire trying to better for his daughter. We see the twisted origins of Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), who becomes a psychopath under the tutelage of the Joker (Jared Leto). El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) is established as a reluctant villain who is through with using his fire powers for good or evil. Considerable time is spent building up these characters only to have the rest be slapped into the picture without introduction. Some are just never given much development at all (Boomerang, Killer Croc) while others are forced in at the last minute (Slipknot, Katana).

The group’s mission is to stop the evil Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), a ridiculous-looking witch who shimmies around with her CGI powers. Her sinister plan is to (what else?) rule the world by destroying it with (what else?) a giant blue laser. With such a grand threat to the world, the Suicide Squad is mobilized and escorted by the military into an evacuated city to stop this magical being and her hordes of zombie foot soldiers.

But does this sound like a mission suited for the Suicide Squad? They have bombs in their necks to keep them in line, so why do they need the military babysitter of Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) to watch over them? It also renders the whole “throw them under the bus” plan pointless since there are no local authorities to discover them. And it’s not exactly a covert mission you can cover up when a giant blue laser shoots into the sky, causing an entire city to evacuate. And what is up with using blue lasers shooting into the sky in these superhero movies? I thought this was supposed to be the outsider ensemble of the DC Cinematic Universe—why are the characters given such a formulaic doomsday scenario?

And what about the Joker? What role does he have to play in this plot? After all that hard work Jared Leto put into nailing the performance of the iconic clown villain—which he does quite well—his role is so minute that he could have been entirely removed from the movie. He serves his purpose as a loved one of Harley and her drive to fight on, but the character doesn’t provide much else beyond that, as his arc is cut short around the second act. It becomes abundantly clear that he’s mostly here for marquee value: it’s a little hard to sell an unfamiliar audience on the characters of Deadshot and Boomerang, but toss them a Joker and they’re in.

With how crowded the picture is, most of the characters end up left in the dust. Boomerang has a strange fetish for unicorns that is built up but never leads to anything. Katana’s soul-stealing sword is something I expected to play some role in fighting a powerful sorcerer, but I was wrong. Only a handful of the leads are given complete arcs, and even those that wrapped up felt rushed and artificial.

Suicide Squad poster

Warner Brothers

Now before you start fuming about Warner Brothers screwing up another DC Comics movie or claiming that I’m a no-fun-allowed critic in a cabal of anti-DC reviewers, let me state that I didn’t hate this picture. Whereas Batman v Superman was a trainwreck at its moral core, Suicide Squad is a salvageable effort.

Given how many actors were crammed into this ensemble, the cast is surprisingly strong. Will Smith and Margot Robbie carry most of the picture, with their genuine charisma as the smart-alec Deadshot and the perky psycho Harley Quinn. They have the best lines, the best scenes, and the best laughs (even though Harley’s biggest laugh comes in the form of Batman punching her in the face). Leto, for what little screen time he has as the Joker, never wastes a scene either. Viola Davis is perhaps the most impressive villain in the picture with her cold demeanor and guilt-free ambition, never fearful of pulling a gun or standing up to the bad guys she associates with. I was rather surprised by Jai Courtney, a usually vanilla action star, who actually brought some crass and humor to the role of Boomerang.

And some of David Ayer’s direction isn’t half bad either. The pacing he sets up for introducing the characters with nonlinear jumps in their history and neon typography creates an oddball and giddy tone. The colorfully dirty atmosphere he establishes with the punk costumes and characters has its own unique style that I was digging for most of the picture. Ayer thankfully leaves just enough room for the squad to connect over drinks before the third act, even if most of their sob stories are not all that unique. Squint hard enough and you can see a lovable team of losers.

But for every scene that is staged with neon punk rebellion, there’s another one ruined by embarrassing pop-music choices. For every moment when a character displays some charm or coolness, there’s another when they have to spout off a lame joke that tries too hard to be quirky. And for every thrill of diverging from standard superhero movies, there’s the disappointing reminder that this is all leading up to the “swirling ring of trash in the sky.” This is a chaotic roller-coaster of a movie that won and lost me so many times I wanted to hurl. The simultaneously most damning and most positive praise I can give is that it left me wanting more—more chances for the cast to shine, more scenes that didn’t fall flat, and more of a clever threat for the squad to combat.

Suicide Squad isn’t dead on arrival, but it isn’t exactly brimming with all the energy and alternativeness it promises either.

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