This is the film I was most excited to see this summer. When it comes to comic book universes, the DC world and its characters have had my heart since I was eight years old. The stakes were high: some of these characters were being brought to live-action life for the first time, while others, like the Joker, were about to be reinvented for an entire generation of movie-goers. And after Batman v. Superman was torn apart by critics and became, among superhero fans, possibly the most divisive comic book movie of all time (even though I personally loved that film), the DC cinematic universe really needed a win. And though I wanted Suicide Squad to be an incontestable masterpiece, I have to settle for a stylish, messy film with streaks and flecks of brilliance.
Early on in its production, set leaks and updates seemed poised to make sure that we felt like we had already seen the entire film before it came out. And then, suddenly, we knew next to nothing about the plot of the movie. A series of trailers showed a misfit band of bad guys brought together to do… something, and we had no idea what the movie was going to be about, or even who the villain would be. Unfortunately, what was being so carefully concealed for a while there is a pretty flimsy story. Our team of bad guys take on an evil whose goal is… practically the same as the main villain from the first Avengers film: shine a pillar of light into the sky and bring an army of faceless evil into the world, only with more of a Gozer the Traveler flair.
Against this dark force stand our anti-heroes, a team of special individuals who are supposedly being brought together in case the U.S. government needs someone who can stand up against a metahuman as powerful as Superman. This rationale becomes laughable when we actually see what most of the squad is capable of. No, a guy with perfect aim and a mentally damaged woman could not stand up to the likes of General Zod. But if we can get past the eye-rolling and buy into that conceit, the characters are colorful and certainly grab hold of your attention early on.
The heart of the film is shared between four characters: Deadshot, Harley Quinn, El Diablo, and Rick Flagg. Most of the other members of the Squad end up background characters. Nobody is coming out of this movie saying, “Wow, wasn’t Captain Boomerang awesome?!” He’s there. He has his moments. And that’s about all that we can say about Killer Croc, too. Or Katana, a character I love from the comics who does not get much to do here except stand around looking dangerous. Which she does with aplomb. Will Smith’s Deadshot aims to become one of the few emotional tethers between the audience and the film. An assassin with the heart of a family man, his relationship with his young daughter is one of the few human connections the audience is invited to feel between its characters. Yeah, it feels a little like you’re being manipulated at times, especially watching the flashback scene in which Deadshot is caught, but it is as human as the film gets. Smith’s charm goes a long way toward making the film feel fun, which it sometimes struggles to do. This is not Guardians of the Galaxy, even though it hits some of the same storytelling beats. El Diablo is one of the characters who stood out unexpectedly. His character arc is the most dramatic in the film, and his attempt at giving up a life of crime makes him one of the most heroic members on the team. Rick Flagg is the good guy soldier type tasked with making sure our anti-heroes stay together and do their job. He also has a personal stake in the team and their mission. He works as a kind of moral center to the team, but he himself is, unfortunately, not as interesting as all of the characters that surround him. But we need him to play straight man to everyone else’s antics.
Viola Davis as Amanda Waller is just about perfect. Whenever she is on screen there is never any doubt as to who is the most in-control person in the room. DC fans who might have been disappointed in Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor might find what they were looking for in Waller. She’s smart, cool, has her claws in the government, knows all about metahumans, and has a mean streak at her core that never ceases to catch people off guard. My only gripe is that she is underused in the film’s second half.
Harley Quinn seems to have overtaken Wonder Woman as the premiere female character of the DC comics universe. She’s beloved by fans, endlessly marketable, and psychologically complex enough to inspire arguments. Margot Robbie does a good job with the character, but suffers from a script that does not show off nearly enough of what Harley Quinn could be. She tends to be the group’s Smurfette, and though they obviously want her to be the team wild card, she is never let off her leash enough to really cut loose. In short she is underused, even though she is one of the main characters and gets plenty of screen time. Her main purpose in the film, other than serving as fanservice, seems to be a reason to draw the Joker into the plot. Their strange, alien “romance” is one of the highlights of the film, even though it leaves me hoping that the DC cinematic universe follows what the comics are currently doing with the character and sees her step out from the Joker’s shadow and become her own lead. I’m fine with them starting the character off in her Mad Love, Joker’s Sweetheart phase, but Harley has grown beyond that on the page, and her on-screen incarnation should do the same.
Jared Leto’s Joker is a visual feast, but is never allowed to be a character in the movie. He only has one Point of View scene in the entire movie, and it lasts about two seconds. It’s an important two seconds, and vital for understanding the twisted Joker/Harley romance, but it’s not enough to give the character any kind of depth. Heath Ledger’s Joker was a revelation, a complicated villain with philosophical reasoning behind his wickedness. Leto’s Joker feels like a step backward, a garish gangster with only the most basic selfish motivations for anything he does. Now, none of this has anything to do with Leto as an actor. He’s actually great in the role. He just wasn’t given a script worthy of the character. If you are looking for a scene as delicious as the Dark Knight’s police station interrogation or hospital scenes, you are going to be sorely disappointed. The only saving grace here is that this was never the Joker’s movie, and so much of the character remains a mystery that the next time the DC cinematic universe decides to use him (perhaps in an Affleck-directed solo Batman film?), they really could take the character anywhere they wanted to go. And I would be there to see it. I remain intrigued. But for now, Suicide Squad serves only to whet the appetite of Joker fans, not to give them anything they can sink their teeth into.
The characters are hit-and-miss, the plot is a mess, and the action sequences are far too often pitting our misfits against what amount to DC’s version of Rita Repulsa’s putties. I sat in the theater watching the Squad’s first encounter with the forces of evil, irritated and painfully aware of how little investment I had in the fight. I’ve grown tired of faceless hordes of chitauri, dark elves, and Ultron clones for comic book heroes to slaughter. I want fights that matter. Thankfully Suicide Squad does have a couple of those, but you have to wait a long time for them, and almost every fight leading up to the “Boss” fight comes in a single flavor. Much as it was in Guardians of the Galaxy, the eventual bond of friendship that forms between the team feels forced. And because half the team here have been relegated to background characters, and many of them are supposed to be remorseless killers, it feels even more forced. When the characters finally sit around and have a conversation with each other toward the end of the film and start to become a “family” of sorts, it just doesn’t feel earned.
And yet, for all its flaws, Suicide Squad does some things right. David Ayer’s film looks gorgeous from start to finish. The costumes and make-up are fantastic. The Joker’s new look has been controversial, to say the least, but for this film it works. El Diablo’s skeletal tattoos, the Enchantress’s mystical regalia, Deadshot’s gear: all of it looks really cool and fits the larger aesthetic of the film. The visual effects for the Enchantress, in particular, are spooky and memorable, and when the team surveys the physical damage their mysterious adversary causes to both people and the cityscape, it’s chilling in a Lovecraftian way. Harley’s origin flashback, the film’s supernatural sequences, and many of the Joker scenes all look darkly beautiful on screen. (There is even a sequence bringing to life one of Alex Ross’s famous paintings, which is sure to delight comic book fans.) They may not be critical darlings, but so far DC has yet to release a film in its cinematic universe that doesn’t have a unique visual stamp on it. This film universe looks nothing like MARVEL or the X-Men’s world, and I’m hoping this is a trend that continues with next year’s Wonder Woman.
Suicide Squad is style over substance, but when the characters do shine, they make a case for each of them getting to headline their own film. There is absolutely no reason not to give Harley Quinn and Deadshot their own movies right now, and make Waller the puppetmaster of the entire DC cinematic universe. I was engaged with all of the character-heavy moments, from their introductions and flashbacks to their dreams and fantasies, but felt my attention wavering during the action sequences until the end. With three movies out now, the DCCU should be taking flight, but instead it still seems to be finding its feet. I’m not concerned, especially since Geoff Johns has been given keys to the kingdom over at Warner Bros. If we can get some better writing to go with the unique visual direction and characters we’ve been getting in their films so far, the films of the DCCU could end up something special.