For many years, Warner Brothers had pretty good luck making Batman and Superman movies. With SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE they pretty much invented the comic book movie. With BATMAN they reinvigorated it. Sure, there were those Joel Schumacher movies that put the whole venture in peril, but then they took the genre to the next level when they let Christopher Nolan start over and do his very successful and influential trilogy. They’ve had more hits than misses, I think.
But now the rival Marvel Comics company has their whole interconnected movie universe thing, and everybody’s gonna be jealous of their neighbor’s sports car, I guess, so WB is trying to do one of those for DC Comics. So far this has caused excitement followed by disappointment.
But the upside is that because they’re desperate to show off all these characters they own they went for the cool idea of SUICIDE SQUAD, a comic where a bunch of the villains from other comics are taken out of prison and forced on dangerous missions for the government, DIRTY DOZEN or Snake Plissken style. Popular bad guy characters are able to be enjoyed as anti-heroes, and get some amount of redemption for that time when they tried to rob a bank but the Flash caught them or whatever. The movie version is written and directed by David Ayer. That’s the guy who used to be known for writing TRAINING DAY, but more recently he’s come into his own as a writer/director with END OF WATCH, SABOTAGE and FURY. He can also brag that he has a writing credit on THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS.
This is gonna be a mildly positive review. On a scale of 1-10 I give it a “not as frustrating as BATMAN V SUPERMAN.” But I’m gonna get the negatives out of the way first, and there are more than a few.
I guess maybe I shouldn’t have watched the cartoon version first, because it showed you can do this same premise with clean, economical storytelling. In not much more than half the running time it seems like it develops its characters more and gives them more to do. The structure of SUICIDE SQUAD is like a bunch of pieces of movies stacked up really high so they almost tip over. After a brief, pretty effective introduction of the prison we meet scary government lady Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, from the Jesse Stone movies) explaining the Task Force X black-ops-team-of-super-villain-convicts concept to a military guy over dinner.
It’s not just expositional dialogue, but her narrating little vignettes about Deadshot (Will Smith, SEVEN POUNDS), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, THE LEGEND OF TARZAN), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney, JACK REACHER), Diablo (Jay Hernandez, CARLITO’S WAY: RISE TO POWER), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, BULLET TO THE HEAD), Enchantress (Cara Delevingne, Luc Besson’s upcoming VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS), and also “the greatest Special Ops soldier America has ever created,” Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman, ROBOCOP remake), who will be in charge of the team. It’s not quite as clunky as BATMAN V SUPERMAN’s “Wonder Woman watches videos about different characters on a laptop” tangent, but it sure feels wrong to have all this stacked up at the beginning of the movie instead of worked into the story. When the actual team learns that they’re a team it’s at least 20 minutes in, and it feels like they finally got to the natural opening scene.
Then Flag goes through the prison and gathers the team. In UNCOMMON VALOR, HIT! and other great movies of this subgenre this would be where we would learn about each of them, and in this case I feel the traditional way would be vastly superior to the weird way they chose.
Another thing that seems odd right away: one of the team members, Slipknot (Adam Beach from WINDTALKERS all the sudden looking pretty badass), was not mentioned or given a backstory by Waller, and then they (SPOILER) use him for something like the cartoon did to KGBeast. He tries to run and they kill him. But there is a bit of a struggle first and then it’s kind of unclear what happens to him so it doesn’t have the same humorous bluntness. They completely flub the joke, forgetting to do the setup and then telling the punchline wrong.
As in the cartoon (and comic I think) the convicts are taken out of their cells, have mini-bombs implanted in them and are forced to go on a supposed suicide mission, this time under the supervision of Flag, some Navy SEALs (including Clint Eastwood’s lookalike son Scott, TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE, TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D) and Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a Japanese badass with a haunted sword. (I admire the matter-of-fact, no-joking-about-it explanation that the sword contains the souls of her vanquished enemies and her dead husband.)
So, we’ve already heard who the members of the team are gonna be, with special emphasis on the mighty powers of “the witch,” Enchantress, who was an archaeologist who got possessed by an ancient being but she’s in love with Flag and she can control it sometimes and Amanda Waller found her heart in a cave and keeps it in a briefcase to stab with a pen if she gets out of line (long story). Just what kind of mission would they need this team for?
Well, Enchantress found a thing and used it to resurrect her brother as a big rampaging monster because she says she’s going to build a machine to destroy the world!
Wait, what? I don’t know. I suppose there’s a fitting symbolism to the snake-eating-its-tail-ness of a team created to fight the threat created by the creation of the team, but it’s an unsatisfying starting point for a men-and-women-on-a-mission movie.
The mission mostly involves shooting thousands of bullets (and some fire and what not) at people turned into monsters, plus the two main monsters. This actually seems like one of those cases where you gonna call the Ghostbusters. Task Force X have no knowledge or expertise in magical shit, so the only reason to use them is the suicide part. That they’re expendables. But wouldn’t it be a better story if they were chosen because the mission specifically required their unique talents? This would go along with Waller’s search for “meta-humans” (although I’m not sure how throwing boomerangs, shooting guns or having fallen in acid once count as super powers).
One of the few times when a super power is totally appropriate – Croc can lead the SEALs through an underwater tunnel – he does it against Flag’s objections!
The mission is an aspect where the cartoon is clearly superior. In that one they get to go around to different locations, use their criminal connections, wear disguises, play tricks, with more twists and turns, more like a spy movie. This Suicide Squad just moves through a dark chunk of evacuated, partly destroyed city, shooting at monsters.
And I’m sorry to report that the action is almost uniformly muddled, lots of darkness and confusing closeups that made me wonder if some of it was shot in Imax and cropped. I was surprised to notice on the credits that it has the same stunt coordinator and second unit director as FURY ROAD, Guy Norris. The best action shots, like the funniest lines, were burned in the trailers.
Speaking of which, The Hollywood Reporter hollywood reports that “while Ayer pursued his original vision, Warners set about working on a different cut, with an assist from Trailer Park, the company that had made the teaser.” Maybe they improved something, maybe they ruined it, I obviously don’t know. But I think we can safely assume that that explains the movie’s most annoying stylistic quirk: the constant use of the beginning of songs, like a kickass musical montage is about to begin, that then abruptly cut off before going anywhere. It definitely seems like the work of people who only know how to edit trailers and not actual scenes. It’s like they scored the movie with the song samples on the Amazon page for the soundtrack.
Oh shit, that article makes it sound like the studio came up with that ridiculous structure: “The studio-favored version with more characters introduced early in the film and jazzed-up graphics won.” Whoops. That may also explain why the whole concept of the mission makes no sense. They probly made Enchantress a member of the team in order to mention her in the info dump pre-story-beginning section of the movie. I bet she was a separate project that got out of control, thus creating the need for Task Force X.
I read elsewhere that they cut out scenes of the Joker (Jared Leto, URBAN LEGEND) being abusive to Harley, to make it seem like a more “loving” relationship. If so it doesn’t work out since she’s a psychiatrist who a serial killer brainwashes, gives shock therapy to and convinces to jump into acid. Originally he would’ve pushed her out of the helicopter to kill her, ironically saving her because he gets shot down immediately after. Later he would’ve shown up to “rescue” her but she would choose her new friends over him, which sounds like one of those story arc things they mostly forgot are good to put in this movie. It’s hard to imagine the Ayer version not at least flowing better and making more sense.
But here’s why SUICIDE SQUAD still kinda works for me: I really like all these characters and the actors who play them. Robbie is the breakaway – is it fair to call it a star-making performance, even though we already knew who she was? She embodies a living cartoon, her humor and charm overpowering the potentially annoying “ain’t I fucked up?” aspect of the character (even though all her best lines were in the trailers). I’ve seen some people trying to take down the character as… problematic or whatever, which is fine if you need fictional characters, including anti-heroes, to be great role models and live ideal, inspirational lifestyles. I think Ms. Quinn is compelling and relatable because she’s a tragic character and a mess. She’s a victim who is struggling and often not succeeding in overcoming her circumstances. Would’ve been more satisfying with that intended ending, of course, but I’m not gonna deny the relatability of someone drawn to the person who hurts her. Obviously they intend this to be an ongoing series, and we will root for her to get out of that relationship.
Getting mad about that to me feels more judgmental than productive. But WB does deserve some scorn if they really thought they could re-edit an abusive relationship into a romance.
Smith has maybe his most successful version of a tough, streetwise kind of character, with a sweet (if obvious) relationship with his daughter and a funny rivalry with an asshole prison guard (Ike Barinholtz). Captain Boomerang doesn’t do much, but Courtney feels more alive and energized than in other movies, and gets to use an Australian accent. Killer Croc I couldn’t understand most of what he said, but it was still funny to have an crocodile dude walking around.
The sleeper is El Diablo, who initially seems like a half-assed idea for a super villain (face-tattooed Latin gangster stereotype with firestarter powers) but proves to be the most deeply felt character. He’s the only one that’s honest about the concept of a super villain trying to do good in the world. Even Deadshot’s adorable daughter eventually brushes off the fact that he’s a murderer, but El Diablo never forgets it. He seems like he was a low level criminal using his unique talents, then a literal explosion of violence at home ruined his life in a way he can never get past. He has real reason to be ashamed of himself and not want to use his powers.
And Davis brings scary authenticity to a character that seems to believe she’s doing the right thing for the world but plays dirtier than any of the so-called super villains she’s messing with.
There are moments where the squad show friendship or sympathy for each other, sometimes with just a look, that go a long way. When we see Harley hide her grieving with her usual silly/crazy shtick, and the others pick up on it but don’t say anything and make her feel appreciated, somehow it’s genuinely touching within all this mess. I also think Kinnaman and Smith pull off the classic/cliche arc of the guys who hate each other but gain respect and friendship over the course of working together.
This reinterpretation of the Joker, with ugly tattoos and silver teeth, has been controversial. I like it. With his thin frame and meticulous fashion he’s almost more traditional a Joker than we’ve had in live action before, but then he kinda decorates himself like Alien in SPRING BREAKERS and does weird-for-the-sake-of-weird shit like paint an extra smile around his mouth. Yes, he’s easy to hate. He should be. My only complaint is that at times I think Leto gets too close to the voice Heath Ledger used.
There are some moments of great visual imagination in the Joker scenes. I like the shot of him laying on the floor circled by hundreds of carefully placed knives, some baby clothes (?), a white piano, etc., like his version of the “look at my shit” scene. Or the gorgeous image of the Joker and Harley kissing in a pool of acid with swirls of color floating off of them like a pan of melted crayons. And I like that his gang, for some reason, wears panda masks, and possibly an official Batman cartoon merchandise mask I believe. Why not? I wish the story structure was cleaner, but I wouldn’t mind more of this crazy shit for color.
This is for sure: the world and attitude of SUICIDE SQUAD capture some of that promise of why you would hire Ayer in the first place. He amps up the rowdy macho-punk (S.W.A.T. Topic?) posturing of SABOTAGE and stirs in cartoon aesthetics that none of the other modern DC films would touch with a twenty five foot pole (Harley Quinn and her “Puddin”? Captain Boomerang? Killer Croc?) to create a unique sort of winky fake-edginess that stands out from other comic book films, or non comic book films for that matter. And that’s worth something.
And it’s possible that he even made a movie worthy of this style and these characters. We’ll never know unless they decide to release it some day. Until then we can watch this two hour and ten minute trailer collection and dream.
NOTE: In this Collider interview Ayer maintains that “this cut of a movie is my cut, there’s no sort of parallel universe version of the movie, the released movie is my cut.”
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.