After the critical mauling, poor public response, and disappointing box office (‘only’ 800+ million dollars, rather than the expected billion or so), Batman v Superman had put the fledgling DC Expanded Universe at risk. This left David Ayer’s Suicide Squad to save the day, despite the fact that it features (anti)heroes with far less general popularity than its predecessor. Unfortunately, Suicide Squad is only slightly better than BVS, containing plenty of good individual elements that get lost in an absolute mess of a final cut. Reports of the film’s troubled production have been floating around since the initial critical reception was released, and all the behind the scenes confusion is felt very strongly in the finished product.
There’s definitely a bigger sense of fun here than in any previous DCEU instalment, which took themselves far too seriously for superhero movies, but this often comes at the expense of coherence. Characters are introduced in musical montages with voiceovers explaining their backstories and motivations (a terrible display of tell not show storytelling), and the story really doesn’t fall in to place until about 20 or 30 minutes in. Once it does, the excellent cast – the bizarre, ‘edgy’, set environment clearly encouraged a visible camaraderie – start to pull the movie in a far more positive direction.
Will Smith turns in one of his most obviously ‘movie star’ performances in ages as Deadshot, an assassin who never misses and ends up the de facto leader of the eponymous Squad, known officially in the film as Task Force X. Set up by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) – in response to the new metahuman threat made clear by the destructive battles fought by Superman – this team is made up of superpowered or at least super-skilled criminals, forced to work for the government under threat of having their heads exploded.
Smith shares the best chemistry with Margot Robbie, playing insane former psychiatrist Harley Quinn. Quinn was tortured at the hands of the Joker (Jared Leto), and turned into a hyper-agile and hyper-sexualised wrecking ball, wielding revolvers and a baseball bat and capable of causing serious damage. Her relationship with Deadshot forms the film’s heart, as do Deadshot’s attempts to see more of his daughter. In fact, the entire Squad, other than Adam Beach as Slipknot (whose power is…ropes) get warmly humanising traits, and the cast makes the most of these. Robbie is a particular standout as Quinn, electrically energetic and mostly overcoming a very pervy tone surrounding her scenes.
A surprise scene stealer is Jai Courtney as Captain Boomerang, easily the best big screen role Courtney’s ever had. Duplicitous and cowardly, but also the funniest member of the team, Boomerang proves the potential that anyone who watched the Spartacus Starz series knew Courtney had. Rounding out the rest of Task Force X are their military commander Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman) and his sword-wielding lieutenant Katana (Karen Fukuhara), flame-spewing gangster El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), with his self-explanatory name. Katana and Flagg don’t make much of an impression, other than in the scenes Flagg shares with Deadshot, but that’s to be expected given that they can’t share in the criminal unity of the Squad.
It’s Viola Davis, though, who owns the film. Her Amanda Waller is easily Suicide Squad’s greatest asset. Cold, ruthless, and genuinely evil, she makes for a fantastic villain, and definitely deserves far more screen time, especially given that the actual Big Bad is so genuinely terrible. Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) has some cool visuals for her introduction, but other than that is a total failure. Her magical powers are never defined (she can rip legions of helicopters out of the sky, but getting tripped by a baseball bat causes her harm) and don’t fit at all with the abilities of the heroes. She even has an all-CGI generic monster brother, and a truly atrocious performance from Delevingne means that this antagonist duo lacks any semblance of character.
Battles between the Squad and the minions of Enchantress are plenty of fun, and the moments in which they actually work together with something approaching unity are great (though a moment toward the end where El Diablo labels the Squad his new family feels entirely unearned). It’s just a shame that the overall villain is so bad that the story revolving around her is inherently a total mess, not helped at all by the sort of weird editing that also plagued BVS. At one point, Waller explains exactly what’s going on to the team, including flashbacks to the key moments that set up their current situation. The problem is that the audience has already seen these sequences, and the flashbacks don’t even try to give new angles of the scenes. It’s a mark of a deeply troubled edit in which no one had quite enough power to make sensible decisions.
And what of Jared Leto’s Joker, so hyped up by the marketing? Well, Leto’s performance is actually pretty decent (though not to the extent that it justifies his insane method acting behaviour), but the Joker is one of the key casualties of that edit. Much of what was promised in the trailers has been cut entirely, with most of the other Joker scenes clearly shortened. Whether this was due to chasing a PG-13 rating in the US or just a tonal problem, Leto certainly doesn’t earn his place as the second-billed star, and the trailers’ implication of a Joker-focused movie proves to be a lie.
Basically, Suicide Squad is a scrambled muddle of a film. It would be all too easy to bang on about its flaws, and you’d be justified in doing so. Yet, there’s a whole lot of good stuff on display here too. Will Smith and Margot Robbie lead a game and charismatic cast, and Ayer’s skill at creating brothers-in-arms is evident. Most of the second act is a blast, despite the narrative chaos, and once the film finds its footing, the bouncy soundtrack starts to blend with what’s going on on-screen, keeping things consistently lively. As DC’s answer to Guardians of the Galaxy, it falls almost as many miles short as BVS did of Civil War, but the ‘Worst Heroes Ever’ are still worth the time of any comic-book movie fan.