Suicide Squad August 7, 2016
In response to the cyclone of bad press that’s hit DC’s Suicide Squad harder than the tornado of The Wizard of Oz (1939) hit Dorothy and Toto, writer-director David Ayer has decided that letting opponents get the best of him just won’t do. Akin to Duncan Jones’s “it’s only a movie” defense of his reviled World of Warcraft, Ayer has figured that his harshest critics simply don’t understand the film. As expressed a few days ago via Twitter, Suicide Squad was made for the fans, fans that can’t possibly consist of a couple critics, too.
But unless these ostensible fans enjoy films that feel more like fleshed-out movie pitches delivered by mouth-breathing fanboys on a hot summer’s day rather than an actual movie, I’m not so sure the supposedly easy-to-please general public will be so keen on Suicide Squad either. Alleged to have been written by Ayer in just six weeks, it's dressed in an aura of slapped together opportunism, vaguely planned and all-too entrusting of a good enough rough draft.
Since I like the notion of a dissenting comic book movie more in love with its villains than its heroes, I’m as disappointed that Suicide Squad is the cinematic equivalent of a melting Baked Alaska as any. With this year’s Deadpool already having corroborated that nasty goons are as equally fun to glorify as the good guys, the timing of its release couldn’t be more fitting. But because DC’s perpetually derailed by the deserving successes endlessly becoming the Marvel universe’s canon, it’s a shame that the latter did it first and better.
Inferiority, though, is the result of subpar product, not bias or coincidence. Suicide Squad is facile, noisy, contrived, and, most disconcertingly, makes the mistake of thinking that it knows what its audience wants when it’s relatively tone deaf. I can’t call it boring — action plus rinky dink flash is always able to cause one’s heart rate to increase a smidgen — but I can call it sloppy and misconceived. For a film most have been rabidly anticipating for a little over a year, that’s not just disheartening: it’s also embarrassing.
Embarrassing because it underestimates the talents of its charismatic cast. Because it thinks it’s sexy, snaky, and cool (but is actually vulgar, obvious, and off-puttingly pleased with itself). Because it takes the stance of a movie trying to prove something, never confident enough to stop itself from attempting to mirror the best attributes of the aforementioned Deadpool and, most shamelessly, 2014’s deservedly esteemed Guardians of the Galaxy.
I won’t bother to spend too much of my time setting up the film’s plot line because Ayer didn’t spend too much time setting it up himself. All that needs to be said is that Suicide Squad takes place immediately after the events of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and wonders aloud what it’d be like if an Avengers movie were reversed and nefarious villains were instead the ones fighting for the greater good.
Through Kill Bill-esque character introductions accompanied by unimaginative Top 40 iTunes samples, we meet Deadshot (Will Smith), a top assassin; Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), The Joker’s (Jared Leto) lover and partner-in-crime; El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a freak of nature with the stupefying ability to summon flames from his regrettably tatted body; and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Slipknot (Adam Beach), and Katana (Karen Fukuhara), whose names are supposedly sufficient enough to let us figure out what they do and how they feel on our own. (Katana, in particular, is basically an extra who wandered onto the film’s set in full costume and stayed there without anyone noticing.)
All are in prison with hopelessly long sentences. None are fond of heroism — they like to be bad, incapable of changing their sordid ways. So pity for them when government official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) decides that their talents could be put to good use in world saving, implanting remote-controlled explosives into their heads before they can say no. Inevitably, these furious seven are forced into painful community service, doing the jobs that Batman’s too reputable to involve himself in.
In the movie, the Suicide Squad is tasked with putting an end to the madness of an ancient sorceress (a miscast Cara Delevingne) — who also happens to be possessing the body of Waller’s most powerful henchman’s (Joel Kinnaman) lady love — intent on destroying the world.
But like the Enchantress’s iniquitous plot to demolish humankind, Suicide Squad is all ambition without the brain. It wants to go somewhere bigger than itself, but jumps for the easy whenever it has the chance to. With so much technical setup and with a cast that has all the chemistry of an estranged family’s hasty decision to temporarily put their differences aside for an awkward episode of Family Feud, smiling politely until things get heated, it trades emotional nuance for ineffectual spectacle.
For Ayer, who’s found enviable success from his work on the screenplays for The Fast and the Furious and Training Day and by writing and directing such critical and commercial successes as kitchen sink cop thriller End of Watch and gritty war drama Fury, Suicide Squad is a blunder without a silver lining attached. His apt artistic sensibilities are never given a chance to shine through the film’s quizzically cash-grabbing sheen. He says the final cut’s his, but if I wait a year or so and final box-office numbers are tallied, I’m not so sure he’ll be declaring such niceties.
But the scrubbing off of Ayer’s personal idiosyncrasies isn’t the most discouraging thing about the film: most depressing is the wasting of its ensemble, particularly Smith, Robbie, Davis, and Leto. Here, they’re not actors. They’re assets struggling to swim out of the black lagoon of the flimsy razzle dazzle that hinders their every move.
Smith, a charm monster capable of winning over even the most skeptical of an audience, is forced to spit out cumbersome one-liners that have all the timing of a high school slacker whispering a snarky comment after a teacher gives a long lecture about insubordination. Davis wears the regret of signing onto the film in her eyes; Leto, Oscar winner and resident Hollywood oddity, famously went Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder overboard in his preparation for his role but gets south of a minute total of screen time. His Joker is less unpredictably savage and more sleep deprived Robin Thicke, ready to treat a woman like a sex doll and check himself out in the mirror as he walks past his own reflection.
And yet I find myself most disturbed by the squandering of Margot Robbie. An up-and-comer with the fleshy appeal of an old-fashioned blonde bombshell and the genre-hopping talents of a young Barbara Stanwyck, she has the most to lose — Smith, Davis, and Leto are established names that won’t altogether be marred by a bad career choice. But Robbie’s road to success has been rocky, an uneven mixture of magnificent characterizations (The Wolf of Wall Street, Z for Zachariah) clouded by participation in films ranging in their being middling (Focus, also with Smith) to their being bad (The Legend of Tarzan).
It’s been rare for a filmmaker to use her correctly — Ayer, for instance, puts her on a pedestal just as much as he exploits her — and if she goes too many years being the best thing in forgettable films, she could very well end up having Alicia Silverstone’s 1995 instead of heading toward Nicole Kidman’s 2001. I doubt (or at least want to doubt) that she’ll have a hard time rebounding from Suicide Squad, but it’s nonetheless frustrating to watch helplessly as one of the most excitingly fresh female leads of the 2010s throws away her time on material that doesn’t harness the luminous star power that becomes her. Because Robbie’s Harley Quinn, coy and kooky but also convincingly vulnerable, is the most human thing about a film that seems readymade in a factory.
But like all things produced on an assembly line, even the most menial of a commodity has something to praise. Once its first half comes to a close, when all the look at me clinginess loses its luster and the action is allowed to speak louder than its shallow words, Suicide Squad does manage to be congenial, if only because conventionality suits it better than subversion. But as I have a tight pocket and wear an aversion to cinematic projects that ignore emotional intimacy on my sleeve, I’d suggest turning your attention away from this microwave dinner of a movie. Your Netflix account has a barraging of Marvel titles waiting to be mailed directly to your home, and spending two hours with a caper that cares is much more worthy than a film that fizzles. C-