Director: David Ayer
Starring: Will Smith, Viola Davis, Margot Robbie
August 1, 2016
When it came to DC’s attempts at building a shared cinematic universe to compete with Marvel, Suicide Squad was under a lot of pressure. Critical reactions to the previous DC films, Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, could be charitably described as “mixed.” However, with a different creative team, a focus on gleeful rogues over brooding heroes, and a broad conceptual similarity to Marvel’s much-loved Guardians of the Galaxy, Suicide Squad stood a chance of turning things around.
But somewhere along the line, something went wrong.
We had already saw glimpses of the film’s behind-the-scenes problems; watching the end result, the effects of those creative woes are all too apparent.
Suicide Squad charts the origins of a covert government operation to send incarcerated supervillains on deadly missions for the benefit of America’s security, like the Dirty Dozen in spandex. The film assembles a colourful assortment of rogues from the DC Comics back-catalogue, but by a considerable margin, the three most developed protagonists are Harley Quinn, Deadshot, and El Diablo.
Margot Robbie portrays Harley, quite unabashedly, as a cartoon character come to life. When we first see her, she is sitting in her cage atop a perch formed from a length of bedding tied between two bars, looking for all the world like a piece of fetishized Tweetie Pie fanart. Upon her release she becomes a twisted homage to late-90s bubblegum pop iconography, fluttering her lashes, jiggling her pigtails and baring skin with abandon. The film does not convincingly explain why she is on the team – she has no superpowers, and her background in psychiatry is never drawn upon during the Squad’s missions – but the deliberate absurdity of the character makes it easy to forgive this oversight.
Will Smith brings his usual charisma to the role of Floyd Lawton, the hitman known as Deadshot. In a set-up loosely inspired by the Deadshot: Bulletproof miniseries, Lawton is written as a family man with an estranged wife and a darling daughter; it is out of love for this child that he turned himself over to the law. The relationship between father and daughter is a major part of the film’s emotional heart, and is also used for a few comic touches: one scene in particular recalls the interaction between Hit-Girl and her father in Kick-Ass.
Jay Hernandez’s El Diablo, a human flamethrower, is the most powerful member of the team – but also the most reluctant. He feels genuine remorse for his history of mass murder, and now uses his powers only when pushed to the limit.
Then we have Viola Davis, who leaves a strong impression in her limited role as group organiser Amanda Waller. After the above four characters, meanwhile, we are left with the also-rans.
Rick Flag, the leader of the team, is something of a vestigial organ left over from the 1980s incarnation of the comic. There, writer John Ostrander portrayed the Squad as a mixture of out-and-out villains and decent sorts who had simply drawn a few short straws. Flag fell into the latter category, and strove to provide moral guidance to his sometimes amoral crew. The film takes a very different tack: working with the premise that there is but a thin line between government and gangland, it portrays Flag as an unlikeable character who is little different from the other rogues in the team, aside from being markedly less colourful.
The other Suicide Squad members – Katana, Captain Boomerang, and Killer Croc – are superfluous to the plot. In terms of characterisation they are reduced to a pair of national stereotypes and an ugly bloke.
While the team of protagonists could have been trimmed, it contains enough solid characters to carry a good film. It is where the antagonists are concerned that Suicide Squad truly goes off the rails.
When it comes to super-team origin stories, the traditional approach is for the gang to band together to face a common threat: think of the Avengers versus Loki, or the Justice League versus Darkseid. In this film, however, the Suicide Squad is assembled as a precaution against the hypothetical possibility of a superpowered terrorist. In logical terms, this is an entirely sound decision; but in dramatic terms, it fails to start the story off on a bang.
When the Suicide Squad faces its first and biggest threat, this turns out to have come from inside the newly-formed team: the central villain of the film is Enchantress, one of the Squad’s members.
Played by model and actress Cara Delevingne, Enchantress is first introduced – true to the comics – as an archeologist named June Moone who developed a Jekyll-and-Hyde aspect after being possessed by an evil spirit. But by the end of the first act, Enchantress has gone rogue and summoned a second evil spirit and an army of slime-men to help her bring about the apocalypse. In the process, her split personality – the entire point of the character in the comics, which once billed her as the “switcheroo-witcheroo” – is all but forgotten.
So muddled is the film’s conception of Enchantress that it introduces two distinct appearances for her evil side, and has trouble deciding which to use. She is initially portrayed as a tangle-haired J-horror spectre; after getting cleaned up to become an Anne Rice vampire queen, she then changes back to her previous guise.
The film’s secondary antagonist is the Joker, portrayed by Jared Leto as a kind of ghoulish pimp. The character is effective when onscreen, but given remarkably little to do. Beyond the flashbacks outlining his twisted romance with his former psychiatrist Harley Quinn, the Joker’s role in the film is to turn up halfway through in an attempt to get Harley back only to be dropped from the story a short time afterwards. His presence recalls the great grandfather of shared-universe movies, 1944’s House of Frankenstein, in which Boris Karloff accidentally revives Dracula – who is then killed off prior to the final act.
And this, really, is the film’s main conceptual failing: it uses a half-baked Enchantress as its primary villain when it already has a perfectly good Joker at its disposal. Other flaws are smaller, but still glaring, and reaffirm the film’s troubled creative process.
In her introductory flashback, June Moone finds a statuette in an archeological site and proceeds to deliberately snap off its head, thereby freeing the spirit that turns her into the Enchantress. Why would an archeologist carry out this act of wanton desecration? Are we supposed to infer that the spirit compelled her? Surely the scene would have made more sense had she accidentally dropped and broken the statue, or even become possessed simply by touching it?
Another bewildering moment occurs during one of Harley’s flashbacks. Batman fishes her out of a river and, believing her to be unconscious, gives her CPR. She then turns out to have been playing possum, and begins kissing him. And yet, Batman’s CPR is clearly portrayed as a kiss even before this happens. This effect must have been accidental – aside from making Batman look like a rapist, it defeats the object of the scene – so one can only speculate as to what went wrong during the sequence’s production.
Suicide Squad gives every indication that it knows something is wrong with its plot, and so drops in musical cues whenever the film is in the remotest danger of lagging. Ozzy Osbourne, Queen, Eminem, the Rolling Stones and others perform their greatest hits while the characters are reduced entirely to visuals.
And it is in these visuals – the little bits that occur between during or between the big scenes – that the film shines most brightly.
When the Joker first hears that Harley is on parole, he lies down on the floor and cackles to himself while surrounded by neat circles of guns and knives. As the camera pulls out, we see that the outer ring contains baby clothes – hinting at his plans to someday settle down with his moll and sire a Joker Junior. Little touches like that come thick and fast, and lend the characters and their world a degree of vitality that is never provided by the weak story.
Suicide Squad aspires to be a candy-coloured Sin City. Somewhere during production a few gears came loose, and the film fails to work as intended. And yet, through the jumbled storytelling, we are repeatedly given tantalising glimpses of what the film could have been.
Perhaps when the full story of Suicide Squad’s troubled production is made public, it will offer a cautionary tale for filmmakers of the future…