Suicide Squad, a candy-colored tale of supervillains saving Gotham, is the latest “metahuman” adventure brought to you by the world of DC Comics. After the abysmal performance of Batman v. Superman earlier this summer, a lot is riding on Suicide Squad for DC. But this ramshackle exploitation flick clearly was never meant to be a tentpole. Slapdash, uneven, and unintentionally silly, the movie is a cynical froth of dumb cliches. Which is no surprise, given the studio’s last-minute editing to punch up the pace and humor. All that said, I’m not going to lie. It was still kind of fun.
The main problem with Suicide Squad comes down to one, basic error. It has the premise of a cheap exploitation movie, with the production and marketing budget of a blockbuster. Set in the days after Superman’s supposed death in Batman v. Superman, it’s about a world that is so bereft of hope and so politically cynical that the government is willing to use criminal supervillains to fight “terrorists.” Viola Davis is incredible as Amanda Waller, a heartless covert ops manager who puts together the “suicide squad” out of the jail/sewer where Deadshot (Will Smith), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), and various other baddies are kept. A frenetic opening sequence introduces us to our band of bad guys, whose superpowers include things like “shoots well,” “sexy in shorts,” “secretly an Aztec god,” “weird teeth,” and “climbs fast.” If Robert Rodriguez were directing this in a condemned nightclub, I would be all in. It’s the perfect premise for a bloody, sexy, fire-soaked brawl.
But DC Films, owned by Warner Bros, wants Suicide Squad to be something more. And can you blame them? Batman v. Superman underperformed, the latest in a string of expensive misses that go all the way back to Green Lantern. Marvel Studios, for all its flaws (and we can chant them together later if you want), has had a string of hits like Avengers, Civil War, and Guardians of the Galaxy that makes DC look like they’re standing still. As Hollywood Reporter‘s Kim Masters reported in a fascinating article this week, Warners studio head Kevin Tsujihara worries that the DC brand is “damaged.” The studio needs Suicide Squad to be a hit, to prove that they can get back to the heights of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
Suicide Squad isn’t that movie. As director David Ayer (Fury, End of Watch) explained in recent interviews, his film was supposed to be a quirky, end-of-summer tidbit. All that changed whenBatman v. Superman didn’t live up to expectations. Warners asked Ayer to punch up his dark, twisted movie with more humor and fun action to make it blockbuster material. After audiences responded well to previews of Suicide Squad that made it look funny, the studio hired the team behind the preview to re-edit the entire film. Ayer rushed to do last-minute reshoots, beefing up the zaniness and introducing all the characters more quickly. The result is choppy and aimless, with characters reduced to groan-worthy stereotypes (Diablo says “hey ese” all the time; Harley Quinn is referred to by literally every single character as “pretty” or “hot”).
That said, some performances stand out. Robbie is mesmerizing as Harley Quinn, the psychiatrist who fell in love with the Joker and went nuts. Despite her Lolita/goth moppet persona, somehow she makes Harley a sympathetic character who can still dispense smart psychological wisdom. Smith is a natural as Deadshot, the likeable mercenary who just wants to send his daughter to an Ivy League college. And Davis is chilling as the government mastermind behind the squad. Unfortunately, the often excellent Jared Leto is completely forgettable as the Joker—which is fine, since he has almost no screen time at all.
The problem, as I said earlier, is the atmosphere of the movie itself. A big part of the fail here isn’t so much the plot, but how the action is treated. With the right tone—perhaps a darker one, as Ayer originally intended—Suicide Squad would be a genuinely nihilistic pit of horror. From almost the first scene with Amanda Waller pitching the squad to her government cronies, we realize that the problem our anti-heroes have to clean up is the suicide squad itself. One of Waller’s assets is an archaeologist possessed by the Enchantress, an ancient witch who is barely under control. Eventually she manages to slip out, awaken her sorcerer brother, and start building a “machine” to destroy the world, or enslave humanity, or some other nefarious thing.
Only the suicide squad can stop Enchantress. But of course the Enchantress wouldn’t exist if Waller hadn’t put the suicide squad together in the first place. This catch-22 of awfulness is basically never acknowledged at any point in the movie. Instead, we focus on the flimsy idea that one evening of fighting the Enchantress’ army of pustule-faced soldiers has turned the bad guys into a “family” whose members look out for each other. The whole “we’re a bad guy team” vibe is totally unearned, so the movie begs us to feel something by playing a bewildering array of hip and ironically hip songs over every possible scene.
At its core, Suicide Squad should be a nasty little movie, with an emphasis on “little.” If the movie had cost a few million dollars to film semi-legally in some abandoned nightclub, I’d be willing to forgive a lot of the narrative messiness. Instead, it’s an overproduced monstrosity, larded up with an expensive soundtrack, padded out with random special effects (Deadshot actually calls one such effect “the circle of garbage in the sky,” which is exactly what it looks like), and over-edited. The final showdown is especially wince-worthy, with Green Lantern-esque moments of human heads floating awkwardly in a sea of CGI.
Most of the problems with Suicide Squad, however, can be traced back to DC’s desperation for a hit. They keep trying to recreate Christopher Nolan’s Batman magic, but somehow it always goes wrong. DC hired Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch) to be the next Nolan, running the entire DC universe as a director, producer, and writer by turns. Snyder’s directorial efforts have been uneven at best, with his Superman franchise getting a mixed reception. And when he produces, as he did with Suicide Squad, he works with directors like Ayer, who have little experience with big budget films and are under immense amounts of pressure to keep up with Marvel by finishing quickly.
It’s little wonder that this combination of pressure, desperation, and bad planning has resulted in movies like Suicide Squad. This flick could have been an excellent exploitation movie in the vein ofHardcore Henry or Drive Angry. It should have been a cult favorite, with tattered practical effects and dialogue written by one crazy person instead of a committee. Instead the studio crammed it into a “summer blockbuster” suit that didn’t fit. There’s still an entertaining movie in there, and you’ll never be bored. But Suicide Squad isn’t going to be the hit that fixes DC’s problems; it’s just another awkward, failed bid at awesomeness.