Oh look, a trainwreck.
Let’s just get this out of the way really quick: Suicide Squad is mostly dogshit but there are a few moments where it firmly enters genuine “so bad it’s good” territory and other moments where it’s trying so goddamn hard to manipulate you into feeling something that you just wanna say “good job, little guy” and give it a pat on the head. There’s even a few moments that feel earned, where the glimmer of a better movie is almost visible. But mostly it’s dogshit.
Why? God, where do I even start. It’s a music video of loosely connected moments, an insultingly hackneyed plot, and poorly constructed characterizations which are usually good for a laugh or an incredulous “what the fuck?” but rarely more. There’s also that it’s the most smugly, overtly misogynistic mainstream movie I’ve seen in a long time. May our inner fourteen year olds cheer. I mean, there’s definitely an audience for this. The anti-PC crowd will eat up every utterance of “bitch” or “ho”, every sexed up costume and variation on “women be crazy“. I already know from the audience I saw it with that women getting punched in the face at the drop of a dime is just delightful. Your faith in humanity will not be well served by Suicide Squad audiences, but that’s nothing unusual. More than the overall quality of the movie, I was surprised by the misogyny. I like David Ayer. Fury, End of Watch, and Training Day are all fantastic films. But his aesthetic is “street” and here it is the kind of street evoked by youtube gangsta rappers who are trying too hard. Likely, this is where the unaddressed misogyny comes from: it’s part of the assumed iconography of “street” culture where there’s men and there’s bitches or hos or bitch-hos. I think the script of Suicide Squad says a lot about what he and the other creatives for the DC movieverse think about the fans of these stories and characters, though. I think instead of whining to critics (or threatening them) or trying to sue because Joker isn’t in the movie enough, these fanboys ought to vote with their dollars (and their attention) and give WB a reason to stop hiring people who think so little of them. Of all of us, really.
Anyway, yeah, Suicide Squad is really bad. Is it worse than Batman vs. Superman? I don’t know. Do you compare dogshit to catshit very often? They’re two of the worst superhero movies in recent memory, I can tell you that much. And yet. And yet, Suicide Squad is also a fascinating watch. I was never bored. Very much like the first viewing of a Michael Bay Transformers movie, I was kind of transfixed (and yes, entertained) by what I was seeing and hearing. Sometimes I could not believe the movie and other times I was almost on the hook for a heroic moment or a badass line. I think it’s fair to say I was never “with” this movie, and my enjoyment was almost always at its expense. This movie might have had something, but it’s like watching Jared Leto play hot potato with himself for almost two hours. Or like an episode of The Venture Brothers that wasn’t trying to be a parody.
“I’m barely in the movie! Haaa-ha…. haaa-ha!”
The plot of Suicide Squad is basically an afterthought. It follows the same basic pattern as most superhero movies do, let alone big budget action movies, and where it deviates it fails to commit. The movie’s structure frequently pauses for tangents that reveal information about characters and events at seemingly random times. The visually striking scene where the Joker (Jared Leto) watches Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) leap into a vat of chemicals occurs at a completely random moment and stops the movie in its tracks, for example. It’s a little like that bit in Batman vs. Superman where Batman sits down so we can watch him watch mini-trailers for the other Justice League members… except that it happens over and over again in this movie. The plot, though, is functional if hacked together from cliches and (better) Marvel movies. But I mean, oh well, it’s not the reason anyone was seeing this movie anyway.
Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) is an evil, manipulative woman who enters the movie to “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Stones. This is not a subtle movie because in case we don’t get the point, a character asks her soon after “are you the devil?”. I think we got it the first time, thanks. Waller wants to form a special task force out of metahumans (super powered people) and cockroaches from the wrong side of the law. Whoever they’ve got in lockup will do! So we get introduced to a line-up of characters in an awkwardly paced slideshow of origin stories mixed in with the real currency of these movies: character trademarks and iconography. The only character who has much depth in their backstory is Deadshot (Will Smith) and they cheat by focusing it on a kid in an arc that is basically a straight lift from Ant-Man. I mean hell, even if you don’t buy into my take on this movie whatsoever, so much of it is sniffing around Marvel’s leavings that it’s borderline embarrassing. That should be bad enough. Slipknot (Adam Beach, who growls his one or two lines like he knows how bad this movie is fucking him) doesn’t even get an origin bit, which tips the movie’s hand big time when he is perfunctorily killed off five minutes after being introduced. This is a movie where things like this happen. It’s sloppy.
Waller’s ridiculous plans are somehow taken seriously by the government in the wake of Superman’s death. Because comics. What if the next Superman is a dastardly terrorist! The clumsy commentary here is that America creates its own terrorists and threats by empowering hawks like Waller (if she isn’t supposed to be some kind of chimeric mix of Obama and Hillary Clinton, I’ll eat Joker’s pimp cane) who in turn creates monsters. The key monster in this movie that is allegedly filled with them is Enchantress (Cara Delevigne), a 6000 year old extra-dimensional being that is trapped in the body of an archaeologist named June Moone. June can get the Enchantress to come out (which is hilariously accompanied by a whispered “Enchantressssss” in the soundtrack). Maybe she wouldn’t have a crazy plan to destroy the world if Waller wasn’t exploiting her powers and essentially torturing her to keep her in line. Monsters and monsters. June is banging Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman) who is Waller’s right hand man. She manipulates them so she can use Enchantress to prove her point: Task Force X (the Suicide Squad) is a necessary evil. Cue twirled mustache.
There are a few interesting design choices and shots in this movie, for sure.
Enchantress wants to be free so she can wreak havoc on humanity for… reasons. She does this by freeing her brother, a distractingly (so not in the good way) cartoonish mix of Apocalypse from X-Men and the Destroyer from Thor. He is just bad design all over, and the CG doesn’t do him any favors. He’s also such a perfunctory, mechanical element of the movie that he doesn’t even have a name. Look, she’s a bad villain but at least they bothered to rope Flagg and his ill-advised relationship with June Moone into the proceedings. For all the hype about Waller being this master manipulator badass, the only place this is actually evident is in how she puts these two together so that she has more ways of controlling her key people. This is more than I can say about most Marvel villains and honestly, Kinnaman paves the way for at least some of the personal stakes with Enchantress to be palatable. She isn’t great, but she is occasionally cool looking (when you can mostly just see her eyes). Other times, Cara Delevigne’s head looks photoshopped onto a badly rendered CG body and Delevigne in general seems completely lost in this movie. She’s a good example of problems this movie offers, where surface stuff kind of works (the movie is often visually interesting, though the sets are samey) but the stuff running underneath the hood is just too confused and too puerile to ever come together.
By confused I mean scenes where the characters behave in completely unmotivated ways. There is absolutely no reason for Diablo (Jay Hernandez, who is actually pretty good here) to refer to the Squad as his “family”. They barely know each other. In fact, the characters frequently talk to each other like they’re privy to all the same information that the audience has received about them. This is lazy storytelling. A movie too focused on carving through plot ploints and swinging for moments that will trend on Tumblr in .gif form to bother earning most of its character beats. It’s just assumed that we’ll buy this bond forming even if we know the movie is skipping some steps. Diablo has the most complete arc in the movie, and it doesn’t cheat to get us there. Though I thought the wholesome family scene was a bit much, I found myself thinking that Diablo was the one character who was maybe worth a damn. Not that I didn’t find the others entertaining… I just didn’t feel like there was a lot of reason to give a shit about them. Except maybe Harley but we’ll get to her later.
By confused I mean having some of the most central characters in the story be women (the villain, the villain, and one of the functional co-leads), but being unable to address the misogynistic dialogue and actions of the characters. Again, this is a movie that is trying way too hard to be “street”. Some have said that these are “bad people” as if it excuses how the writer makes them talk. As if the characters manifested in the writing room and were giving Ayer notes like “this is what I would say here”. That’s not how any of this works. If Ayer wanted to make a point about the crass villainy of characters who say stuff like “oh you one o’ dem deaf hos” (unironically), then maybe I would buy that this is a function of this being a movie where the protagonists are villains. But the way these people treat women is never called out, questioned, or undercut with a joke. It’s never addressed and as bad as this is, people trying to wave it off are even worse.
These two have a lot of chemistry and are consistently fun to watch at least.
The trouble is that a lot of people enter into a movie like this fully cognizant of the iconography of these characters. They know some tangible details about them, and maybe some lore stuff (oh this or that bit is like this or that thing in the comics). This is is a con, though. This isn’t legitimate, earned characterization. This is cheating your way to the finish line by filling a balloon of iconography with straw and tying it to the plot with a shoelace. That shot of the Joker laying down in the center of a circle of knives and baby clothes is evocative and chilling, but it doesn’t mean anything. There’s no context for any of it and without context, all we’ve got is disconnected imagery.
And that’s actually a problem, dear readers, because imagery on its own is not enough unless the whole point is imagery. Because Suicide Squad is trying to have a plot, and characters, and story, it needs more than imagery to be functional. It needs more than that to justify its presentation. This is not a fucking arthouse superhero movie.
Suicide Squad is full of stuff like this. When Diablo steps up and says he “already lost one family, I won’t lose another” I burst out laughing in the theater (wasn’t the only time either). This moment was so unearned that it became self-parody. He barely knows these people and while he has a few solid interactions with Deadshot, that’s it. It’s just not enough for the audience to flip a switch and go “yeah they’re fam now” unless they are taking this movie completely at face value. Which… why would you? Other bits where the characters seem to be motivated by camaraderie feel similarly forced. Only Deadshot is immune, forming bonds with both Harley and Flagg (separately) that help some moments feel more earned. In another example of the confused gender politics of the movie, there’s little sexual chemistry between Deadshot and Harley and the movie doesn’t try to lean on it. Instead, they are kinda like buddies and that’s actually kind of refreshing, even though Deadshot threatens to knock her out because HEY HE’S SUCH A BAD GUY, GUYS. Unfortunately the thing with Flagg is fraught with fragile masculinity: their bonding is basically just dick measuring.
If the movie had bothered to try as hard with other characters as they did with Diablo, it would have been better off.
The dialogue is almost always way too on the nose. When it comes from character, it works better (most of Harley Quinn’s lines are good) but it often feels like different people wrote different sections of the movie. Which wasn’t the case, Ayer has sole credit. Characters frequently say the most obvious, cliched thing they possibly could in a given situation.When the job is done and the “heroes” are about to go their separate ways, Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) literally says he has a sewer to go crawling back to. He’s a wink at the camera away from outright acknowledging that he knows he’s in an episode of The Venture Brothers. If more of the movie was like that, we’d have another Deadpool on our hands but again it fails to commit and instead it’s just a non-joke that falls completely flat. Again, this is just one example.
The only actor capable of making any of it believable is Will Smith, and he carries most of this movie on his back. The movie seems to know it too, as it frequently has Deadshot stepping up to speak while the rest of the characters just… stand around. Deadshot’s one moment of badass heroism, an early signal that he might give a shit about more than just tough guy posturing, actually works though. Conversely, Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) is almost a fun character, a puckish agent of chaos in the midst of a lot of self-seriousness, but the movie frequently forgets he’s there. In another example of unmotivated, low context iconography he has a “fetish” for pink unicorns that movie uses for a sight gag or two, but never involving any other character and never really being invested with any kind of context. It’s cheap and it’s a hustle. And fuck man, I haven’t even gotten into Katana (Karen Fukuhara). But I will.
I pretty much enjoyed most of the parts where the Squad fought something.
The movie gets to at least the site of its typical huge-stakes-action-setpiece pretty early on. Sometimes it feels like the big third act beatdown is stopping and starting several times, but most of the action in this movie is fine. Some of it is even pretty fun. Unfortunately, it locks the movie into this place and fills it with busy set design and way, way too many anonymous G.I. Joes. Which brings me to another point. I don’t understand what it is with these movies (also see: Man of Steel) and the military. In Suicide Squad we don’t even get to know any of these guys except Flagg, and they just clutter up every scene they’re in. Apparently Clint Eastwood’s son plays one of them. Try to spot him, superfans.
It makes some sense that the military would want to monitor the Squad, but it just detracts from what the audience is supposed to (and would very much like to) be focusing on. There are already a lot of characters in this movie, a lot of bodies to fill the frame with, and a lot of people to give dialogue to. Few of them get enough traction to feel like three dimensional characters as it is. I wouldn’t say the military guys prevent that from happening, or that they would actually have the main cast talk to each other more than a handful of times if the military guys weren’t there, but could it have hurt? To me, it’s an example of how Suicide Squad is sprawling or expansive in all the wrong places.
I know literalist fanboys will sputter and remind me that “but it’s a military operation!” but they would be (again) forgetting that the story doesn’t make itself up. Ayer could have culled some of the wheat from the fucking chaff (in general) and he certainly didn’t have to show us what bad people these guys are by constantly having them abuse women. Cuz people are definitely trying to wave away these writing choices as if the characters are dictating their own behavior and it isn’t some guy at a desk writing a movie called Suicide Squad and deciding how these characters are going to talk. This is a defensiveness, a loyalty, that these movies never earn and even if they did would probably still be too much emotional investment in a fucking movie. I know I already touched on these points but damn.
Now let’s talk about Harley Quinn.
I’ve never been what anyone would call a fan of Batman, exactly. I have no specific enmity for the character, and I loved the Tim Burton movies as a kid. I even love Batman Forever because it is hilarious and if that’s wrong, I don’t want to be right. But I generally consider the character to be massively overrated (that said, Batfleck was the best part of Batman vs. Superman). The point is that I’m not “up” on the lore of characters like Harley Quinn or The Joker. I don’t care that they turned the Joker into a more violent version of Alien from Spring Breakers as long as they do it well. On the subject of Harley Quinn, I similarly don’t care about her baggage from the animated series or comics as long as this version works. The movie should be functional in and of itself. Fanboys will fall over themselves justifying bad choices and problematic characterization by citing comics in much the same way that any religious nut cites scripture when the holes are getting poked. I know that’s not nice to say but, frankly, I’m tired of this behavior. It perpetuates the creation of movies that are as compromised, confused, and condescending as Suicide Squad or Batman vs. Superman. We all want these movies to be good, believe it or not, but only some of us seem to be capable of honesty about whether they are or not. People who like these movies seem to be trying really hard to do so, bending over backward to wave away serious storytelling and structure problems or simply shrugging their shoulders and hiding behind their low expectations because “it’s just a comic book movie”. Which, if that were how they really felt, would encourage a clearer perspective than is evident.
Does Harley work in this movie? Yes and no. “Yes” because there’s definitely something going on in Robbie’s performance that sails way past the cartoon and into some more interesting territory. She is far from this movie’s sole or central problem with women, and is often more subversive than problematic. The way she dresses mostly lacks the gratuitous elements of Enchantress or Katana (and their costumes, which apparently were changed in production to be “sexier”) and there’s not-so-subtle nods to the way Harley uses her sexuality as a weapon. The movie also goes out of its way to try to establish that she’s more than Joker’s girl, but fails. He tries to trade her off like a piece of meat in one of the movie’s most useless, confusing scenes (why even hire Common for this bullshit?) in the movie. We see him torture her and manipulate her, but she’s a willing participant. There’s not enough context, especially because the movie skips over any scenes where the Joker could have come off as insidiously charming or manipulative, to fuel this stuff. It’s all glossed over quickly, adding to the confusion of just what we’re supposed to take away here.
So the “no” comes from the way her story hinges on Joker, who is grafted onto this movie in a way that can only be described as sloppy. We barely see enough of Joker in this movie to really know if they did, by the way. It feels like there was a version of the movie where he was in it more (maybe central to the plot) or not at all, and they changed that to this but they definitely didn’t change it enough. One of the biggest structural criticisms you could make against Suicide Squad is that every single Joker scene could be removed and it would barely change the movie. When he comes to rescue her, he is conveniently dispatched (or so it seems) so that Harley can quickly fold back into the Squad’s mission to stop Enchantress. It’s Robbie that shows us the damage under the deranged extroversion with which she greets the world. Some part of Harlene Quinzel is still lurking under the manic pixie dream criminal. But the movie doesn’t really know if it wants to indulge the twisted fucks who romanticize the Harley-Joker relationship we see here or if it wants to uphold the pop culture consensus that it’s an abusive relationship, a cautionary tale — and one that my comic fan friends have said the character has grown beyond. The tragedy music plays heavily over Joker’s apparent demise, and the camera lingers on Harley’s disbelieving, grieving face. The movie is playing this like it’s Black Widow watching Cap or Hawkeye bite the dust. Good people we’d be sad to see die, solid and well-established relationships of mutual trust and support that we’d be sad to see broken. That is so far from what Joker and Harley are that it’s not even funny. Except it is. I mean, I chuckled about it while the movie was doing its best to tell me I should feel sad.
That’s a tonal error in a movie that is completely full of them. Take for instance the bit where Katana is talking plaintively to her sword and Flagg explains her backstory for the second time. I kept waiting for Rocket Racoon/Captain Boomerang to pop up with a joke that would undercut the sheer foolishness of the moment (the best he can do is say something typically manly about ‘the crazy ones’ before hitting on her later on). I know they’re trying to embrace the sillier comic book elements (because Marvel) but this is just the wrong way to do it because it’s an anomaly in a movie that is otherwise trying to be grounded in the same way the other DC movies are since Nolan.That’s without even getting into the hilarity of having Katana only ever speak Japanese. I kept asking myself “what the fuck are they thinking?”. And again, this stuff could have worked, could have been ten gallons of fun, if the movie would ever commit. Instead, we get one character who sashays through the movie with this kind of aesthetic and this is all about iconography rather than characterization. They don’t have time to make Katana a character, so they coast on her costume, her stupid fucking backstory, and weeaboo-courting Japanese. So I guess the movie does commit sometimes, but it’s always to the wrong things.
I kinda liked Killer Croc, but the movie does very little with him. Meanwhile, Katana almost single-handedly makes Suicide Squad a B movie.
Rumor has it that DC panicked after Batman vs. Superman was (rightly) raked over the coals. Ayer fell on the sword and swore that this was his cut, but the tonal confusion and sutures left over from obvious cuts are all over the theatrical release of this movie. The way Joker exists outside of it, yet never far away, is just one example.
That all said, Suicide Squad has redeeming qualities and I’ve tried to be diligent about pointing them out. I already mentioned that it’s entertaining and I’d also venture that it’s pretty well acted, especially considering WB’s recent efforts with their superhero cinematic universe, a teething baby that’s gotta grow up sometime. And no, that doesn’t mean MOAR MURDER and MOAR EDGY JOKES. It means earned characterization, cohernet thematic storytelling, and less reliance on iconography to do the heavy lifting. None of the performances are wooden, even Kinnaman who is playing the blandest of McBlandy Brand characters you could imagine in a movie like this. The standouts are Smith and Robbie, and Hernandez proves he’s been underrated for a while now, but everybody brings a little something to the table even if they are doing it in a movie that cares very little about ever accomplishing much with these performances. The actors are just skeletons on which WB/DC can hang a colorful swirl of references, aesthetics, and edgier-than-thou theatrics with which to swindle people who like the superhero genre.
Some people are going to like this movie just fine. Good for them, but I really wish they wouldn’t ignore all the problems. Liking stuff is something we have very little control over, but understanding a thing and what works about it (or doesn’t) is different. For those people, DC likely can’t do any wrong anyway. This is not unlike the cycle of abuse and attachment that characterizes Joker and Harley. Fans of the nerdy IPs that companies like WB strip-mine for easy money are the battered spouses of the entertainment industry, but again: some of us are at least honest about this. Honest or not, we’re all going to wash our hands of Suicide Squad, on which the consensus is very negative, while letting our hype percolate for the next probably disappointment. That’s just the cycle, right? So let’s watch that Wonder Woman trailer again and try to convince ourselves that the WB gives a shit what the people, not the minority of raving superfans, who are bankrolling these movies actually want out of them.