Let me make the case for Suicide…
Squad. Suicide Squad. Though I get why you might want to end it all, you know, with the current state of affairs. No, I’m not speaking of the political, cultural or economic climate; I’m talking about the droves of negative reviews coming out for one the most anticipated movies of 2016.
Alright, I’ll admit bias. I’m a huge fan of this franchise and consider the 1987 Suicide Squad comic series by John Ostrander and Kim Yale to be one of the genre’s best long-form stories and a seminal work in terms of storytelling significance. As you can probably guess I was shocked and hyped when Warner Bros announced their intent to bring the story to theaters, and extremely curious about the choice to release their first big team movie ahead of an obligatory Justice League flick.
I have a broad, general rule about prepress for films I know I’m going to see, so I strain to avoid previews, think-pieces, interviews and the like. No matter of abstention it’s hard to miss everything, and this week my various feeds, pages and streams blasted me with a parade of not-so-favorable Suicide Squad reviews from a bunch of people who do this stuff professionally. It’s hard not to have excitement tempered by that type of media onslaught, where months of major giddiness are whittled away over a few days’ span. The sensation flashed me back to March’s Batman v. Superman, frank articles by critics in disbelief and an almost gleeful collective bashing by journalists, creators and fans on social media. I’m a guy who will leap across the room for the remote to avoid seeing a trailer, so yes, even the simplest retweet can take some luster off. I ain’t bitter. That’s the world we live in, I just think it’s prudent to say I walked into the theater with beleaguered expectations and little idea what the movie looked or sounded like.
My great affection for superhero comics stems from many places, but one thing I’ve always been a sucker for is the shared universe concept. The Suicide Squad model is extremely dependent on a larger world, and in a major way, the film is excellent in achieving, perhaps manufacturing, a fleshed-out world despite being only the third installment in the DC movie saga. We see a couple top-tier heroes, a host of bad guys, prominent locales, conversations about the state of the cinematic universe and really, a double-or-nothing bet on the stark and grim aesthetic of both Man of Steel and BvS. Suicide Squad blends, binds, and builds the world that will serve as the backdrop to numerous future films. I know, I know, maybe that world isn’t composed of the best creative choices, but I enjoyed how this movie felt tightly sewn into the fabric of the whole DC universe.
In a specific way it channels the reality one can find sitting on the racks at the comic shop each week, a story overlaid on top of a larger narrative. A single tale amongst many, and one that highlights the undercurrent of the living DC universe. The Squad is composed of all kinds of knights and ne’er-do-wells from across many spectrums. Flash zooming in with a quip, the Joker weaving through the movie like a neon snake, Midway City crackling with mystic energy; no comic book movie has embraced the entire catalogue like this one.
Yeah, OK, I saw Civil War too, and as a Marvel guy, I can tell you I’m mega-appreciative of the methodical management of their properties. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that their brand has become so steadily good that it’s a tad monotonous, stale and too thoroughly paced (if that’s a thing). Let me set it straight — Marvel Studios is the modern day example of cinema excellence, but I appreciate Warner Bros choice to not only be visually different but to use contrasting plot and exposition style that assumes, perhaps rightfully, that most of us are nerds and can roll with the punches. For example, take the two studios approach to magic: Suicide Squad bluntly introduces a spooky teleporting witch within the first half hour and then keeps moving; November’s Doctor Strange is an entire piece dedicated to introducing the MCU to the idea that inexplicable stuff can happen.
Suicide Squad blasts off the starting line by spinning through character introductions like a collector through longboxes. We meet everyone we need to know, extremely quickly and the pace of the film is agreeably brisk. Director David Ayer is a director whose works have existed in a type of ultra reality where Murphy’s Law is the law of the land. The feasible acts in Training Day, Fury and End of Watch, are everyday evils of war, drugs, murder, and Ayer frames them with a ferocity and attitude that is relentless and full of spectacle. I was extremely interested in how the director’s style would mash or marry with acts that are infeasible, like faultless marksmen and guys who can shoot fire from their fists. The plots of Ayer’s films are normally about taking the audience on a ride, whether it’s in a tank, or a police car, or in the case of Suicide Squad across a hellish cityscape littered with chaos.
When the scenes slow down, it’s normally for Harley Quinn, Joker or Deadshot, a natural move since those characters are backed by the three highest-profile actors.
It’s amazing that 2016 is the year both Deadpool and Harley Quinn make their worldwide debuts. Not only bound by color motif they hold the rare distinction of new 1990’s properties who eventually “turned a profit.” The inclusion of Dr. Harleen Quinzel into Suicide Squad was a move that poured a lot of excitement into the project, and fans of the character, who are a major force BTW, have closely eyed production every step of that way.
Fast riser Margot Robbie hits every nail she’s given with a giant mallet. She’s odd, unpredictable, funny, jovial and the right amount of scary. The movie, like the source material, punishes its characters, and Harley gets the brunt of abuse. Tragic incarceration to wacky romance with a psychopathic crime lord, the character is embattled, not to mention consistently objectified. Dare I say she’s a lovable victim? The thing is, up until recently, this has been the mythology of Harley Quinn, Joker’s hot and lethal sidekick. Other facets of the character, particularly her psychology background and underlying intelligence, are washed out, literally, by acid. Via a dream-like cut-scene we’re lead to believe that her greatest wish is to be married with kids, which is a tough take on one of the most popular female characters of the generation. The bright side is that despite being shoved through the muck, her character retains her buoyancy and charm, which illuminates the dark script with a counterpunch of sweetness and humor.
Boyfriend Joker is naturally a huge attraction to the film’s buzz and Jared Leto is an adequate Clown Prince of Crime. I use the word “adequate” because the role has a well-known history of spectacular performances and the bar is set sky-high. Leto does a satisfactory job giving us a Joker we recognize trapped inside one we don’t. The tattooed, grill-wearing get up works to a degree, giving the villain a powerfully fresh vibe within the newly minted DC movie landscape. In an early scene, Joker meets with a gangster (Common) in a setting pulled straight out of Scarface. Ayer’s films almost always involve law enforcement or military and through that filter, the Joker isn’t a supervillain, he’s a criminal, an ultimate law breaker to oppose police and military and government. He still has the danger to him, and the classic image is there: the costumed thugs and wildly shooting from the bay of a helicopter are pure Joker. But this version, in this movie, is not the version many were hoping for.
The same will probably be said about Deadshot. No one should be surprised that the role is intrinsically altered once Will Smith is cast, he brings a specific bravado and pugnacious wit into everything he does and everyone should know that. These irremovable traits are what make Smith a good Deadshot, he pushes back against the authority of Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) in ways very true to Jon Ostrander’s vision. His snarky challenges play perfectly and within the blueprint of this movie he excels as a character, however, the divergences with the comic are frequent. There’s a religion angle that’s apparent but not clear, and though Deadshot can be funny (especially when written by Gail Simone), I was not grooving with the steady offering of jokes from Floyd Lawton. Most annoyingly, there seemed to be a big aversion to the character wearing the mask.
The rest of the cast are utilized as the plot needs them. Characters kind of float in and out or just seem to be tagging along. Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Katana (Karen Fukuhara) and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) all shine and then dim quickly. Rick Flag is supposed to be the sane man in a world gone bananas, so Kinnaman standing around looking confused and did the job. Cara Delevingne’s Enchantress serves the part of badguy, a fascinating play on “The Nightshade Odyssey,” a less celebrated, but solid, arc from the 1987 series.
There’s a splash of irony in that I feel like the script shares a bunch of qualities with that comic run, but somehow ultimately fails it. Lasting over 65 issues Ostrander and Yale’s Suicide Squad is a master class in long-form comics, a medium much more akin to modern television than the movie biz. Juggling multiple characters, tying into larger narratives and pushing events forward without a lot of exposition were part of the formula that made it successful. Both that run and this movie highlight necessary aspects of the main action while still promoting numerous secondary characters and overarching subplots.
The problem is that cinema doesn’t really allow for this type of story to take place and the end result is like trying to shove a shotgun shell into the pistol. There is no guaranteed follow-up to Suicide Squad and thus no promise of tomorrow. The plot is a bit tricky; not ornate, but fragile, especially one presses it critically. As reported, the movie’s rollout is fast, the characters are rapidly thrust together and set on their mission. A non-linear approach obscures the real objective of the Squad for a majority of the runtime, although the withheld chunk depicting what exactly happened to Enchantress and Flag in the subway tunnel has no real impact on the third act twist that the Squad was deployed to Midway City to save Amanda Waller. The real purpose of the script’s chopped up timeline is to obscure this task, to disorient the audience into not realizing the when and where. There’s a bit of vapid cleverness in Ayer’s choice to position the movie like this. Part of me enjoyed the legit surprise, another part felt like I had my time wasted.
The movie’s final stretch focuses on eliminating the bad guy who is destroying Midway City, which is a shift in rhetoric since no one, not even Flag or even Waller, seem interested in heading toward the beam of blue light surging through the middle of town. Though one could argue Waller was not a damsel during the movie’s first portion, she recruits and organizes her own rescue team, after all, she is regulated to that area when she’s captured by Enchantress after the movie’s second nonlethal helicopter crash. Task Force X, through a damn good scene in a city bar, decide that there is merit in heroism. Obscure character El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) serves as the movie’s overachiever, giving us an interesting redemptive arc that pays off during one of the more dynamic visual pieces, a fiery fight with the obligatory CGI character, Enchantress’ brother, Incubus (although I don’t think he’s ever called that).
Within the world of comics, this story would be suitable, and part of me really enjoys the vignette or episodic nature of it. Movies are judged not by how they fit into the greater fabric but how that block of two or three hours performs in a vacuum. Even though the landscape of the medium is shifting toward connected franchises there isn’t a compelling argument I can make to tell you that the script of Suicide Squad works majestically. But still, there is a part of me that really likes the effect presented here, a work of fiction linked up to a bigger one work of fiction, telling a single smaller story within the scope of the world’s longest running fantasy world.
Much like the 1987 Suicide Squad, the movie is built on the back of cool character moments, the interplay between bad guys and the monolith of Amanda Waller. When that series was wrapping up way back in 1992 Ostrander and Yale predicted that if they contributed anything notable to the greater DC package it was “The Wall” and her indomitable personality, and they were right. Waller is such a staple of that pretend universe that she’s now probably more indispensable than her Marvel equivalent, Nick Fury. Aside from a strange scene where Waller kills a slew of FBI agents for seeing the wrong classified intel, Davis, Ayer and the rest succeed in presenting fans with a true and valid version of the character. Ruthless as all hell, you firmly believe this is a person who can keep murderers and sociopaths in line.
Batman v. Superman was a film that seemed designed to piss off both brand new fans and comic veterans alike while appeasing everyone in the middle. I feel there is a similar atmosphere here as the movie doesn’t worry about cautious introductions but concurrently is not slavish to the reference material. Assuredly, comic vets are not going to be happy with the askew depictions of Quinn, Joker, and Deadshot, and casual viewers are robbed of seeing the secondary characters get the acknowledgment they deserve. I’m a huge fan of Boomerang and the element his scumbaggery brings to the team and I’m not at all satisfied with his function here, but at the same time I realize that this story, this “arc,” wasn’t about him.
There is a lot more right with Suicide Squad than wrong. It’s hardly a superb movie and suffers from flaws that cause one to question the filmmaker and studio, but the novelty and swagger had me walking out of the theater feeling good about the future of the DC slate. Much like I felt about BvS I think the franchise only needs a small “course corrections” to achieve top-level success both at the box office in the hearts and minds of moviegoers. Ingredients like acting, cinematography and dark humor are satisfactory, but other factors, like action (seriously, no fight scenes?) and plot cohesion need a boost.
As a devout fan of the comic book franchise, I would be quite justified in hating this movie, but I just can’t. It doesn’t get the specifics right yet there is a metafictional success in the way the story is told. The same themes of hopelessness, power, redemption, evil, brutality and damage ring true against the backdrop of a wild disaster that we understand as much as the characters do. The comic version of Suicide Squad was never about one mission, one issue, one storyline, its success derived from an ongoing tale about a group of degenerates and psychopaths united by their innate selfishness and surprising altruism. There’s a bit of that peeking out between the clouds of the gloomy skies, and I’m quite sure the inevitable sequel will build on this, a movie that takes after its characters. Damaged, sexy, vivid with the perfect amount of emptiness inside.