“Suicide Squad” Could Use A Pep Rally

What if you threw a superhero party and didn’t recognize anybody who showed up? That’s sort of the vibe given off by Suicide Squad, the third film in  the unsteady, growing-pained DC Extended Universe. Much like the antiheroes at its center, it often feels like a conflicted, unfocused mass of energy and attitude that should be far more exciting than it is. And like those characters, it tries very hard to do good while being bad with mixed results.

Things start off promisingly enough, even with at least 20 minutes of backstory delivered by the steely Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) as she expositions over the members of Task Force X. In the wake of Superman’s activities in the previous DCEU films, Waller has decided to assemble a task of incarcerated “metahuman” criminals for covert suicide missions tackling super-powered threats, real or imagined. If things go well, the team gets reductions in their sentences. If things go badly, the government denies involvement and throws them under the bus (Waller also installs a remote-controlled explosive nanobot in each squad member’s neck to ensure loyalty just the same). Among the squad’s “luminaries” are master-assassin Deadshot (Will Smith), the Joker’s psychotic girlfriend Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), and the repentant, pyrokinetic El Diablo (Jay Hernandez). Of course, a metahuman threat appears that requires Waller to immediately dispatch the squad just as soon as they’re put together. Oh, and the Joker (Jared Leto) shows up every now and again, because reasons.

Whereas the previous two films focused on characters like Batman and Superman, characters who are so saturated into mainstream culture that they need no introduction, Suicide Squad focuses on a motley assemblage of lesser-known villains that would prompt most people to ask “Who are you again?” if confronted with them as a cosplayer. Except perhaps Harley Quinn, who is nearly inescapable at any kind of comic convention.

Pleased to meet you.

This is and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Without the baggage of cultural expectation, writer/director David Ayer is given a kind of freedom to define the characters a little more independently of their origins. Marvel made that work with Guardians of the Galaxy, a film Suicide Squad clearly owes a great debt to, and it should have worked just as well here. But somewhere between conception and final cut, something got muddled or second-guessed or just beaten senseless by test audiences, and the result is uneven and aimless when it should be sharp and driven.

It isn’t generally due to the cast, however. Much like Batman Vs. Superman, Suicide Squad has a cast that’s (mostly) better than the film they’re in. Will Smith is surprisingly appealing, striding through the film like he’s the most on his game he’s been in years. He convincingly plays Deadshot as a conflicted man who’s constantly trying to reconcile his desire to be a good father to his young daughter with his life as a hired killer. Smith wisely chooses to underplay several character beats, which prevents Deadshot from feeling cliche or stale (or from feeling like a typical Will Smith action hero). Jay Hernandez, in a similar vein, plays El Diablo as a man desperately trying to contain his violent impulses and the fiery, destructive superpowers that he commands to the point of being a kind of conscientious objector to the mission. When Deadshot provokes him into actually fighting alongside the squad while in the thick of battle, he explodes both literally and figurateively in a grand, dramatic fashion that none of the other characters can seem to match.

However the film really belongs to the women. Margot Robbie is an instant win as Harley Quinn, turning a character that could easily become an annoying collection of tics and mannerisms into a fully-fleshed performance. It helps that we see Harley both in flashbacks to her past as the Joker’s emotionally-vulnerable psychiatrist and as the broken mess she is in the present. It’s clear Harley is trying to make a working consciousness out of the wreckage in her brain, a kind of jury-rigged psyche, and she’s effectively unpredictable in the best ways. Viola Davis, however, truly commands the film as the imperious, bad-ass Amanda Waller, a woman who may possibly be even more ruthless and dangerous than all of the Squad put together. Davis owns every scene she’s in without even trying, intimidating everybody with nothing more than an icy stare and deadpan tone.

See that look? It means you've already lost.

Those performances tend to overshadow the rest of the cast, most of whom either barely register or seem too flat to be of consequence. In fact, the film spends so much time trying to acquaint the audience with its cast that it barely has time to develop several of the characters. Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang, for instance, seems to be defined solely by his accent; his superpower is being very, very Australian. The same could be said of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje who mostly lets his extensive reptilian prosthetics inform his performance as the cannibalistic party tank Killer Croc. Then there’s Karen Fukuhara as Katana, bodyguard to Rick Flag, the Squad’s military handler (Joel Kinnaman, doing the best he can with a generically-written role). The character starts out promisingly enough, but she’s given little to do after her introduction, and she ends up feeling underdeveloped and secondary despite the quiet, alluring intensity Fukuhara brings to the role. Jared Leto’s Joker, on the other hand, suffers from a little bit of both of these issues. His presence in the narrative is reduced to a seemingly-gratuitous, extended cameo; the vast majority of his scenes could be excised without the film losing anything. And while he brings an interesting and almost refreshing air of space-invading sexuality to his Joker, he comes nowhere near to the raw, unhinged power of Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight (or even the genuine menace of Mark Hamill’s animated portrayal). He seems to be doing an (admittedly good) imitation of the Joker instead of imbuing the character with genuine life.

Where the film suffers is in the execution of all its material. The pieces all seem to be in place, but it just never comes together the way it should, and Ayer seems unable to maintain a consistent tone or vibe. The opening scenes showing a montage of flashbacks illustrating the careers of each Squad member are put together with whip-smart editing, an infectious kind of energy, and Scott Pilgrim-style metatextual flourishes. That devolves into a second act that plays like an extended cut scene from a survival horror game (complete with endless amounts of demon/zombie cannon fodder), whereas the third act feels like the climax of nearly every other superhero film from the last few years that only occasionally benefits from the anarchic spirit promised in the film’s opening moments. While it’s inevitable for the Squad to eventually come together as a misfit family, it happens too quickly and neatly and without truly putting in the proper work to get to that point.

Beauty and the Beast Go Bananas.

The biggest speed bump seems to be the film’s antagonist, who is never fully-defined in either motive or ability. Why are they threatening the world? Because evil. What are their powers capable of? Anything and everything the script wants. Like literally every other comic book film released this year so far, Suicide Squad suffers from a forgettable villain who’s never developed beyond their job description: seeking megalomaniac with superpowers to rule the world, must like dramatic proclamations and CGI. It also doesn’t help that the villain’s weapon of mass destruction seems to be a swirling vortex of brilliant energy and/or debris conveniently positioned in an abandoned/ruined city, because that’s never, ever been done before ever.

Ayer does at least get his camera and his compositions right. He should be commended for finally bringing us a DC film that doesn’t run every frame through a desaturation filter and that isn’t afraid of neon. His fight scenes aren’t the most expertly choreographed out there, but especially in the film’s first half, he infuses them with a freewheeling, hypnotic chaos that doesn’t descend into shaky-cam, machete-edits, or abused slo-mo. They’re nothing like the four-color brawls of Captain America: Civil War or the power-blasting duels of X-Men: Apocalypse. The fighting is often as dirty and brutal as it should be given that the main combatants are all violent felons. It’s a shame that as the movies plods toward its pre-destined climax, Ayer seems to lose that mercenary energy and relies more on standardized action film language instead. The final battle feels as if it’s from an entirely different movie with an entirely different director.

Crazy in love.

Suicide Squad tries very hard to be a kind of anti-superhero movie, but in the process of trying to set itself apart ends up falling in line just the same. It’s tempting to wonder what might have happened had Warner Bros had the confidence in a post-Deadpool world to release the film as a giddy, boisterous, unabashed R-rated deconstruction of comic book film tropes, and there are promising (but frustratingly brief) glimpses of that film lurking in the background. After all, given how murky and nebulous the morality of the heroes of the DCEU have been, there’s sometimes very little separating the alleged villains of the Squad with the heroes who turn them over to the authorities. It’s a kind of chimera of a film, with Ayer’s vision seemingly blunted by studio interference, the whims of test audiences, and the grim tone of the DCEU, ending up with something that tries to please everybody and ends up losing itself in the process. It’s telling that half the humorous lines in the trailers never show up in the final cut. While the film is still often fun and genuinely humorous in many ways, it never forms a sure and steady balance between character and action or between rebellion and convention. For a film that’s about the worst criminals in the DC Universe, it seems disappointingly safe.

FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / C+

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