WB (Warner Bros.) and DC Films clearly want to put their sins behind them. Their vision for a DC cinematic universe to rival Marvel Studios’ remains a pipe dream (based on the films released so far), and they’re still hurting from the shitstorm that was BvS (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice). So far, it appears that they’re responding well, evidenced by the ascension of Geoff Johns – purportedly the Kevin Feige of the DCEU (DC Extended Universe) – to president of DC Entertainment, positive reports from the Justice League set, and next year’s Wonder Woman as well as Justice League itself looking quite promising. Indeed, it seems that the DCEU is back on track after some course corrections, but they come too late for its latest installment, Suicide Squad. Despite a number of fine performances, the film is an absolute disorienting mess that is unable to properly breathe.
In the wake of Superman’s death, ruthless government official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) believes that the security of the nation lies in metahumans. She assembles a task force consisting of criminals, which include expert marksman Floyd Lawton / Deadshot (Will Smith), the deranged Harleen Quinzel / Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the fire-conjuring Chato Santana / El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), ancient sorceress Dr. June Moore / Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), thief Digger Harkness / Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), reptilian cannibal Waylon Jones / Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and Christopher Weiss / Slipknot (Adam Beach), who can “climb anything.” Led by Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and enforced by swordswoman Tatsu Yamashiro / Katana (Karen Fukuhara), the team’s purpose is to complete high-risk missions while being disposable assets. Matters get complicated when Enchantress goes rogue, escaping to Midway City and summoning her brother Incubus (part Alain Chanoine, the rest a CG creation) so they can eradicate mankind. A pissed off Waller orders the squad into the city to extract a high-value target, but their efforts are complicated by the psychopathic Joker (Jared Leto), who wants to be reunited with Harley.
I hoped it wouldn’t happen, but it did: WB interfered with the making of this picture. I was highly anticipating Suicide Squad; I liked the concept of a DC villain ensemble film along the lines of The Dirty Dozen, the trailers looked pretty cool, and I was convinced that this would be the much-needed pick-me-up that the DCEU needed after BvS, which remains one of the worst films I’ve seen this year. However, in my excitement, I forgot that, at the end of the day, the film is a WB project; this is the same studio that hacked the hell out of BvS, and if panicked, they could do the same to this one, which is essentially what happened. A recent report claims that WB and writer-director David Ayer prepared two cuts of the film, and that the theatrical release is a mish-mash of those two. I’m pretty certain this is the truth, because it shows. Ayer says he’s happy with the theatrical cut, which I find difficult to believe. The cobbled nature of the film ultimately hurts it the most because the majority of the film’s problems either stem from or can be attributed to it. You can tell that there’s plenty of material left on the cutting room floor, which means that watching a director’s cut or extended edition (á la the recently released Ultimate Edition of BvS) on home media is a necessity in order to fully experience the film – a prospect that will please no one, least of all me.
It doesn’t bode well when the film stumbles right from the get-go. Frankly put, the first act is atrocious since it stutters and runs for far too long. It introduces most of the characters in one Waller-delivered exposition dump complete with over half a dozen flashbacks, and it just feels organic. What doesn’t help is that it basically introduces Deadshot in three separate sequences, even though we don’t learn anything new about him in the third one. It also suffers from an inconsistent tone, as it juggles conflicting emotions in such short periods of time. Fun and hip take a turn for the heartfelt before nosediving into moody and incredibly dark, and then it goes back to being lighthearted or heartfelt depending on the character, making for one rollercoaster of a first act. Hell, the plot barely move until we’re at least 20 minutes into the film, and by then, I already felt exhausted.
Even when the film moves past its first act, more problems are laid bare. To be honest, it feels as though the plot is making itself up as it goes without a second thought, making the whole picture haphazardly put together and undercooked. As someone who’s not really familiar with the DC universe, I was confused when the film suddenly plants us in Midway City, which the film doesn’t properly establish nor allows us get invested in. To me, it doesn’t look all that different compared to Gotham City or Metropolis at night, and I have no idea where it is in relation to those two. Katana and Slipknot come in right before the squad heads into the city, and they’re pretty much afterthoughts since they feel shoved in and get incredibly brief introductions. At one point, the helicopter the squad is in gets shot down, and it’s not clear who’s responsible. Is it Enchantress and her beady, faceless army, or is it the Joker and his typically costume-wearing crew? Once the characters are on the ground, they just walk around the decimated streets without ever really talking to each other, addressing plot points but not developing any relationships. At one point, Captain Boomerang leaves them, and then pops back in later with no explanation whatsoever. The plot essentially consists of setpieces strung together, and while they can be mildly entertaining, it’s just not memorable.
I can say with some confidence that no amount of studio interference can make the villains good, as Enchantress and Incubus were likely poorly conceived in the first place. Incubus – a CG character who looks awfully dated – feels as though he was inserted at the last minute so that Enchantress can basically have a henchman; he comes out of nowhere and exists only because she heads into some random room. We know that these two are threatening, and we see them commit weird, occult-like acts, but they’re just plot devices and not living characters. That’s an issue because we merely see what they do and understand none of their motives, history, and relationship with one another. Also damning is how they have no connection to the squad whatsoever beyond the fact that Dr. Moore is Flag’s girlfriend. The villains face our “heroes” only once, which is the final showdown, and in the buildup to that, there are really no stakes involved for the large majority of the squad.
What’s arguably the most disappointing aspect of Suicide Squad is how it falls flat as and never feels like an ensemble film. It’s obvious that WB and DC Films want this picture to be the Guardians of the Galaxy of the DCEU, but they drop the ball pretty badly in regards to developing the squad as a family. Of this motley crew, Deadshot, El Diablo, Flag, Harley are the only characters with arcs, which means that Captain Boomerang, Katana, Killer Croc, and Slipknot are here simply for the sake of being here. I’m sure that many of the latter group’s scenes were cut, but even then, they rarely function as characters and instead come across more like expensive window dressing. Team chemistry is in very short supply here, as it’s often limited to mainly Deadshot and Harley. The squad rarely get to know each other, and they hardly have conversations that could serve as the basis for building relationships. It falls upon one scene before the climax to truly make this squad into a family, and not only does it come too late, it’s neither enough nor earned. In the climax, El Diablo refers to his squad members as family, which is laughable considering that he only exchanges words with a handful of them. Guardians of the Galaxy this is not.
Simply put, the Joker shouldn’t be in the film. For all the press that Leto received for his unnerving preparation for the iconic role, he ultimately isn’t in the film for more than 10 minutes. It would be different had the plot been for the team to track down or kill the Joker, but that isn’t the case here. He doesn’t even affect the plot and the squad significantly, as he shows up to face them once and shares the frame with only Harley; as with Enchantress and Incubus, there are no stakes for most of the squad when it comes to the Joker. He feels shoehorned in, as if the studio wanted a widely recognizable A-list villain to be part of the proceedings without ever being the main antagonist. He doesn’t breathe as a character, and that’s on Leto, who plays him as an unfunny, manic sociopath without an ounce of emotional complexity. His performance consists of exaggerated, jerky movements and grill-fitted grins, which makes the character come across as annoying and weird.
To address the Joker means we need to address Harley as well. Her screentime can be divided into two categories: with the Joker, and without the Joker. The former is gross and uncomfortable to watch, as she has very little to do and is overshadowed by the Joker, who often orders her to be a sex object (it must be said that Suicide Squad male gazes the fuck out of her) for both his and other peoples’ pleasures. The latter is great since that’s when she comes into her own as a character now that the Joker isn’t physically there with her. I liked her arc until the the film’s final scene, which I think undermines it. It’s also unfortunate that her predominant trait is that she’s crazy, which also hints at the film’s rather troubling sweeping generalization of each of its female characters (Waller is cold, Dr. Moore is weak, and Katana knows how to slice and dice). That being said, Robbie is excellent given the character that was written for her. She absolutely nails the enthusiasm, mannerisms, dark humor (she’s much funnier than the Joker), and winning smile.
Ayer has assembled a diverse and talented cast, and for the most part, the performances are terrific. Smith acts just the way you would expect him to (he’s basically being Will Smith), but it works for Deadshot. His rebellious nature and sarcasm come through clearly, and he handles the character’s emotional moments with his daughter Zoe (Shailyn Pierre-Dixon) with ease. The MVP award goes to the authoritative Davis, who is pitch-perfect as Waller. She dominates every scene she’s in, and she naturally communicates the character’s cut-throat attitude and the “my way or the high way” outlook. The one who surprises the most is Hernandez, who delicately imbues El Diablo with such humanity and pacifism that I ended up caring about his character a lot. Kinnamon plays the straight man role with ease and bounces off of Smith quite well – I got the sense that Deadshot and Flag could be in a fun buddy flick together. Courtney and Akinnuoye-Agbaje don’t have much to do, but it appears that they’re having fun. Beach and Fukuhara don’t get any chances to impress, which is a shame. Delevingne is unintentionally hilarious when she’s Enchantress, especially in the second act when all she does is perform odd dance-like moves with her arms.
The film’s technical craft on display is a mixed bag. Cinematographer Roman Vasyanov and production designer Oliver Scholl capture a boots-on-the-ground aesthetic with gritty and war-torn locations, which is perfect for Ayer’s visual approach to the material. Kate Hawley’s costume design and the makeup team highlight bright colors that contrast with grim images. The editing job done by John Gilroy and whoever the hell else the studio hired is just poor, as the film stumbles and stutters constantly, and continuity is not always maintained, which proves to be so very distracting. The CG work falls on both sides of the spectrum; for every destructive sequence that holds up well, there are also dated or generic-looking effects like Incubus and Enchantress’ powers. The film’s efforts to emulate Guardians of the Galaxy is reflected by a soundtrack that draws too much attention to itself and feels shoehorned in. It’s a great collection of songs, but most of them are awkwardly incorporated.
Suicide Squad is a film that works only in fits and starts, but they come too intermittently. I don’t think it fails as spectacularly as BvS, but still, given the idea, characters, and talent involved, it could have been so much more, and because of that, it goes down as a failure in my book. It’s easily one of the most disappointing films so far this year, and I’d even go so far to say that it’s one of the most disappointing films in the superhero genre that I’ve seen. I certainly hope that WB learns a harsh lesson with this film, because it sure seems like they didn’t the first time with BvS. Hopefully it gets better from here on out, yes? If Wonder Woman and Justice League end up being terrible, WB can kiss the DCEU good-bye and become the laughingstock in Hollywood for years to come.
* Photos courtesy of Warner Bros.