'Suicide Squad' Review

Photo Credit: Warner Brothers Pictures

This week was supposed to be one of validation and redemption for DC, thanks to Suicide Squad. Instead, it feels like the Internet and the rest of us have been sucked back in time to late March, when Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice became a punching bag for critics and bitter fans. And now once again, a DC movie is getting pummeled by critics, is surely about to get pummeled by a lot of fans in spite of a massive opening weekend, and may well tank big time right afterwards.

In this case, Suicide Squad has more advantages than Batman v Superman did, which is why this was supposed to turn out better. But it's exactly because of how much DC and writer/director David Ayer waste those advantages that Suicide Squad is somehow both better and worse than its predecessor.

Instead of superheroes fighting each other, supervillains are hired to fight even worse villains. The good villains are brought under the thumb of cold blooded Amanda Waller, who wants to use the likes of ace marksman Deadshot, demented Harley Quinn, the fiery El Diablo, human/crocodile hybrid Killer Croc and others to fight the inevitable wars against meta-humans. But Waller's prized possession is an archaeologist both possessed by the evil witch Enchantress and adored by Waller's designated task force leader Rick Flag. When the Enchantress side of June Moone takes over and uses Midway City as ground zero for her planned extermination of mankind, "Task Force X" is sent in as a very expendable means to shut her down.

And somewhere along the way, the Joker stops on by as well.

"Stops on by" pretty much covers it, since word has now gotten out that the Joker's heavy presence in the trailers and build-up was one giant lie. For all of the famed and infamous stories of Jared Leto's Method acting, creepy gift-giving and of constantly staying in character, he was pretty much wasting his time. In fact, he was probably wasting so much time on these stunts because he had nothing else to do.

Suicide Squad teased a Joker-heavy movie and lied to us, just as it teased a black comedy showcase of evil to wash out the Batman v Superman misery and lied too. Of course, recent behind-the-scenes set allegations have thrown both DC and Ayer under the bus for that. Whether DC is more to blame for trying to recut the movie into something lighter after the Batman v Superman backlash, or whether Ayer was just in over his head thanks to a rushed production schedule, the final compromise isn't ideal for those who wanted more comedy or darkness.

Yet it isn't a clash of tones that dooms Suicide Squad. The real wrong choice made wasn't lightness over darkness and vice versa, but rather plot over character.

Suicide Squad has all kinds of characters that could be the focus of a more entertaining movie. Unfortunately, Ayer has no time to give them real depth, real stand out moments, real chemistry or real chances to take control of the movie, because he is too busy chugging through the idiotic plot they are all stuck in. The die is cast with a 10-15 minute opening sequence of Waller narrating flashbacks for her main recruits, which both drags on and is too rushed through to do the characters any real justice.

Ayer keeps going from plot point to plot point from there, with barely any time to slow down and really focus on his cast of rogues. This is a movie that should have been completely character driven, especially since he has the people and actors who could pull it off. Instead of a film driven by the antics, bad behavior and delicious nastiness of its anti-heroes, as we were promised, the end result is a movie that sucks almost all of the nasty joy out as a sacrifice to its ill-conceived story.

With no time to just stand back and let the characters tell the story, instead of the other way around, it comes back to truly bite Suicide Squad and Ayer in the end. Once the inevitable third act turn comes and the villains actually decide to do some good, Ayer has already squandered his chance in the first two acts to give these turns and changes of heart any real emotional depth.

Ayer is really an action-centric director, albeit mostly in cop movies without this kind of special effects budget. Ideally, action and visual wonder should go a long way to peppering over storytelling and script faults, especially in summer. But even with somewhat more of a visual color scheme than in Batman v Superman, Ayer wastes his action on fights in the dark with generic CGI minions.

When he gets to the final battle, too much darkness and smoke makes a big hand-to-hand fight sequence with multiple characters almost impossible to make out at a few points. This is just one of the more laughable action elements in this climax, to say nothing of the wasted chances for an emotional impact.

When one character declares that he won't lose another family in the final battle, and another rejects a tempting offer because a villain "messed with my friends" none of it makes any sense because Ayer does almost nothing to make the Squad or its characters connect as unlikely family or friends before then. The only ones who seem like they have something close to a real connection are Harley and Deadshot, and even that is surely missing some backstory and focus.

Zack Snyder's great sin out of many in Batman v Superman was that he let endless doom and gloom suck out almost every other trait from his characters. In Ayer's case, he actually has people in Suicide Squad that have life and potential character traits beyond misery and brooding, but he is too busy handcuffing them to dumb plot mechanics and rushed storytelling to let them truly shine. Because of that, it takes two whole acts for the Squad to slow down and halfway try to bond, and by then any big moments of heroism and loyalty are completely unearned.

But unlike Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad has more than two people with potential to waste in the first place. Instead of drowning Batman in a murderous rage and only giving a few glimpses of Wonder Woman, Ayer has characters like Deadshot, Harley, Waller and Diablo that suggest there's something of greater value buried here, however wasted it might be.

Deadshot puts Will Smith back in summer action lead mode for the first time in years, and perhaps absence makes the heart grow fonder. Smith not only recaptures some of his old summer movie sparks, he is one of two characters that comes close to providing any actual heart. Of course, that is engineered by a backstory involving a daughter which undercuts any notion of Smith actually going really bad for once, so there is that downside.

Jay Hernandez fares better on that end as the guilt-ridden firestarter Diablo, who is the only one to make any of the third act’s emotional beats work for a time. On the other end of the sympathy scale is Viola Davis, who now makes an Emmy-winning living on television as a ruthless leader of hapless underlings, so this is right in her wheelhouse. And like in How To Get Away With Murder, Davis’s icy and fearsome command goes a long way in uplifting material that may not entirely be worthy of her.

But even Davis’s ability to salvage something from nothing has nothing on Margot Robbie’s.

From the very first trailer, it was clear Suicide Squad was going to be Robbie’s show, moreso than Smith or even Leto’s. In a way, at least that part of the marketing is true, as Robbie’s delivery and wicked facial expressions give even her most subpar lines and material a pop. The effect is not unlike Kate McKinnon’s in Ghostbusters, as Robbie also makes an otherwise struggling movie worth re-watching to catch every gesture, background expression and line reading one might have missed the first time.

However, Harley is not an unqualified success beyond Robbie. In fact, the most insidious and ugly messages of Suicide Squad come from what they do with her and “Mr. J” together, or what they don't do.

For one thing, the near complete wasting of the Joker means there is almost no time to see him and Harley wreck havoc together as promised. But there is still just enough shown to get a truly unsettling picture, and not in a good way.

Those who are unfamiliar with the Joker/Harley dynamic from the 1990s Batman animated series and subsequent comics may not see things this way. But for those with a greater context of their history, they know it is one not just of madcap evil, but of abuse and Stockholm Syndrome. It is made clear in the movie that the Joker breaks Harley’s brain and turns her into a willing slave, yet it utterly glosses over the truly abusive depths of it and of the Joker himself.

This was probably never going to be a movie where the Joker actually hits Harley and tortures her for more than a few seconds, or where Harley fully rebels against what he did do to her. Nevertheless, there is a case to be made that Ayer winds up romanticizing the Joker and Harley’s twisted connection just as much as Harley does, without any proper context or critiques at all. In fact, this Joker is more likely to harm someone else who insults “his queen” than deal out that harm to her himself, which could have been Ayer’s half-baked attempt to be subversive but instead comes across as whitewashing his real abuse or worse.

And thanks to having so little of the Joker, there is absolutely no way to make sense of why Dr. Harleen Quinzel would be so drawn to him in the first place. We are just supposed to take it at face value because the Joker has been so fascinating for 70+ years, but Leto’s Joker does nothing at all to back up that reputation.

Even before Suicide Squad came out, there was some merchandise advertising the Joker and Harley as “relationship goals" when the reality is far far different. Now there will probably be some fans who believe otherwise more than ever after seeing this movie, whether they have the full context of their history or not. To those who have argued long and hard for years that the Joker’s mental and physical abuse of Harley shouldn’t be overlooked or treated uncritically, Suicide Squad will clearly ring out as being guilty of that exact crime.

But this is a movie where two of its biggest punchlines involve a female character getting punched, where violence is threatened upon a woman a few other times, and where Cara Delevingne is basically a colorfully and scantily clad prop as Enchantress. In that context, completely ignoring the minefield of issues around a canonically abusive relationship is no giant shock.

To those who still love the Joker and Harley together, and to those who were looking forward to seeing Leto and Robbie cut loose together, they get almost nothing to really enjoy. To those who wanted to see the Joker’s horrific methods and tactics examined more closely or at all, and who wanted a Harley with at least some bit of freedom from the Joker’s control, they get nothing to go on either. So in that regard, nobody wins at all, and the exact wrong kind of message about this type of relationship wins out for good measure as well.

It is sadly fitting that a movie which should have been Harley’s triumph, after a 25 year journey from animated guest star to movie star, has such a troubling asterisk. It fits because even when Suicide Squad finds some steps forward from the wreckage of Batman v Superman and the DCEU thus far, it undercuts and wastes them almost completely.

Suicide Squad doesn’t have Batman v Superman’s kind of catastrophic mistakes, or two-and-a-half hours of them. It is less insulting, has less infamous blunders, is built on a somewhat studier foundation and somehow has the less embarrassingly over-the-top human villain. But while these things make it an improvement in that way, it is also worse in another for actually having more real potential and squandering it.

DC has tried to make itself a more complex, more darker and more director-driven extended universe than Marvel. The intentions behind that aren’t bad ones, but DC’s continued problem is that it keeps turning to the wrong people to carry them out, as Snyder poisoned the well and now Ayer proves to be nothing close to a cure. Even if DC had left well enough alone and not tampered with the tone, it probably would have turned out the exact same way from what Ayer shows here.

Yet DC can never seem to leave well enough alone, at least in 2016. It had the simple concept of Batman fighting Superman, and still surrounded it with incoherent and endless complications until it spun utterly out of control. And now with the even simpler and much more promising concept of supervillains saving the world, DC again does everything possible to complicate a good idea with pointlessly bad ones.

Why can’t it just be enough to keep things simple, cut out 5-10 extra subplots, develop the core idea everyone really came to see with focused and coherent storytelling, and let characters with real life and logic lead a plot that actually makes sense rather than the other way around? When DC has a real answer for that, and a director who finally knows what they are doing for the first time since Christopher Nolan, then it will finally have a shot at performing anywhere close to Marvel’s level.

Until then, we have to put up with infamously failed efforts like Batman v Superman, and efforts that never should have been allowed to fail like Suicide Squad. Having actors that are allowed to sparkle at least once in a while like Robbie, Smith, Davis and Hernandez puts Suicide Squad on higher ground, but the way it squanders them and other elements the rest of the way makes it a very hollow victory.

To that end, this DC movie gets an official rating one point higher than the last one this reviewer saw. However, it is closer to a 4.5 score than a 5, and it may well feel like a 4/10 movie as more of the holes and the more offensive messages become even clearer over time.