Only three movies into the “Snyderverse” and the DC cinematic universe has already created an image of what we should expect barring a drastic (and I would say needed) change: beautiful, striking imagery, far more plots than could possibly be developed, characters that are as well designed as they are paper thin, moments of true excitement which aren’t enough to carry through the cliches and dullness, and films that think they are much bigger, cooler, and more epic than they really are. In this sense Suicide Squad is both exactly what the DC cinematic universe needs and exactly what it should not want.
The opening of Suicide Squad couldn’t be more different from those of Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman while remaining recognizable as a part of the current DC film universe. Opening with the “heroes” of the squad as prisoners, we’re offered some quick moments of seeing the characters in what has become their natural habitats, complete with hints of how these people react to captivity and authority, and a glimpse of not only how they see the world but how the world sees them. The style of this opening, including its extensive use of licensed music (which will be discussed on its own later), feels more akin to the giddy energy of Moulin Rouge than the plodding, moodiness of the Snyder films. By the time the flashback origin stories begin there’s enough of a destructive glee at work that we almost forget such moments are practically a prerequisite for any superhero film. While not every character is included in the sequence, and shouldn’t be since there are just so many, those who are receive their own unique design elements which demonstrate a creativity and care that, sadly, the film simply can’t sustain. However, this opening offers an idea of the film that Suicide Squad could have been if allowed to follow the same daredevil attitude that its characters and even its marketing promised.
It’s also no accident that the first figure we see in the film is that of Will Smith’s Deadshot, while the second is Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. Together they form the heart and face of the entire film. Deadshot is easily the most developed character and it’s hard not to believe that Smith’s performance is the main reason the he’s given such a prominent role. Meanwhile, let’s face it, half of the audience of Suicide Squad is going just to see Margot Robbie act crazy in Harley’s booty shorts, and in this way Robbie is perfect for the part. She’s insane, although at times a bit too forced, and insanely hot. We all know it, the film itself knows it, even the characters know it, and thus we are all given exactly what we want.
However, whereas Robbie plays her part to a tee, Smith actually elevates his, and this is where one of Suicide Squad‘s main problems begin. It’s impossible to make every character interesting when there are ten of them to introduce at the same time. It’s also impossible to make the audience concerned for characters who we are told at the very beginning are disposable. As with the two Snyder/DC films before it, Suicide Squad doesn’t seem to understand that in order to create tension in its big, epic battles, the audience needs to care about its characters. Deadshot’s origin story and Smith’s portrayal of him make him a sympathetic character whom we are genuinely invested in, even when the script itself ruins his story. Similarly, Jay Hernandez’s repentant Diablo comes off as perhaps the second closest thing the film has to an actual good guy. Viola Davis is excellent as a cold, manipulative Amanda Waller, however, given how this character conducts herself, why should we care if she lives or dies? Meanwhile few other characters are given enough screen time to make us invest in their survival (I’d actually argue that the brief origin of Killer Croc makes him more victim than villain, however we see almost nothing of him and he says “bruh”… so he’s obviously a douche.)
And then there’s Harley Quinn.
Harley, from the comics and the cartoons, is a fascinating character with an origin that, in a time of rising awareness of mental and emotional abuse, feels vital and relevant. Her manipulation from clinical psychologist to clinical psychopath is about as interesting a dichotomy as any offered in comics, up there with Magneto’s transformation from Holocaust survivor to genocidal villain. While Robbie plays Harley very well, this Harley, the one of Suicide Squad, is not the Harley Quinn we know from the comics and the cartoons, which is okay. Yet the film tries to make her into this character. She dances around. She acts as she pleases. She talks like a 1940’s moll. She’s seduced and manipulated by the Joker. Yet where the Harley we know is complex, this one is simple. She’s crazy. She’s hot. That’s it. Granted, this is Harley’s first appearance in the DCEU so there’s still time for her to develop. At this point though, if she weren’t hot, no one would care about her. Suicide Squad trades as much on the established fan love for Harley Quinn as it does on that of the Joker. …Which now brings us, to Harley’s Puddin’.
There is no reason for the Joker to be in this movie. In fact, Suicide Squad would be better if he weren’t in the movie, at least not nearly as much as he is. Joker has the same amount of screen time as Wonder Woman in BvS (and Spider-Man in Civil War although Spidey was awesome), and his scenes are just as detached. It’s of course foolish to expect this Joker to be anything even approaching Heath Leger’s brilliance, or for this character to resemble that of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy in any way other than voice, but Jared Leto’s Joker is basically… nothing. Remove the name, the white make-up and the green hair and he’s a standard movie psycho. Now, as with Harley, this is his first appearance so there’s still time to develop an actual character, but his scenes are an unnecessary distraction in a film that is already too stuffed and too rushed. He’s there more to sell tickets than to create a compelling narrative. Director David Ayers would have served both the film and the character better if he’d used Joker as an off-screen presence. He should be treated like the shark from Jaws – we know he’s there, waiting, moving in the background, but we don’t see him. Until we do. Instead, we have an underwhelming shadow of the character that, like so many others from the DCEU, has a cool surface with nothing underneath.
That’s where Suicide Squad on a whole falls apart. It looks great on screen. It’s flashy and colorful with plenty of effects and action and well known songs. It’s everything that makes for a great trailer. Yet as a film, where things like plot, character, pacing, and dialog matter, there simply isn’t enough to sustain its two-hour run time. Individual scenes are cut so quickly that they never develop. So many different subplots are happening that none of them have any meaning while the main plot is the same disposable superheroes-save-the-world stuff we’ve seen a hundred times before. After a frenetic and enjoyable opening, Suicide Squad becomes a paint-by-numbers modern action movie, complete with internal conflicts, predictable banter, and a bonding scene which comes far too late and doesn’t go deep enough for us to feel for these characters. The oddest thing is that scenes from the trailer aren’t in the film, which makes me believe that the filmmakers removed material they knew made the film better just to bolster Blu-ray sales, exactly as they did with Batman v Superman. This, perhaps more than anything, should be unacceptable.
It also needs to be noted that no film in memory has relied more on the use of licensed music. Each character during the opening sequence is given their own song, beginning as they appear on screen and cutting as they leave. While this works for a little while at first, it quickly becomes a crutch where instead of using the song to enhance the scene the song becomes the scene. Ayers obviously wants to make something similar to Guardians of the Galaxy but instead makes an increasingly groan-inducing series of music videos. Whereas Guardians gave its licensed music a place in the narrative itself, Suicide Squad lazily relies on Queen, AC/DC, The White Stripes, Eminem and Kanye West to create atmosphere for it (although the “Black Skinhead” scene is awesome). This tactic can be done very well but here it just feels forced and pulls far too much attention to itself. It’s a distraction and filmmakers in general need to stop it. It doesn’t make your movie cool. It makes your movie feel like it’s trying to be cool. And nothing is less cool than trying to be cool.
In the end, and this review has gone on far longer (and far harsher) than I expected, there is an excellent film buried somewhere in the rubble that is Suicide Squad. Perhaps if Warner Bros were less beholden to the DC Universe created by Zack Snyder than this film could have been the wickedly fun, fiendish, unapologetic underdog story that’s begging to get out. Suicide Squad should have been a larger scale Deadpool, without the fourth wall breaking but with a chance for crazier setpieces and wilder action. Instead of getting a film befitting how the Suicide Squad members see themselves – ferocious, unpredictable and unburdened by the demands of mass acceptance – we got a film befitting how the rest of the world views the Suicide Squad – disposable.