So far the DC Cinematic Universe has been off to an unimpressive start, with the uneven Man of Steel and the God-awful Batman v. Superman. Nevertheless I was cautiously looking forward to Suicide Squad, which from the previews seemed like it would at least not take itself so dang seriously as the other films had, and appeared the most likely to win me over to the series.
Has it? Well, not exactly. On the one hand this is easily the most entertaining film in the DC universe so far, with little of the ponderous pretention that dragged down the previous two movies. On the other, it doesn’t really come together into a coherent whole and the oppressive cynicism of the series saps some of the fun.
The story is that with Superman dead (spoilers for Batman v. Superman, but who cares? It’s not like he’ll be gone long), black ops mistress Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has a plan to turn a collection of incarcerated supervillains into a strike team that will serve to protect the US from meta-human threats. The team will be led by Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman) and consist of master marksman Deadshot (Will Smith), short-tempered Aussie Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), taciturn flamer El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), monstrous Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), escape artist Slipknot (Adam Beach), possessed archeologist Enchantress (Cara Delevigne), swordswoman Katana (Karen Fukuhara), and psycho-woman Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), girlfriend of the Joker (Jared Leto). When a potentially world-ending threat materializes, Waller deploys her team, but things don’t go according to plan.
Call it The Dirty Dozen with supervillains and you wouldn’t be far off the mark, except that it doesn’t quite live up to the premise.
With such a large cast, some confusion is inevitable, though the list is a bit deceiving. Of the team, one goes rogue and becomes one of the antagonists, while another only serves to demonstrate what happens if the team tries to slip the leash. Nevertheless, there’re a lot of informed attributes going around, and some of the team don’t get much to do. Captain Boomerang in particular contributes little except for comic relief (there’s even a running gag with him that just gets dropped without comment midway through). The plot rather quickly spirals out of control, with at least four distinct parties each vying for different objectives and plot holes multiplying one after another. I don’t want to spoil things too much, except that I’ll say Waller is a lot stupider than she ought to be, making me wonder just how she got where she is if she’s so lacking in foresight.
That being said, Viola Davis is at least a lot better suited for the part than Cynthia Addai-Robinson, who played the role on Arrow (if DC doesn’t want me to make comparisons they shouldn’t run two distinct shared universes featuring many of the same characters at the same time). Robinson was far too thin and too attractive for the part: Davis is more of the everywoman and if not the hulking figure Waller should cut, she at least is solidly built. Whatever the flaws in Waller’s portrayal, none of them are Davis’s fault.
I also have problems with Jared Leto’s version of the Joker. He’s not bad, and certainly not the train-wreck that Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor was. I can accept him as the Joker, just not as an especially memorable version of him. Of course, anyone taking up the role after Heath Ledger is at a huge disadvantage, but even discounting that there’s one major flaw with Leto’s performance: he’s dangerous, cunning, and psychotic, but he isn’t funny. He laughs a lot, but I don’t think he ever made me laugh.
Now, Ledger’s Joker was funny because he was so darn unpredictable; you had no idea what he might say or do at any point in the film, so that half the time you cringe, the other half you laugh because you see the unexpected logic of his behavior. Leto’s Joker isn’t unpredictable; I was never queasily waiting to see what he might do. He’s pretty much just a normal gangster with an eccentric fashion sense (one review I read called him “pimp Joker,” and that’s a pretty fair description).
On the other hand, Harley Quinn is funny and is unpredictable. A lot of her moments were spoiled in the trailers, but she still gets plenty of laughs. And I was so happy that they have her call the Joker ‘Puddin’ and ‘Mr. J.’ I don’t think it was necessary to hyper-sexualize her to the extent that they did (though that did lead to at least one very funny bit when the team is suiting up for battle), and the torture scene with her and the Joker, while it wasn’t as bad as I feared, still doesn’t really make sense and, I think, undermines her character. Other than that, though, she was perfect: perfectly nutty, perfectly dangerous, perfectly the girly-girl psychopath we all know and love. I especially liked a late-game revelation about what she really wants more than anything: a bit that perfectly captures the tragedy at the root of Harley’s character.
That said, there was a lot of superfluous fluff with her, such as a completely gratuitous flashback to her and the Joker having sex in one of the Ace Chemical vats (does he just own that place now or something?). Oh, and you know that scene from the trailers where she smashes a store window to steal a purse? It literally comes out of nowhere and does nothing.
That points to another problem with the film: the editing is often a mess. Juggling so many characters and plotlines is difficult, and they couldn’t pull it off, so that sometimes it’s difficult to keep track of who is where doing what and why it matters. Like with Harley’s bit above, some scenes just come out of nowhere, as if they were filmed without any real clear idea where they belonged in the story and just stuck in wherever they could find room.
To be honest, I think the film would have benefited if they had cut the Joker entirely. It would have been tricky to handle Harley’s character that way, but if they had kept the Joker as an unseen force in the background I think the film would have been much stronger for it. The Joker’s scenes don’t really affect the rest of the plot except once, and never in an especially vital way, and they’re just a kind of visual white noise contributing nothing to the story and a lot to the confusion.
I was concerned about Will Smith as Deadshot, both because I’m generally suspicious about casting big stars as superheroes/villains, and because I’m cynical about the practice of switching a character’s race just because you can. That said, I thought he was pretty good. Smith is, of course, an immensely talented and charismatic actor, and though he’s not my idea of Deadshot (again, I thought Michael Rowe on Arrow was much closer to my image of the character, and I can probably come up with a half-dozen actors I think would fit the part better), he’s perfectly acceptable in the role as it stands. Basically, a Will Smith version of Deadshot isn’t a bad interpretation of the character, especially if you’re going to cast him as the lead. Smith captures Deadshot’s contradictory nature as both a loving father and a dangerous assassin (though the character’s suicidal tendencies don’t appear), and he serves well as a strong anchor doing his best to keep the film together. A flashback assassination scene was a ton of fun and perfectly showcased his ridiculous skill level. All in all, I have no serious complaints about Deadshot.
Jai Courtney, as I said, doesn’t get a whole lot to do as Captain Boomerang, but he’s a blast whenever he’s on screen. Likewise with Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Killer Croc, who really comes into his own towards the end and who makes a valiant effort to act through the effects that turn him into a human crocodile. Joel Kinnaman as Rick Flagg, the token ‘good guy’ of the team doesn’t make a whole lot of impression: his job is to sneer at the bad guys and come to respect them over time, and as far as it went, he was acceptable, and he at least had sympathetic motives for undertaking the mission. Karen Fukuhara as Katana doesn’t make much of an impression either; she basically just walks around glowering through her mask and occasionally busting out some sword moves. Ditto for Adam Beach as Slipknot, only minus the mask and sword. Ben Affleck returns for a handful of cameos as Batman, and though it’s not saying much, I thought he was better played this time around (that is to say, he wasn’t psychotically trying to murder people for no reason while ranting about how life doesn’t matter).
Cara Delevingne as Dr. Moon / Enchantress was mostly overwhelmed by the special effects and didn’t make too much of an impression as a character, not to mention that the nature and extent of her powers was extremely vague: an early scene has her travelling to Iran and back in the space of a second, but toward the end she picks up a sword and starts fighting hand-to-hand. Huh?
To my surprise, probably my favorite character was El Diablo, who I had barely heard of before the film came out. His character arc was, for me, the most interesting and credible of the film, and Jay Hernandez shone in the role. He’s about the only one of the bad guys who seems to actually regret his criminal actions, which makes him probably the most sympathetic and interesting character on the screen as he wrestles with his own self-loathing.
That brings me to what, for me, was probably the biggest problem with the film: that the world of the DC cinematic universe is simply too downbeat and cynical to be worth bothering about.
With its colorful cast of antiheroes and its pop-music soundtrack, Suicide Squad clearly seeks to be the Guardians of the Galaxy of the DC universe. But in Guardians all the rough-and-tumble heroes were sympathetic and were shown to be more or less decent people by the end, even if they still cheerfully talk about doing bad things. But even if they’re not the most scrupulous people in the world, they still fought for a good cause and on behalf of good people, and the good people were grateful to them in the end.
In Suicide Squad, while most of the characters are pitiable, there are only two or three who are really sympathetic. Nor is the world they’re fighting to save shown to be really worth saving. Okay, there’s Deadshot’s daughter, but other than that are there any ‘good people’ who need to be saved and who are worth saving?
Practically everyone in the film is to a greater or lesser degree a bastard. El Diablo stood out as the only one who seemed even to understand that he ought to have been a better person: everyone else either assumes that that’s just the way the world works or blames the rest of society for not ‘accepting’ them. When Harley asks “what did the world ever do for us?” My thought was, “girl, you’re a murdering psychopath: you’re not in a position to complain about being ill-treated.”
Another problem highlighted by the comparison is that, in Guardians, the team convincingly came together after some initial friction to form a charming company of friends, so that when Groot said, “We are Groot” it felt earned. Suicide Squad tries to do the same thing, with the squad coming to care for each other, but it doesn’t work. They repeatedly call themselves a ‘family,’ but it doesn’t feel earned, and nothing that happens really convinces me that these characters had any reason to appreciate each other. The Guardians were only broken: the Squad is a bunch of psychopaths and monsters who are only thrown together for the sake of the mission. The Guardians were working together for common ends, even if they were selfish ends at first. The Squad is working together for not other reason than that they’ll be killed if they don’t. They have no reason to really care for each other or to feel any team spirit, at least not so quickly as they do. There was a point where Deadshot is ordered to shoot one of his teammates. As he agonized over the decision, it occurred to me that there was no reason why he shouldn’t, or that I should be rooting for him not to. If anything, I felt like it would be best for all concerned if he took the shot.
The DC universe lays the artificial grit and forced moral ambiguity on way too thick, and while Suicide Squad at least has some fun, it can’t escape being dragged down by the dreariness of the world it inhabits. Whoever decided that the best way to compete with Marvel was to make everything in the DC film world as dark and cynical as possible should be fired as soon as possible, before he has the chance to ruin The Flash or Justice League (it’s probably too late for Wonder Woman).
All that being said, Suicide Squad is a good time. It’s not great; certainly nowhere near as good a Guardians of the Galaxy, but it’s easily my favorite of the DC films so far. It’s stylish, often funny, and consistently entertaining, with a colorful cast played well by some talented actors.
Final Rating: 3/5. Not great, but at least it’s actually entertaining, which is a big step up from the DC universe’s last offering.