Movie Review: Suicide Squad (2016)
If the regulative powers within the state of Michigan or the EPA ever decide to find a streamlined, efficient solution to the poisoning of residents in Flint, they should immediately then turn their attention towards the obviously corrupted water supply running through Warner Brothers’ DC offices. One last bit of hope wants to believe that it isn’t merely extreme incompetence that explains their continuous trend of cinematic disasters that are directly under their umbrella of oversight. Besides Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy—which had immense problems of its own, especially within The Dark Knight Rises (2012) finale—Warner Brothers and DC has laid waste to their potential DCEU (DC Extended Universe) and a plethora of quality creative content. And it goes well beyond the mind-numbingly bad non-starter The Green Lantern (2011): Man of Steel (2013) subverted the iconic hero into a charmless outsider who possessed the moral code of a sociopath (thanks to his own parents), and this year’s Batman v. Superman (2016)—in all of its admirable, though muddled, aspirations—exhausted the audience in underdeveloped exposition, rampant illogic, and a dispiriting atmosphere of bleakness. It’s all part of a flawed perception that franchise building is a zero-sum game, or that there’s a lost opportunity for every formulaic superhero release that Disney/Marvel pump out into the market. As ludicrous as that sounds it has resulted in a rushed timeframe, which is causing severe damage; a self-inflicting war of attrition on creativity that used to have immense potential had it been allowed to marinate properly. But with the slate proposal of Wonder Woman (2017), Justice League (2017), The Flash (2018), Aquaman (2018), and more building off an increasingly faulty foundation, Warner Brothers and DC have tied their weighted foot onto the accelerator, with very little hope that they’ll be able to turn this uncreative monstrosity away from careening into the void of mediocrity.
Which brings us to the newest addition to the DCEU, David Ayer’s Suicide Squad. It’s a concept with promise that ends up having zero follow through; a forcibly edgy yet overly cautious film that neuters its inventive qualities with formulaic plot designs, emotional crutches, and a typical devolution into anarchic mayhem (both of the action and narrative variety). Inverting the script to focus on the perspective of sociopaths, amoral hitmen, and popular villains could have served as an insightful relativist study and criticism in an era with increasing moral subjectivity. Especially so with Mr. Ayer, a screenwriter and filmmaker who has made a career at manipulating our familiar perspectives, from highlighting police corruption in Training Day (2001), showing us the pitfalls of honor in the war-as-hell drama Fury (2014), and showcasing the sensitivity of law enforcement brotherhood in End of Watch (2012). But that sensibility or experimental mindset isn’t evident throughout Suicide Squad. Instead, this potentially risky concept gets the frustratingly safe treatment as a desperate, studio-infected riff on the nihilistic brashness of Deadpool (2016) and the anti-hero whimsy of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), while never even coming close to approaching the charm and inventiveness of either. What’s upsetting about the film isn’t necessarily that it avoids potential controversy in its concept, because that’s sort of expected in our entertainment age of delivering boilerplate genre templates. No, the real disappointment is that Ayer’s villain oriented superhero film stays rigidly inside the lines and adopts a formulaic route that doesn’t even deliver on basic expectations. Essentially it’s a failure on two levels: it’s a failure in delivering on its promised potential, but also in turning what could have been a familiar, though rambunctiously charming, experience into a listless, inept, and joyless ride of perpetual nonsense.
Even though an ideal interpretation of Suicide Squad would be more in line with Sam Peckninpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) or Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), the plot here is a formulaic variation on Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967)—assemble a team of arch-villains, amoral sociopaths, and gifted “meta-humans” (the politically correct term concocted by DC) and force them to use their abilities against their own self-interest. The team in question is a DC rogue’s gallery of who really cares, and the film certainly doesn’t go out of its way to convince you that you should. Through a cycle of introduction, re-introduction, and constant exposition—all put under a relentless on-the-nose soundtrack and jarring music video editing—we’re treated to a series of garish and smeary colored case files of supposedly evil characters (except they’re not). There’s Deadshot (Will Smith with a bit of that old-school menace and charm), the world’s deadliest sniper, who isn’t so bad because he loves and wants to take care of his daughter. There’s Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie starring as the personification of a booty shorts ad), an ex-psychiatrist turned sociopath due to her tortured love for clown pimp gangster The Joker (an over-caffeinated Jared Leto), who really isn’t that bad because she’s trapped in a cycle of mental and physical abuse (an inconvenient reality that’s not really explored through the film). And then there’s Diablo (a believably remorseful Jay Hernandez), an LA gangster human torch rental, who really isn’t all that bad due to his pacifist evolution after he caused the tragic death of his family. It’s really no wonder that the film incessantly reminds you through dialogue that these are actually the bad guys, and what’s really sad is that the reminder seems necessary.
The rest of the assembled villains are a bunch of inconsequential nobodies: Captain Boomerang (a lively Jai Courtney) serves as the comic relief; Killer Croc (a grunting Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) looks menacing and does nothing; and Slipknot (Adam Beach) gets explosively decapitated as soon as he arrives. Overseeing them all is the rigid Rick Flag (a hopelessly lost Joel Kinnaman), a humorless soldier who has unprofessionally fallen in love (at least that’s what we’re told) with the squad’s first member, possessed archaeologist June Moon a.k.a. Enchantress (an abysmally awful, out-of-her-element Cara Delevingne). If anything resembling a definite plot has yet to really make itself clear here, it’s because in all actuality the film never leaves its introductory concept. The entire first hour is spent on repetitive expository setup—explaining and re-explaining who these characters are and why they’re bad people—and the second half is a mindless repetition of action skirmishes with faceless, zombified minions who are easily disposed of (even the simple swing of a baseball bat takes these useless, anti-tension enemies out). This isn’t necessarily an issue in most films—the action and superhero genres are the most unimaginative incarnations of formula today, with the same style of cataclysmic endings that have zero shades of nuance—but it’s just that Suicide Squad in particular goes out of its way to stick dogmatically to this tiresome format. Despite the asserting tone of the marketing campaign that this isn’t your typical kind of superhero film, it’s probably the most “basic-bitch” version we’ve ever encountered. The only truth spoken in the film’s marketing is that these really are the “Worst.Heroes.Ever,” though it’s probably a good bet that they weren’t referring to the quality.
Nothing really makes a whole lot of sense throughout Suicide Squad. With the death of Superman and the fallout from Doomsday in Batman v. Superman, U.S. Intelligence Officer Amanda Waller (a delectably Machiavellian Viola Davis) convinces the government to adopt the aforementioned program as a safety net towards future attacks. And yet, this clearly cunning woman—who is shown in a moronic post-credits scene to have files and knowledge of proven heroic “meta-humans,” such as Arthur Curry (Aquaman) and Barry Allen (The Flash)—chooses anarchic, sociopathic criminals as her controlled subjects. So instead of utilizing her resources to bring together her own sort of Justice League, she instead brings together a team of mostly useless villains (and if you think Harley Quinn isn’t useless beyond being a fetishized sexpot then you’ve bought into fandom delusions). This sort of undermines Waller’s foresight, ruthlessness, and manipulative power, especially since her first recruit—Enchantress—ends up being the very source of destruction that justifies the assembly of the squad in the first place. It just gives the entire film an exhausting what-was-the-point-of-it-all feeling. That sort of consequential irony—the idea of creating the very source of villainy that you had wished to protect the world from—would have been a rather ingenious theme for Suicide Squad, and yet, Waller doesn’t come to any sort of caustic end. Ayer has dealt with moral ambiguities and tragic ironies in his past work, so it’s exceptionally disappointing that this obvious one didn’t make it into the incoherent mess that defines Suicide Squad.
Perhaps this disarrayed pro forma is a direct consequence of the film not necessarily knowing what it wants to be, considering it’s a schizophrenic clutter of competing ideas, from blending a common superhero template with subversive anti-heroes and an undeserved aura of edginess. That very well could be a result of studio demands versus director’s vision, though that can only explain so much. A film like Suicide Squad, or rather a film that dabbles in the controversial, is all about follow through, and unfortunately this film can’t even make contact with the ball. What’s clear is that the studio didn’t trust the idea beyond its initial concept; they didn’t trust a director to truly venture the moral shades of what it means to be a villain. They also didn’t trust their collection of characters—a collection of obscure villains who probably couldn’t justify being the main antagonist in a focused individual film—and so they treated them as half-baked archetypes to fill out the necessary personalities befitting a formulaic team. Minus Harley Quinn, of course. Her presence in the film—accompanied by the unnecessary addition of her practically edited out lover and abuser The Joker—reminds us of the pitfalls of fan service. Her addition to the team isn’t based on ability or skill, but only because she’s unnecessarily popular amongst obsessive DC fandom (she’s held up in the film and elsewhere as a feminist heroine, yet she’s an anti-feminist conception from Batman: The Animated Series, whose tragic cycle of abuse and unrequited love keeps her enslaved to the sporadic approval of the Joker). She and the limited use of The Joker—a legitimate complaint that could be issued under false marketing tactics—are obvious creative crutches; additions to the storyline when trust in their plethora of comic-book content falls prey to shameless pandering for widening audience attendance.
What’s exceptionally annoying about the defenders of the DC Extended Universe—and you can be sure there’s a lot of them—is that they’re insistent that we must slog through more and more of the incoherent, underdeveloped drivel in order to get to the quality yet to come. Even though there are some occasional admirable qualities being experimented with in each of these films, none of them are fully developed and they all lack confident follow through. In other words, the defenses for these dour and practically joyless adventures are becoming tiresome. Suicide Squad could only be satisfying to those who are into the novelty of today’s entertainment status quo: obnoxious violence, neon color schemes to distract the orientation of the viewer, and simplistic character creations with enough forced quirkiness to make it seem as though people are having fun. What’s assured is that those with a genuine love for the DC Universe—not an unquestioning love that is merely happy that these characters are actually on the screen—and a genuine love for storytelling, character complexity, and intriguing thematic resonance are not having fun. If there’s one triumph to be lauded in the incoherent nonsense that persists in Suicide Squad, it’s that it makes Zack Snyder’s bloated and humorless Batman v. Superman (2016) look competently made. A cynic prone to conspiracy theories might begin to wonder if this was its entire purpose in the first place.