I’m not angry. I’m just disappointed.
I really wanted to like Suicide Squad. I really thought I was going to. The trailers were promising. David Ayer is an excellent director of grim, grimy action movies and the morally-compromised. The cast was interesting. The tone and the aesthetic and the premise all seemed like exactly what would be needed to offset yet another superhero-saturated summer at the movies. I thought all this a year ago, and I’ve held onto it. I clung to it as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice spectacularly underperformed with critics and audiences; as the rumours began to circulate that the suits at Warner Bros. were taking the scissors to Suicide Squad in response; when the first wave of critical reactions hit the internet and it became clear, yet again, that the DC Cinematic Universe is fundamentally broken in some bizarre and vital way. I braved a packed cinema full of the usual belligerent morons and I hoped, earnestly, that I’d find something to like – to love, even – in or about this movie. Correction: I found a couple of those things. But as I shuffled out of the theatre among the throngs of similarly bewildered moviegoers, I realised that the single greatest take-away from Suicide Squad is that the whole thing’s a complete fucking mess.
How did this happen? It’s a question that needs to be asked, especially in the wake of damning reports on excessive studio interference and leaked lists of potentially-removed scenes. What we know for certain is that the version of Suicide Squad that made it to theatres is not the one we were originally supposed to get. But what we don’t know is whether it’s Ayer’s version, the studio’s, a hybrid of the two, or a Frankenstein’s monster of three or four truncated solo stories. Sometimes it feels like each individually; other times all of them at once. And some of the creative decisions underpinning the movie are so profoundly short-sighted or misguided or both, that to know, to be able to trace the wrongheadedness back to a singular source, to find some kind of logic or reason in it, could be enough to soften the blow that the theatrical version of Suicide Squad delivers. And it is a blow – not just because it’s bad, though it is, but because it could have been something more, something other than what it ultimately ended up being, which at this stage is more or less a death knell for DC’s shared-universe.
It’s a shame, really. The idea behind Suicide Squad is so immediately compelling that I’m surprised nobody did it before and disappointed that nobody will dare do it again – not for a while, at least. But assembling second-tier DC comic-book villains into a deniable black-ops task squad who operate in exchange for reductions in their prison sentences is near-genius; both as an answer to the perennial question of why bad guys in comics never seem to serve their full terms, and as an antidote to an increasingly codified strain of superhero movies. Handing that property to David Ayer is the kind of inspired choice I like to imagine I’d make, were I rightfully in charge of things. But Suicide Squad is only notionally a David Ayer movie. It’s neutered. What it is, more than anything, is the movie David Ayer wasn’t allowed to make.
And because Ayer wasn’t allowed to make it, I’m not going to review it. Not in the traditional sense. There’s so little of a cohesive and sensible movie here that doing so would likely be pointless anyway, and besides, Suicide Squad revolves so completely around the eponymous supervillain team that it bothers to introduce most of them more than once. So I’m going to review that instead: the Squad, one by one, which will also cover all the issues with plot, pacing, structure and writing, just by proxy. It’ll also be full of spoilers, I guess, so if you’re opposed to that kind of thing now would be the time to stop reading.
Amanda Waller (Viola Davis)
Nobody in the movie ever really acknowledges this, but Amanda Waller is kind of incompetent. As the no-nonsense, any-means-necessary government agent who establishes Task Force X in the first place, that’s the last thing she’s supposed to be. But think about it. Her whole reasoning behind the creation of Suicide Squad is an answer to this question: What if the next Superman is a terrorist? Fair enough. But most of the Squad don’t even have any superpowers, so I’m not sure how much use they’d be. Not to mention the fact that the big mission which requires the combined might and intellect of the Squad only exists because Waller decided to put the Squad together in the first place. She’s not fighting fire with fire – she’s struggling to put out fires that she started. And nobody ever brings this up.
In fairness, Viola Davis delivers such a confidently stone-cold performance that it’s easy to believe Waller knows what she’s doing. You could just about hand-wave all the issues with her character away until the moment late on when she mercilessly guns down half a dozen junior federal agents just because. For a movie about villains, Suicide Squad goes to great lengths not to show any of the main cast doing anything all that villainous, so this stands out as the most outwardly evil thing we see anyone do.
Enchantress (Cara Delevigne)
The first supervillain Waller recruits is a centuries-old witch that has assumed the body of an archaeologist called June Moone, both played by the eyebrows of British model Cara Delevigne. This is a terrible idea. Waller believes she can control Enchantress because she carries the witch’s heart around in a briefcase, but it is abundantly clear that Dr. Moone has no control over her whatsoever. So it’s no surprise when Enchantress immediately goes rogue and revives her CGI brother, Incubus (a name I had to look up because nobody in the movie says it out loud), and sets out to (I think) take over the world.
The introductions to Enchantress are handled through quite legitimately creepy quasi-horror vignettes, and I’m disappointed they didn’t keep that up all the way through, because eventually the character is demoted to standing in the middle of a swirling pile of trash while shucking and jiving like Akeem the African Dream
Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman)
As well as carrying Enchantress’s heart around, Waller also assigns an elite Special Forces operative to guard June Moone whenever she’s not doing ghostly things on the government’s behalf, and of course he falls in love with her. Rick Flag is also supposed to oversee the rest of the Squad and keep them in check by threatening to blow up their heads if they misbehave, but he’s so reliably bad at doing that it eventually becomes quite comical. He’s the straight man, essentially, whose job it is to counteract the absurdity of the rest of the cast and ask important audience-surrogate questions, but mostly he just feels disposable.
Deadshot (Will Smith)
Even though Flag supposedly has some kind of relationship with Enchantress, most of his screen time is spent cultivating a buddy-cop bromance with Will Smith’s Deadshot, who, on paper, is easily the least interesting member of the squad. He’s an assassin who never misses a shot, and he’s also a father who’s trying to reconcile his parental responsibilities with the fact he’s serving multiple life sentences. Hardly fertile creative territory. But Will Smith came to play. He’s in full Movie Star Mode here, and his performance is pretty much the only thing keeping the movie buoyant when it reaches particularly deep water. The role is hardly an acting stretch for Smith, given how Deadshot exhibits most of the characteristics he really excels at playing, but this is still an absurdly charismatic performance, and the character’s plight is genuinely compelling as a result.
Deadshot is also, essentially, the star. He’s introduced three times. And that’s an important creative decision, because no matter how convoluted and nonsensical the movie’s structure becomes, there’s always a moral centre to it. And because Smith so capably shoulders a lot of the dramatic weight, it’s slightly less jarring when Deadshot inexplicably becomes all nurturing to Harley Quinn late in the movie. Speaking of which…
Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie)
Viola Davis and Will Smith might deliver the powerhouse performances, but Margot Robbie is legitimately great in this, and Harley’s first big-screen treatment is a real success. She’s the only character in the movie that really embodies the unhinged sense of fun and unpredictability that you’d imagine the whole thing would have benefited from, and even though she doesn’t get as much to do as I’d have liked, I still think the script was fair to her. I know some people want to complain. They want to complain she’s overly sexualised, which is a fundamental part of Harley’s character, and they want to complain about her abusive relationship with the Joker, which is a fundamental part of Harley’s character.
Let’s talk about those criticisms, actually, because in a movie so fucking rife with crippling issues they strike me as particularly odd things to moan about. For a start, yes, of course she’s sexy. She’s supposed to be. But the character isn’t titillating just to exploit Robbie’s comeliness; Harley has always been like that, and, frankly, a certain demographic is going to be titillated by Margot Robbie just breathing in and out, so all the dirty dancing in strip clubs is neither here nor there. And yes, of course the Joker abuses her. That’s kind of his thing. The idea that Harley’s character arc is that she’s trying to escape the relationship is utterly ludicrous; she’s legitimately excited by the Joker’s impending arrival, and she’s thrilled to see him every time he turns up. I know that’s not how victims of abuse are supposed to behave, but sorry, that’s the way it is here, and it’s worth remembering that you not being in total moral alignment with a character isn’t a criticism in and of itself.
Here’s the problem: The movie plays this relationship for romance, which it shouldn’t, because there’s nothing romantic about it. But based on the (allegedly) cut material, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. It was supposed to be more abusive, and when the studio worried how that might come across, they doubled-down on the pair of them being in love, primarily by excising all of the more overtly horrible stuff. Yet to remove all of the abusive interactions would have clearly left no shared screen-time between Harley and Joker at all, so what’s left is still abusive, but awkwardly romanticised. That, admittedly, doesn’t play well, but it’s a fault of the movie’s editing and post-production interference, not of the relationship itself.
The Joker (Jared Leto)
On set, Jared Leto apparently took his role as the Joker so seriously that he demanded everyone refer to him as “Mr. J”, refused to communicate with anyone unless they were in-character, and sent his castmates “gifts” of dead pigs, live rats and used condoms. On screen, Jared Leto delivers the worst interpretation of the character ever by a considerable margin, so it hardly seems like the effort was worth it. And it’s not as much about his aesthetic as you might think. I’m on record defending the tattoos and I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally wrong with the mob boss version of the character (it isn’t a new thing). But it’s pitched in such a way that Joker becomes about his affectations more than his personality. The green hair is a style choice. He tools around in a purple sports car. He has Lil Wayne teeth. He dresses extravagantly, but well, and he chills in the VIP area of strip clubs. He has a fucking pimp cane. And if Leto was better at selling this idea of the character he might come across as interesting or bizarre or unpredictable, but he isn’t any of those things. He certainly isn’t believably scary. In fact, the one thing I kept returning to every time he showed up was that I was fairly confident I’d be able to beat him in a fight, which is hardly how you want people to feel about a villain.
Not that any of this matters, because despite Joker’s prominence in the film’s marketing and the fuss made over Leto’s creepy behaviour during filming, his total screen time amounts to about ten minutes and not a single second of it has any bearing on the main plot.
Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney)
Jai Courtney is about as charismatic and enjoyable here as he’s ever been anywhere, so it’s a shame he’s playing a character whose “superpower” is throwing boomerangs. And at one point he throws one that doesn’t even come back, which just about says it all.
Katana (Karen Fukuhara)
Katana isn’t one of the villains. She largely fulfils the same role as Rick Flag in that she’s supposed to be ensuring the rest of the squad do what they’re told, but she literally jumps into the movie out of nowhere and doesn’t have a single line of dialogue with anyone except her sword, which captures the souls of the people she kills with it. This is cursorily acknowledged but nobody seems particularly bothered or surprised by it. Apparently before the reshoots Katana had more interactions with Captain Boomerang, who repeatedly tried hitting on her while being (un)intentionally racist, and while I can see the logic behind scrapping that kind of thing there’s a part of me that wishes they’d left it in just so I could see how it played out.
Slipknot (Adam Beach)
He punches a woman in the face. Then he dies.
Diablo (Jay Hernandez)
At one point quite late in the movie the Squad dip into a deserted bar, have one drink together, and immediately put aside their differences and start referring to each other as “family”. The emotional centrepiece of this sequence is Diablo’s “tragic” backstory, which is basically that he had a tantrum and cooked his wife and children (not in the oven… I think he’s possessed by a fire demon. Or maybe he just controls fire. But he does turn into a giant pile of flaming bones at the end, so I’m leaning more towards possession). Some people really liked this scene, or they at least liked the reasoning behind Diablo’s sulking, but it didn’t really do anything for me. You can’t cram a handful of emotional beats into a storyline 20 minutes before the end and realistically expect that to pay off. I don’t know whether this was always the intention, or it’s another casualty of sloppy editing, or whatever (the bar scene was definitely supposed to be longer, if nothing else). I just know it didn’t work – not for me, at least. But Jay Hernandez is actually really good at selling this character and I wish he’d have been allowed to do more.
Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje)
Of every character in Suicide Squad, the one that disappoints me most is Killer Croc – not because he was the “worst” (he basically does nothing, and he’s still more memorable than Slipknot) but because I feel as if he was the most obviously short-changed as a character. It makes sense: he’s big, he’s green, he has sharp teeth, his name is “Killer Croc”; you can get that message across pretty easily, so you don’t need a backstory and characterisation to justify it. Except based on the (again, allegedly) deleted scenes, his backstory was kind of cool and interesting. A lifetime of discrimination has led him to believe he’s beautiful in his own way? He has run-ins with Batman? He has an affinity for making little sculptures out of trash? That sounds good! And it sounds especially good when you juxtapose it with the more sub-human aspects of his character, such as the fact he lives in the sewers, and another deleted scene wherein he apparently gets airsick, throws up some partially-digested goat, and then eats it again.
As it stands Croc’s presence is barely felt, which is a shame. Although I will say that it’s interesting he’s “black”. Yeah, I know he’s green and scaly, but underneath all the makeup he’s clearly supposed to be a black guy from the American South. You can tell by his accent and mannerisms. He even asks for BET in his cell. It’s not a huge deal, but usually non-human characters are coded to be white, so it’s an interesting creative decision all the same, and once again I wish there was more for the character to do.
I wish, if only, let’s hope – this is what it feels like to talk about Suicide Squad. And I don’t know if it would have necessarily been a good movie had David Ayer been left alone to make it, but it would have at least been bad in an interesting way. This isn’t. It’s bad because someone hacked it up and slapped it back together again. And nobody even took the time out to ensure that the pieces didn’t overlap, or that there weren’t holes in them, or that they hadn’t been messily tangled up. It’s bad because hardly anyone cared enough to fix it, and the people who did weren’t allowed anywhere near it.
Like I said, it really is a shame, and it’s a shame in a way that likely isn’t fixable, regardless of how good Wonder Woman turns out to be. Every attempt DC has made to replicate the very specific alchemy with which Marvel so consistently churn out such high-quality superhero movies has clearly overlooked a vital ingredient in the relationship between studios and creators. Suicide Squad is not the offensive, unmitigated disaster many critics would have you believe, and you may very well still find some fun in it, but it is undeniably a bad movie, albeit one buoyed by a handful of very charismatic and enjoyable performances. What matters most of all, I think, is that it’s bad for reasons that could have been avoided; that were unnecessary, soulless and self-defeating. Suicide Squad will likely experience the same falloff in box office earnings as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice did, and the lesson, I suspect, still won’t be learned. The more nakedly Warner Bros. try and make movies that will make them money, the less money their movies will make.
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