You could practically see the blueprint being drafted in real time: Warner Bros. - coming off a critical drudging and disappointing if not disastrous box office performance of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but firmly committed to further expansion of the DC Comics Cinematic Universe - would use this week’s Suicide Squad as a soft reset of sorts. With anticipation extremely high and a huge first weekend box office reportedly in the cards, the film’s seeming irreverent tone would act as both a redo of the DCCU launch and perhaps serve as a tonal guidepost for films to come.
It might be time for plan B (or is that plan C?)
More pitchy than flat out failure, writer/director David Ayer’s film seems to suffer from not exactly being sure what it is. Is it a film about badasses forced to save the world? Or a film about misunderstood outsiders who really just need friends? The film has and will be compared to Marvel’s surprise hit Guardians of the Galaxy for multiple reasons, and seems to tilt in that film’s latter direction, but lacks the earnest, subversively innocent charm of the James Gunn opus.
Suffering from structural issues as well, Suicide Squad spends the first act in extended trailer mode, introducing each character and their backstory, replete with on screen graphics explaining who they are. This may have worked better for a brief-ish montage, but their length and number make the sequences wear thin. It’s a little too half meta-clever for its own good.
Finally, when all precedent and storytelling expectations point towards a second act that features the team meeting one another, training together and bickering/bonding, the story unexpectedly and somewhat awkwardly moves directly into its final and quite literal ‘big boss battle’ third act, leaving at least this moviegoer asking himself for about a half-hour “wait, did the end of this film just begin?” (Yes, it did).
Literally seconds after Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, in a somewhat thankless role) is given approval to create ‘Task Force X,” the film’s big bad instantly emerges, and the team is hastily assembled and sent off in a helicopter to Midway City, culminating in the first of not one, not two, but three plot-pivotal chopper crashes. The big bad then just seemingly waits around for an hour for the Squad to arrive.
When on the ground the team is forced on the fly to establish the ties that the whole structure of the story is based, and in seeming real-time over the film’s final 60-plus minutes. Because the genre necessitates that the team bond, a la Guardians, it features its own quiet break from the action for an earnest call to arms that rallies the characters around one another, but doesn’t do the work to get them to a place where their decisions are credible.
In the final moments, one character goes so far to refer to the team as his “family” when literally 45 minutes before he couldn’t be bothered to lend a hand or had even exchanged a word with any one of them. The evolution isn’t earned. It’s a PG-13 Disney-esque moment and climax inhabiting what probably should have been a more practical rated-R film.
As such, most of the team comes off as tough talkers, rather than genuine bad people.
Will Smith is at the top of his game (depending on how you feel about that) and remains a magnetic screen presence, but his leading man persona works against him. Why he’s a merciless hitman is never established. He comes off more like a sarcastic, harder-edged version of his character in The Pursuit of Happyness, except instead of working as an intern for a financial company, he kills people for money.
Margot Robbie shows she’s every inch the superstar she’s quickly emerged as, but Ayer’s script doesn’t do Harley Quinn many favors. The film constantly hints she’s not really crazy, it’s all just a façade covering the fact she’s actually just crazy in love and if the Joker (more on him in a second) isn’t in her immediate vicinity, she really has a heart of gold. That somewhat subjects her to a girlfriend role and makes her generous helpings of ‘crazy’ one-liners to try to establish her insanity seem more like bravado, and Robbie can’t quite overcome the occasional awkwardness of the pitch.
She’s very much the DC equivalent of Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool, but instead of scattershot, ironic meta-references to the story around him, all her ‘crazy’ dialogue is self-referential to convince people she’s nuts, and sometimes feels forced.
Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
Adam Beach’s Slipknot and Karen Fukuhara
But Jay Fernandez’s El Diablo stands out in a less-showy, dignified performance as the team’s true outlier.
Joel Kinnaman’s Rick Flag is sort of all over the place. His character is a mess of conflicts and contradiction, and perhaps understandably so is Kinnaman. That fact that he does it all for love is perhaps a necessary plot contrivance, but undermines both the character and performance.
The film’s only genuine badass is in fact Davis’ Waller. Ayer goes out of his way to establish her strength, resolve and flat-out ruthlessness, and Davis credibly inhabits the role with long, unblinking stare downs and quiet, steely delivery. But the actress isn’t given any backstory to establish why she’s such an unfeeling badass. Ayer also makes a questionable choice by having her perform an act of such coldhearted ruthlessness that it undermines what her motivations are. Is she really a pragmatic patriot trying to protect America, or just a narcissist hell-bent on establishing her own cred and power?
Suicide Squad’s wildcard of course is Jared Leto’s Joker (see what we did there?). The Joker inhabits the film only on the periphery, not at all central or necessary to the main plot. His inclusion is more of an extended mid-credits teaser. He’s there to add name recognition to the largely obscure collection of characters, but it’s all just setting him up for what’s likely the main villain role in Ben Affleck’s Batman solo film.
Perhaps appropriately then, without Batman as a constant foil, Leto’s Joker comes off as more confusing then compelling. The actor had the unenviable task of creating a contemporary Joker that also follows Heath Ledger’s now-iconic version of the character. Leto answers the call by making his Joker bat-sh*t crazy, but without the “bat” it comes off as somewhat directionless. Leto fails to even establish a signature character tick along the lines of Ledger’s gravely Tom Waits-like delivery. The Joker’s gold grill stands out as his signature trait.
Since The Dark Knight Returns, comic book lore has established the character as a sort of primordial yin to Batman’s yang, with Batman mostly removed from the equation, Leto’s performance is showy but seems only half-realized and really doesn't add to the mix.
Overall, Suicide Squad is hardly a flop and works a little better than the sum of its parts (but hey, I really liked Dawn of Justice). Hardcore fans of DC Comics will likely be somewhat satiated with its deep dive into comic book lore. Ayer (or at least the final edit) errs on the just the right side of taking things too seriously, the cast is appealing enough and the production standards are top notch. If you're a fan playing the low expectations game, it's a worthwhile two hours at the movies.
But despite Warner Bros. dismissing reports of post-production changes, it very much feels like an editing room course correction, with a little bit of Deadpool and a little bit Guardians mixed in to an attempt to not be as tonally earnest as Dawn of Justice.
All told, Suicide Squad points to a DCCU that still hasn’t found its voice … or its soul yet. Because Wonder Woman is already in the can and Justice League is knee-deep in production, the equation hasn’t yet hit critical mass. There will be more opportunity for a turnaround and Warner Bros. can probably keep things going even if the franchise never meets the high bar the critical and box office success of Marvel Studios has set. But you have to think there’ll be more internal soul searching if Suicide Squad’s box office doesn’t radically defy the early critics.