It all depends on word-of-mouth and legs. If the film catches on with moviegoers and doesn’t collapse after opening weekend, it doesn’t have to approach that $872m worldwide total to be defined as a success. The other side of that equation is that Suicide Squad is a far more important film to Warner Bros./Time Warner and DC Comics than it might have been had Batman v Superman been better received by critics and audiences last Spring.
This was supposed to be the offbeat offering, but now it is tasked with somewhat reenergizing the fanbase and getting general audiences onboard for the likes of Wonder Woman, Justice League, and Aquaman. That’s some heroic heavy lifting for a bunch of bad guys, although history shows never to bet against the Joker. And with Harley Quinn making her big-screen debut (courtesy of Margot Robbie), this could very well end a somewhat disappointing summer with a big bang.
Okay, that’s enough for now. I’ve written about this film for two years, and I’ll have plenty more to say when the numbers start rolling in. And now onto the review…
I’m starting to feel like Charlie Brown here, folks. Once again I raced toward the football, with every hope that I would get a chance to kick it. Once again Lucy has pulled it out from under me at the last minute. Here I am, once again flat on my back staring up at the stars, wondering how I let myself get duped yet again. If Batman v Superman was crushed under the weight of its conflicting goals and outsize ambitions, then Suicide Squad merely trips on its own shoelaces and barely bothers to get back up.
This is a film where the first act is made up of the same scene being repeated several times. The first time we see Amanda Waller explaining to the government that she wants to make a team of supervillains to combat metahuman threats is interesting. The fourth or fifth time, complete with repeated introductions for the core players (Will Smith gets at least three introductory scenes), becomes an unintentional comedy. And yet, these moments are the highlight of the film.
Believe it or not, nearly all of the cool/creepy/offbeat moments glimpsed in the trailers are from what amounts to a series of origin story flashbacks and related prologue material. It’s a marketing scheme on par with Paramount/Viacom Inc.’s “Dwayne Johnson punching monsters” Hercules campaign, except here the showy flashbacks are the best parts of the movie. Once the team lands in harm’s way, and with the caveat that the plot is already in shambles at this juncture, the picture turns into a zombie video game, and not a good one.
The evil Enchantress (Cara Delevingne, introduced initially with some cool horror beats but then stranded in a hellish character with no real arc and some ridiculous moments) transforms humans into blob-like characters. This allows our Suicide Squad to slash, shoot, and explode hordes of adversaries without risking that PG-13. This also means we’re watching our anti-heroes slaughtering innocent bystanders by the truckload. The film never actually comments on that minor detail, but it makes the (relatively unexciting) action sequences a lot less fun.
The would-be action mostly takes place in a few deserted/evacuated city streets and an underground locale. The film’s third act comes off like a cross betweenGhostbusters and The Mummy Returns but sans any earned character loyalty or rising tension. For all the hub-bub about the bad guys being the heroes, their “evil” background is almost irrelevant for the course of this specific story. The fact that these guys and gals are villains is almost beside the point since they never actually engage in any skullduggery while on the mission.
To be fair, many of the team members are relegated to background players. Will Smith’s Deadshot, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, and Joel Kinnaman’s Rick Flag (who is a good guy put in charge of the bad guys) take center stage. Jay Hernandez’s Diablo gets a tragic backstory (albeit one that involves icky stereotypes and hardcore fridging), and Viola Davis almost steals the picture before she mostly disappears in the second half. The rest of the cast (Adam Beach, Jai Courtney, etc.) mostly fades into the background. This really is a Will Smith vehicle with a few colorful supporting characters.
Fortunately, Will Smith gives a real movie star performance, and he came to play. And yes, there is a certain “connected universe” thrill in an early flashback where he interacts with Ben Affleck’s Batman. Margot Robbie has as much fun as she can even though it’s not her movie no matter how much we might wish otherwise. She’s a firecracker to be sure, but she is frankly underused considering how much her character brings to the table. The film doesn’t even try to scratch the surface regarding her would-be relationship with you-know-who.
Speaking of which, Jared Leto’s Joker is barely in the movie, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. Leto’s perfectly okay turn doesn’t do much beyond mimicking James Cagney combined with a modern day gangster persona, and it’s nice that he isn’t allowed to take over the movie. But considering how weak the main villains turn out to be, it is almost a pity that Ayer didn’t just make Mr. J the primary antagonist for narrative efficiency. For what it’s worth, I’m guessing a lot of Joker/Harley stuff ended up on the cutting room floor.
The majority of the film is such a slog of “anti-heroes shooting at CGI blobs” and “anti-heroes slowly walking through a deserted cityscape” that you almost look forward to Leto’s periodic Swiper-like appearances just for the change in scenery. The film is clearly a victim of post-production tinkering and reshoots. There are plenty of moments in the trailer that aren’t in the movie, there are conflicting expository details, and the whole picture has a sense of forced whimsy. The non-stop soundtrack seems to operate as glorified duct tape for what became the final cut. I really wish studios would stop sabotaging their own films (at great expense) for the sake of a theoretically more crowdpleasing version.
Suicide Squad is not the savior of the summer. It is not the great DC Films entry that gets the franchise back on track after two middling Zack Snyder-directed Superman movies. It is a narratively slapdash affair, filled with dull action beats, a zig-zag plot with no suspense and no tension, plus a constant stream of musical choices that often feel about as subtle as that one great scene inBaseketball. The only things worth savoring are Smith, Robbie, and Davis. They make the case for their inclusion in a better DC Films project down the line.
Ah, a better DC Films project… Once upon a time I bent over backward to be fair to Green Lantern, yet now I am nostalgic for what that film’s A-to-B-to-C competence. As much as everyone talked about Zack Snyder as the great devil holding back the DC Comics universe, Suicide Squad is noticeably inferior to Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. It’s (perhaps by default) probably the worst “big” DC Comics live-action movie since Catwoman. Even Jonah Hex, warts and all, was at least about something, as its “fear of a militarized Tea Party” subtext turned out to be sadly prescient.
With Batman: Assault on Arkham providing a proverbial blueprint on how to do a Suicide Squad movie, there is no excuse for this. So here we are, with another devastating letdown from the newfangled DC Films universe. I am a lifelong DC Comics fan, one who spent his teen years filled with excitement for Batman Returns and Batman Forever. Now I look at the likes of Wonder Woman, Justice League, and Aquaman with fear and trepidation. I still hope, but only because I cannot bear to be in a position of not looking forward to a friggin’ Justice League movie.
I would love for Wonder Woman to be the Captain America of the DC Films world, that instant classic right before the big, big show. But at this juncture, I’d settle for a DC (theatrical) live-action movie at least as good as Thor. I mean, they’ve got nowhere to go but up, right? To paraphrase another comic book franchise, I need me to hope again…
Text: Scott Mendelson