Suicide Squad director David Ayer and the brain trust behind D.C. Comics’ nascent cinematic universe achieved something I didn’t think was possible — they managed to produce a 1990s blockbuster in 2016. With the emergence of late sequels like Jurassic World and Independence Day: Resurgence, perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me. But the refurbished, Day-Glo atmosphere of the third entry in the perpetually stumbling DCEU still managed to catch me off guard. I’d anticipated a copycat of Guardians of the Galaxy and its quippy “bad guys gone good” spirit, but I didn’t imagine that M.O. would be filtered through a lens borrowed from twenty years ago.
Nevertheless, all the elements of a Clinton-era blockbuster are firmly present and accounted for: Will Smith gives a standard Will Smith Performance™, one that could have easily been transplanted from Men in Black or, heaven help us, Wild Wild West. There are dry cool action movie lines aplenty. And there’s a cartoony, almost surreal vibe to the entire film, that makes Suicide Squad seem divorced from the attempts at realism embraced in Batman Begins and closer to the cornucopia of neon camp in Batman Forever.
That camp, past and present, can certainly be fun, but it doesn’t make Suicide Squad a good film. To the contrary, the film has severe editing and pacing problems; its characters are laughably thin, and its internal logic waxes and wanes from moment to moment and scene to scene. Make no mistake; like its shared-universe predecessor, Batman v. Superman, this film is a mess.
But at least it’s an interesting mess! For whatever mish-mashed pseudo-philosophical appeal Zack Snyder’s previous Superman movies hold, his films have a certain antiseptic quality to them, a sense that everything’s taking place in an emotionally detached, grayscale world. Suicide Squad, by contrast, is full of color, literally and figuratively. The film is loudly and deliberately weird; it bounces between tones, characters, and stories with schizophrenic abandon, and it doesn’t exactly work, but by god, at least the thing has an identity.
Unfortunately, that identity finds its closest analogue in Poochie, the “in your face” new character that soulless studio executives shoehorned into The Simpsons’s show within a show, Itchy & Scratchy, in an abortive attempt to improve the show’s appeal with the younger generation. Suicide Squad feels crafted in the same terms and to the same end, with a creeping sense that the executives at Warner Bros. tried to combine D.C.’s rogues gallery, Captain Planet, and the collective inventory of Hot Topic, and came up with this tin-eared hodgepodge of a movie that’s straining to be hip and edgy. The effort is so transparent that it reaches the cardinal sin of coolness — trying way too hard.
That effort does, at least, distinguish Suicide Squad from its superhero movie brethren. Unfortunately, it cannot escape the pitfalls of poor pacing, structure, and characterization that doom the effort from the get-go. The film moves like an old car, constantly revving up and seeming like it’s about to shift into second gear, before stalling out and needing to be resuscitated yet again every half hour or so. The movie opens with a straight up, exposition-filled introduction for its characters that takes up the film’s first thirty minutes, which in keeping with the Justice League-themed powerpoint presentation Wonder Woman watched in BvS, seems to suggest that the DCEU is wholly incapable of bringing new characters into the fold organically. Instead, its films must spend precious, momentum-killing minutes out-and-out describing exactly who these people are and what they’re like, as though we’re watching the world’s capiest Miss America pageant.
The pacing and structure of the film don’t improve from there. Our heroes (or rather villains, a point Suicide Squad beats its audience over the head with using a spray-painted 2×4), are then suddenly thrown into a life-and-death assault on a major metropolitan skyscraper, with a supernatural threat and a fuzzy objective in the background. From there, the movie vacillates between choppy, empty action scenes and brief, ill-conceived moments of downtime that fill the gaps between set pieces. Those pauses in the action feature well-meaning but clumsy attempts to add to our understanding of these characters, each of which crashes and burns pretty hard. There’s also a tacked-on Joker-centric caper taking place in parallel, which is entertaining enough but never feels of a piece with the rest of the story. The movie, as a result, has a herky-jerky quality to it, never quite becoming a unified whole so much as a series of vaguely related scenes, which feel more episodic than propulsive.
That flaw might be excusable if the film were populated with characters who felt like real, albeit exaggerated people, instead of stick figures with various wacky ticks and cliches hot-glued onto them. Again, Will Smith’s Deadshot is essentially every Will Smith character you’ve ever seen in a blockbuster. Gone is the actor who transformed himself for Ali or found the humanity even in reheated schmaltz like The Pursuit of Happyness, and back is his now tired, typical smart-aleky shtick, with a bog standard tragic backstory, a generic sad-eyed moppet, and for inexplicable reasons, the wardrobe of Shaft. By contrast, Viola Davis offers one of the film’s few bright spots character-wise. Her take on the tough-as-nails Amanda Waller can only go so far given the material, but she forcefully conveys Waller’s harsh pragmatism and steel in a fashion that inspires hope she may one day get to reprise the role in a better film.
Nearly everyone else in the film is a little more than one-line description or worse, a mildly offensive stereotype, each of whom barely gets enough character development to justify their existence as anything but set-dressing. The bulk of the ensemble is reduced to one broad type or another, such as: generic military guy, clichéd stoic Asian sword-wielder, and uncomfortably-sketched black guy who demands access to BET. And that doesn’t even include Captain Cannon Fodder, who gets a perfunctory, one-sentence introduction late in the film and then dies ten minutes later. Even El Diablo, the beneficiary of one of the film’s few attempts to give someone other than Deadshot and Harley Quinn a real personality, is a cringe-worthy Mexican stereotype who gets a “too little, too late” tragic monologue in the last third of the film.
Not only do these characters get too little time in the spotlight for the audience to actually get to know them or care about their fates, but Suicide Squad worsens the situation by effectively declaring them a family without having earned that distinction. That leaves the nominal protagonists of the film as a group of thinly-drawn baddies who suddenly love and are willing to die for one another simply because the movie says so. That is, in a word, unsatisfying.
And that doesn’t even take into account Suicide Squad‘s bizarre villain, Enchantress, whose superpower is apparently smoke cloud-adjacent, sexy dancing. She’s an odd choice for an antagonist in terms of the atmosphere of the film, and her attempts to take on the not so good guys in hand-to-hand combat, despite her magical abilities, reek of the narrative and financial necessity of a third act fight sequence. When she’s not attacking Waller’s mercenaries in flavorless battles with her Putty Patrol, she’s barking banalities in a faux-forgotten tongue amid the usual CGI tumult, to rapidly diminishing returns.
The only two characters to truly stand out (give or take Waller) are the two that gave fans the most reason for concern going into the film. Harley Quinn is the biggest victim of the Poochie-esque characterization that plagues Suicide Squad, but Margot Robbie commits to the performance, and it pays dividends despite how little the script gives her to work with. Robbie manages to breathe real life into her character, bringing an extraverted but pathos-laden spark to Harley, as Paul Dini’s original creation from Batman: The Animated Series is made flesh. The character’s saddled with ridiculous dialogue, an opaque, wonky backstory, and is shot and framed in a brazenly sexist fashion (the Community line, “What is your name, Exploitia?” comes to mind), but Robbie makes the best of it, imbuing the character with the fractured wit and wackiness that have made Harley the best addition to Batman’s rogues gallery in decades.
At the same time, Jared Leto’s Joker isn’t necessarily a success, but he is, at least, an intriguing presence in the film. The DCEU, almost by necessity, had to go in a new direction with the character, in order to step out of the long shadow cast by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. Leto’s Joker, true to the unexpected throwback vibe of the film, is half-Jim Carrey’s Riddler and half-Tim Curry’s Dr. Frank-N-Furter. He only occasionally insinuates himself into the film’s proceedings, but it’s enough to pique the viewer’s interest without letting the necessarily outsized character wear out his welcome. Leto’s take is not without its flaws. (His Penguin-esque laugh doesn’t really work, and the hints of the shared history between Joker and Harley we get are muddled at best and off-putting at worst.) But there’s a distinct, outlandish, even sexual vibe to the character that immediately distinguishes the Clown Prince of Crime as something legitimately different in a film trying with all its might to be trendily off-beat and quirky.
And yet, for all those strained attempts to be in-your-face and totally eXtreme, for all the reams of terrible dialogue destined to be laughed at instead of laughed with, and for all the hastily thrown-together pop songs that are initially fun but quickly become gimmicky and forced, there’s one superlative sequence that shows what Suicide Squad might have been. Late in the film, the big bad uses her mystical swaying powers to give the small subset of characters who actually matter a glimpse of what they truly want in this world. These scenes embrace the true tragedy behind the film’s protagonists and touch on the worthy idea at Suicide Squad’s core, which ends up so poorly realized during the rest of its run time — that this is a group of broken people struggling for what they want, but know they cannot have, united in their pain and buoyed by the chance to commiserate and achieve something together.
That germ of emotional and narrative stakes is lost in the onslaught of the stop-and-start storytelling, the botched attempts to make the film’s characters as memorable as they are meme-able, and the numerous narrative shortcuts taken in the process, but at least it’s there. Suicide Squad is a peculiar recapitulation of the excesses and eccentricities of nineties superhero filmmaking, realized in odd detail two decades hence. For better or worse, there’s a Schumacher-esque flair to the picture, a sense of unrestrained but also unrefined colorfulness that permeates each frame. But for this film out of breath and out of time, which bears its heart-on-its-sleeve weirdness proudly, that weirdness is only bleached skin-deep.