For all of the recurring issues of the modern superhero film—weightlessness, lack of context, poor pacing, narrative overload—there’s one thing that most of them get right: an understanding of the relationship between the superhero and the world-at-large. That relationship may not always be satisfying or well-defined, but at the very least, each film is imbued with an inherent sense for how a hero or villain differs from the average human being. Adapted from the long-running DC comic series, David Ayer’s Suicide Squad is at a fundamental disadvantage in this respect.
The characters in Suicide Squad are the dissidents, the psychopaths, the anti-social powder kegs who are just waiting for the right opportunity to slaughter the innocent and breed unrest. They’re also far more interesting than the usual crop of tortured heroes who crowd multiplexes every year. But as purely entertaining as it is watching fan-favorites like Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) chip away at monsters with baseball bats, Ayer’s film is so beholden to the DC machine and Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch aesthetic that it’s hard not to see the entire thing as much more than a dry run for an inevitable franchise than as its own satisfying experience.
The premise for Suicide Squad is as simple as it is indelible, a re-brand of The Dirty Dozen filled out with an undercard of DC’s most naturally colorful villains and anti-heroes. Ayer slips into this framework with ease, introducing Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) describing her potential team of supers to an incredulous group of government suits. Flipping through her dossiers, Ayer offers a slick montage of each candidate’s greatest hits, and minutes later, Waller is in front of the criminals laying out a deal of commuted sentences for off-the-books operations, handing them their weapons of choice.
Among the chosen rogues’ gallery are Deadshot (Will Smith), a stylish hitman with a heart of gold for his 11-year-old honor student daughter; Boomerang (a never better Jai Courtney), a keyed-up dirtbag bank robber; El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a former Los Angeles gang member who lights up when angry; Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a scaly super villain with a nasty temper; and Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), an archaeologist who accidentally fused with a demonic supernatural presence—and now has the ability to toggle between her human self and a shadowy wraith who possesses magical powers.
In the time leading up to the release of Suicide Squad, the plot has been shrouded in mystery, and while I wish I could say that’s because it’s a complex narrative that’s worth hiding, it’s more that the film’s story is full of half-measures. There’s not much that can be said: The group is faced with a supernatural presence, simultaneously contending with the Joker (Jared Leto), whose screen-time has been seriously overestimated.
Falling into same the pratfalls of Ayer’s previous effort, Fury, Suicide Squad is another case where story elements are continuously piled on in the hopes that a coherent narrative arc will emerge. Individual moments land with nearly every character, especially Deadshot and Harley Quinn, but despite being a firmly character-based film, it lacks a through line. In action scenes, Ayer is exceedingly generous, allowing each character a turn in the limelight, but the film is constantly muddling its own sense of purpose, making plot decisions that feel improvisatory by its end.
Part of the problem is that the audience is rarely ever aware how powerful the members of the Suicide Squad are in relation to each other or to their adversaries. Sometimes they’re killing machines who don’t bat an eye when swarmed by enemies, and other times they’re out of their depth. That becomes emotionally distancing as the film starts to build up a Big Bad who’s coming from a purely supernatural point of view.
It’s never more of a problem than with Delevingne, who desperately tries to imbue her character with as much personality as possible, but can’t help but become a CG cypher. Batman v Superman ran into the same problem of mis-understanding believable scales of power, but in that script there were established canonical solutions, like Kryptonite, that leveled the playing field.
Suicide Squad does occasionally recognize the possibilities of its premise, offering a different perspective of familiar superhero conversations like the fantasies of normalcy and the realities of centuries of jail time. As much as edginess has become a pervasive trend in modern superhero films, there’s still something engaging to getting first-hand accounts from a group of super villains made up of serial killers and cannibals about what it’s like to be on the other side of the law. But this being a PG-13 film, Suicide Squad can only really establish the evil of its characters through flashbacks and conversations as opposed to on-screen proof. And care of Ayer, a director whose power has often come from the mediation between gratuitous violence and the aftermath of that violence, much of Suicide Squad feels muted. When the story takes a turn that seems less designed out of logic than out of an ability to show the Squad chopping up and gunning down as many people as possible without rankling the MPAA, the film continually runs up against the lines of both silliness and insignificance in its action scenes, especially without blood or a genuine sense of brutality.
Ayer isn’t a bad fit overall for this material—his thematic interest in flexible moral codes leads to some of the best characterizations of the film. His style is nonetheless too bulky to make the big beats of the storytelling land. And after a first half that’s loaded up with musical cues—I’d put a conservative estimate at more than 20 in the first 30 minutes—the film can’t decide between pulsing, Matthew Vaughn-style editing, the more deliberate and sober procedural rhythms of Ayer’s films like End of Watch, and the battle of the Gods imagery of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. Ayer’s touch still proves welcome in the latter half of the film, though, which becomes an interesting but unsuccessful twist of superhero tropes and revenge film imagery.
Even as Suicide Squad drowns in its own overload, these are characters with whom you want to spend some time. As the wisecracking Deadshot, Will Smith returns to the heavyweight blend of smooth charisma and modulated sentimentality that made him a marquee star. And Robbie doesn’t exactly re-invent as much as refine Harley Quinn, a Batman character whose made a sizable cultural imprint over the last few decades thanks to her psychologically complex relationship with the Joker.
In fact, much of the conversation (and controversy) around the film has surrounded Quinn’s skimpy costume and the male gaze exhibitionism of her appearances, but her character in the film has very little to do with this perception, and is practically, psychologically asexual. And while Ayer’s script still goes to a few unnecessary places in underlining her previous trauma—there’s plenty of warranted consternation surrounding a detail of the film’s chosen origin story—Quinn is still very much a character with agency.
If anything, the Joker exudes the most purely sexual drive, trading Heath Ledger’s previous Nosferatu in a purple suit and Jack Nicholson’s explicitly clown-like persona for something far more pansexual and unpredictable. With his spider-like body language, Leto’s Joker seems just as likely to put a bullet in a person’s head as lock lips. Combined with his laconic delivery, his character becomes hypnotizing in his combination of big and small gestures.
Then again, he’s such a small part in the actual film that his appearance is more a distraction than anything else, especially as the film finds tired ways to repeatedly intersect his storyline and the central one. For all the strangeness of the Suicide Squad—there’s a character who traps souls with a katana—Ayer dominates the film’s running time with more palatable characters, leaving the stranger pieces of the story on the margin. Compared to the minute obsessiveness with source material of something like Age of Ultron, Suicide Squad feels calculated to appeal to the largest possible audience, favoring more easily understood characters like Deadshot and Harley Quinn, and only showing glimpses of the more obtuse characters and plot lines on the margins.
It’s actually kind of perfect that Suicide Squad would have the most problems with defining what a hero, its ersatz heroes, is and are supposed to be. These characters have been told they’re bad their whole life. If only the film knew how to say anything else.
Director: David Ayer
Writer: David Ayer
Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Cara Delevingne, Viola Davis, Jared Leto, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Joel Kinnaman
Release Date: August 5, 2016