Where have you gone, Christopher Nolan? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
There was a time in the not too distant past where DC movies used to be the benchmark for comic book adaptations. While the Dark Knight movies of Nolan were enjoying critical and box office success, Marvel was stumbling a bit with films like Daredevil and multiple attempts at The Hulk. It wasn’t until Marvel made Iron Man and started building the Marvel Cinematic Universe that the fortunes of the two companies flipped. Now Marvel movies are almost too big to fail and DC movies….well, DC movies are generally judged on a sliding scale of awful to unwatchable. I mean, I am a person who has seen just about every superhero movie that has been released in the last 15 years, yet I couldn’t even bring myself to watch Batman v Superman. And I love Ben Affleck.
I personally blame Zack Snyder for this turn of events, as pretty much everything that Snyder touches goes to shit. He set the template for the modern DC Universe with the terrible Man of Steel and he continues to fail upward; rather than rethinking how they are approaching these films, DC continues to reward Snyder by keeping him not only gainfully employed but as the de facto architect of their cinematic universe. Though Snyder didn’t direct Suicide Squad (though he did direct one scene), his fingerprints are all over it. That is never a good thing.
Given how loud the bang of the drum has been about the awfulness of Suicide Squad, the biggest surprise was that it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. Don’t misinterpret that as me saying that Suicide Squad is good – it most certainly is not – but rather that I didn’t hate it as much as expected. There’s something to be said for the power of bottom basement expectations; the fact that I didn’t want to walk out of the theater somehow is a win for the movie.
The bare bones plot for Suicide Squad is relatively straightforward – with something of a power vacuum created by the events at the end of Batman v Superman (which came as news to me), intelligence operative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis – who deserves better) decides to assemble a team of dangerous criminals to send out on high-risk missions. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Deadshot (Will Smith), El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Killer Corc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and Slipknot (Adam Beach) are all recruited, as well as good guy Katana (Karen Fukuhara). In order to force compliance, each criminal has a small explosive implanted on them, which can be remotely detonated. The squad is sent out under the leadership of Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) to try and reign in The Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), who is trying to…honestly it doesn’t even matter. And The Joker (Jared Leto) is floating around the periphery of all this, trying to rescue his lady love Quinn, who he suddenly has an interest in reuniting with. The less you think about any of this, the happier you will be.
Suicide Squad stumbles almost right out of the gate because of the self-created predicament that the writers find themselves in. Part of what makes the MCU work so well is that we get to know the individual characters through their solo movie outings. We understand their personalities, their failings and basically what makes them tick. Hell, even Hawkeye has an interesting backstory. Therefore, when they all come together, it just works because we’ve already spent so much time with these people; what made Captain America: Civil War so great was that it was the payoff of years of groundwork laid down by the previous movies. There can be shades of grey because we understand who these people are. Suicide Squad has none of that history so it has to introduce and establish almost a dozen new characters within the first fifteen minutes of the movie. It’s dizzying and it doesn’t work at all – only a few of the characters manage to rise above the noise to come anything close to a well-rounded character using the most generous definition possible. Even the characters that they spend the most time trying to flush out are problematic; it’s not a good sign when I have no idea if Amanda Waller is a good guy or not. I’m all for complicated people, but even though she gets some of the most screen time in the film, I couldn’t tell you what she’s really trying to accomplish. Had the title not already been used, this movie should have been called The Expendables because I really didn’t give a hoot what happened to pretty much everyone involved. Suicide Squad decided to cut the difference – in theory, the movie is trying to do too much, so their compromise is to do everything pretty poorly. The result is a lot of inconsistencies and a plot that makes little to no sense. The post-credits scene only exasperates this problem; in attempting to lay the groundwork for Justice League, the basic premise of Suicide Squad is kind of called into question. Like, if you know that you have all these potential good guys floating around, why exactly are we trifling with trying to make bad guys do what we want? Batman is a thing that exists in this universe – he’s even in the goddam movie briefly – why aren’t we just throwing up the bat signal rather than forcing these wackos to go against their nature?
The only actors that are able to make any sort of impression are Margot Robbie and Will Smith. Perhaps the best thing about Suicide Squad is Robbie’s Harley Quinn. The character is a little one note on paper, but Robbie manages to have fun with it and the movie is its most interesting whenever she’s on the screen. She’s the breakout star of this whole mess. Smith also manages to give Deadshot some interesting moments. You get the occasional glimpse of the charming movie star that Will Smith is known as, but even he can only rise up so much from the crap material that he’s been given. Smith and Robbie are the only two that are really given a fighting chance to do something interesting. The rest of the characters are so one dimensional that they barely even registered (an Australian guy named Captain Boomerang – I mean, c’mon!). Joel Kinnaman is a good actor in the right circumstances, but he’s saddled with such a ridiculous arc that there was little that he could do. Walller manipulates him into a relationship with Dr. June Moone – the person who The Enchantress inhabits – because……you’re guess is really as good as mine.
Much has been made of the fact that the ad campaign for Suicide Squad to the contrary, The Joker is really a minor character that has little screen time. I’m not all that sure that is a bad thing, because I wasn’t necessarily buying what Jared Leto is selling. Maybe it was the limited sample size of his presence, but it seemed like that dude was chewing the scenery like his life depended on it. Now, The Joker has always been an over the top, larger than life character, but Leto’s interpretation just didn’t work for me. His presence is really a symptom of Suicide Squad’s inability to focus; he was a rabbit hole that the writers decided to go down I’m guessing hypothetically to flush out Harley Quinn’s character, but instead just interrupted the narrative flow (in as much it existed) every time he popped up. It hardly seems worth the rest of the cast putting up with his method acting shenanigans on set for what he ultimately brought to the table. The rumors of Suicide Squad being reshot to try and capture the success of Deadpool appear to be false, since there are barely any (intentional) laughs to be found.
DC has proven that they can cut a great trailer, but they are stubbornly committed to this crappy trajectory for their movies as laid out by Zack Snyder. I was holding out hope that perhaps the upcoming Wonder Woman would break the pattern, but for now I think I’ve officially given up on Warner Brothers doing anything of interest with the DC adaptations. I mean, I’ll see anything that features Aquaman because hello Jason Momoa, but I’m solely in it for the eye candy. Suicide Squad is the perfect encapsulation of everything that is wrong with the current mindset behind these films. They are sloppy, messy, dumb, and not even fun to watch. Margot Robbie is fun to watch, but the rest of this cast really deserved better. When the bar for success is that Suicide Squad didn’t make me want to kill myself, that’s just a sad state of affairs.