You can say this about ‘Suicide Squad’: For a mediocre comic book blockbuster, it at least has a good hook and a strong cast. That was clear when it was announced and that’s what the pop-music-backed trailers promised. Clearly, that’s what got this thing rushed into production as one of Warner Bros.’ DC pilot projects.
It’s ‘The Dirty Dozen’ featuring some B- to D-List DC villains, plus The Joker to put asses in seats. Yeah, that sounds fun. Unfortunately, that also appears to be the sum total of the thought that went into this project before cameras rolled. The movie has fun scenes and fun performances, but they never amount to much more than a collection of amusing moments. There’s little of interest that links them together and barely anything resembling a plot or character arcs. It’s just a bunch of famous faces and posing and shadows and Hot Topic costumes in search of a story or purpose. That’s a shame. This could have been something memorable in an overplayed genre. Instead, it feels like a particularly long trailer for a movie that doesn’t exist.
The flick kicks off with a solid 30 minutes of character introduction scenes, each backed by a different needle drop on the soundtrack that you’ve heard in countless movies before (“Fortunate Son,” “Spirit in the Sky,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” etc.). Viola Davis plays Amanda Waller, a no-nonsense special agent who wants to assemble a team of incarcerated supervillains to do cleanup for the government that superheroes might not be able to handle. She already has the dark witch Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) doing secret agent work since she has her heart in a box. (No, really, that’s an actual plot point.) Now she wants to bring in the remarkable sharpshooter assassin Deadshot (Will Smith), Joker’s lover in crime Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), tertiary Flash villain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), scaly-skinned monster man Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), fire-spitting tattooed gangster Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and a few others who pop up and sometimes get backstories and sometimes don’t.
Waller hopes that they can be the last line of defense for the U.S. in the event of an unexpected supernatural attack. It seems impossible, but then a few CGI baddies and faceless zombie henchman and a giant ray of apocalyptic light appear in the middle of a major city. So, the Suicide Squad is formed with bombs implanted in their necks in case they refuse to comply. Oh boy! Say hello to the bad guys! Etc.
Given that the long-winded character intros are all cut together like separate music videos presenting comic book archetypes, it’s actually kind of fun. Batman (Ben Affleck) pops up in a few of them to keep it all in the family. Writer/director David Ayer strikes the right mix of shadowy, twisted visuals and self-effacing humor to sell the bleak absurdity.
Most of the performers are well cast, particularly Margot Robbie as the irrepressibly naughty and devilishly childish Harley Quinn. (Sometimes she does the voice, sometimes not. At one point, she wears the old Animated Series costume and she always captures the tone of the character). The main actors all get their roles and have enough scenes to actually develop their characters. Everyone else who appears on screen is either window dressing or a plot device, including Jared Leto’s Joker. Despite his ludicrously tattoos and tacky costumes, Leto is fine as the iconic Batman villain. He copies Heath Ledger’s voice and vamps up his acting, but essentially only appears in a handful of flashbacks and asides. He’s just sort-of there because Harley is a main character so it makes sense. You could easily cut all of the Joker scenes from this movie and not affect the main plot in any way, and Leto doesn’t get to do anything beyond overact and giggle. I guess he’s good in the role, but there’s not really enough here to properly judge.
To be honest, there’s not really much of anything in ‘Suicide Squad’ to properly judge beyond posturing and shoot-’em-ups. The evil plot that the squad must stop is a muddle bunch of mythological gobbledygook that feels like it’s mostly still sitting on a cutting room floor somewhere. It’s tied into the “New Gods” stuff that Zack Snyder is clearly building towards, but so clumsily explained that I can’t imagine anyone remembering what happened in time for ‘Justice League’. And even though this is theoretically a team-building movie with plenty of scenes of the Suicide Squad announcing that they’re a team, there’s no real sense of these individual characters making lasting connections. They’re just thrust together because the thin plot insists upon it and form a team because that’s the title of the movie. It’s pretty lazy plotting, and frankly it feels like big explanatory chunks of this movie are missing.
There has been a lot of internet chatter about reshoots and radical re-edits by panicking studio execs following the sour reception of ‘Batman v. Superman’ and the success of the goofy initial ‘Suicide Squad’ trailers. The final film sure feels like the product of excessive tampering. Individual scenes play fine, but they never quite fit together. One-liners seem awkwardly crammed-in. Action scenes are cut together at a feverish pace and there’s barely any character development at any point. Sometimes the movie feels very dark and other times it plays as a goof-off comedy. The tone never quite finds a balance or comfortable place and the story feels more like a series of diversions than anything resembling a structured narrative. Writer/director Ayer’s previous movies were sometimes messy, but never to this extent. It’s oddly sloppy for such a massive production – slickly mounted on a scene-by-scene basis, just with a script that seems to have been written on the fly as it moves along.
And yet, despite these considerable problems that are impossible to ignore, the movie is still pretty fun. It moves by quickly thanks to all the over-editing, endless pop songs, and lack of tedious character development or storytelling. The actors are clearly having a blast. Stuff blows up good, and the trashy aesthetic is kind of charming. Unfortunately, there’s no real substance here or even anything to follow beyond moment-to-moment surface pleasure. The movie is a mess, a product of too many meddling hands and not enough concrete ideas. It’s not particularly satisfying and it certainly doesn’t inspire any new confidence about a master plan over at Warner’s DC Universe.
This is a big a missed opportunity. With the addition of a cohesive plot and costumes/production design that weren’t so overbearingly and self-consciously “edgy,” this could have been a darkly humorous antidote to the Disney friendliness of the Marvel Universe. Instead, it’s just a rushed corporate product with a handful of amusing moments and performances that talented people snuck in under immense pressure and impossible deadlines.
Oh well, maybe the next WB/DC blockbuster will be better. Surely they must have learned a lesson about actually taking the time to develop a script rather than rushing along to meet a release date and… What’s that? They’ve already finished shooting the next two? God help us all…