One cannot fault Warner Bros. for their economy. With Suicide Squad – the third film in their ambitious and expansive multi-film DC comics movie series – studio executives shrewdly elected to introduce their cinematic universe’s supervillains all at once, dumping them, like two scoops of raisins, into the overpopulated bowl of superhero cereal that is the current blockbuster landscape. This film is merely the latest installment in a glorious ramp-up to a Justice League feature film, currently set for release in November of 2017.
But when it comes to the efficiency of franchise-building, audiences are often found on the losing end, witnessing business more than entertainment. It’s hard to watch any superhero film these days – even some of the better ones – without being acutely aware of the behind-the-scenes sausage factory behind it; it’s hard to be surprised by any post-credits stingers anymore, as films are now announced several years in advance.
Suicide Squad, employing in its advertising a neon-candy color palate ported over from Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, and boasting direction from Peckinpah-enthusiast David Ayer, promised to be a daring and violent comic book-ready take on The Dirty Dozen. In the film, a steely-eyed and imposing Viola Davis, in order to protect the world from the next Superman, has assembled a team of supercriminals, some of whom have superpowers, some of whom are just interestingly nutty. Roll call: There’s the deadly assassin Deadshot (Will Smith), the repentant fire-spitter Diablo (Jay Hernandez), the fearless and crazy Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) the Joker’s girlfriend and this season’s cosplay go-to, there’s the goofy Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), the wired climber Slipknot (Adam Beach), the half-reptile Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and the spooky witch Enchantress (Cara Delevigne) who occupies the same body as a sweet-eyed archaeologist. The Lee Marvin character is played by Joel Kinnaman. Also there’s a masked Japanese warrioress named Katana (Karen Fukuhara), included to keep the supercriminals in line.
Oh yes, and The Joker (Jared Leto) appears in the film as well. He is, however, a subplot, giving the Quinn character a motivation. Those longing for an interesting post-Nolan Joker story will have to continue to wait. To the film’s credit, the redesign of The Joker is somewhat ingenious. Not only does this Joker look like a modern criminal – i.e., an overgrown tattooed thug who spends too much time in clubs and wastes cash like a lottery winner – but this was the first time The Joker seems like a charming and sexual creature. It’s often hard to buy that The Joker could seduce a woman like Harley Quinn, seeing as he’s often depicted as a chuckling weirdo. For the first time in a feature film, he looks like he could actually dominate another person.
The story of Suicide Squad is all-too-usual superhero pap. I don’t want to get into too much boring detail, but our villains much eventually unite to destroy an ancient evil death something-or-other. Given the known strictures of the genre, the fine points hardly matter; One can say with confidence, that only egos will be bruised, and the world will emerge largely unscathed. Despite 15 years of superhero feature films, and hundreds of characters pouring out of the Hollywood spigot every few months, when it comes to plot and storytelling, we’re still frustratingly stymied in Saturday Morning kiddie matinee cliché.
Ayer clearly has an enthusiasm for the introduction of such a team, and has clearly studied Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen very closely. He introduces his varied team of super-freaks in what might be considered a music video or mixtape, assigning each character a unique (if not incredibly obvious) musical cue. The first 20 minutes of the film, wherein we see an extended montage of how each criminal came to be locked up in their super-secret Louisiana prison, Ayer seems to be invested, using a stylized flare lacking from the rest of the film.
The problem is, once the team is assembled, Ayer loses his flame. Stuck within the conventions of a PG-13 rating, and unable to be truly edgy or daring perhaps by studio decree, Ayer fails to swing for the walls, letting his story unfold clumsily, and his abundant number of characters to become marginalized. Deadshot, Diablo, and Harley Quinn are given cursory backstories – and Smith, Robbie, and Hernandez give as much as they can – but the others are reduced to a colorful rogues gallery of fighting faces. Had all the characters been allowed to banter, to spar, to interact beyond the immediate plot, maybe there would have been some actual spirit.
This is all a pity because so many of these characters are undeniably appealing. I understand that they’ll likely appear in future installments, but audiences should be exhausted of waiting for “the good chapter” to come along at a future date. Audiences should be getting to the good one “now” by now. Suicide Squad is a hasty gathering of admittedly fun characters, all jammed haphazardly into a familiar and dumb cartoon tale, handily squandering its potential for edge, daring, or originality.
Witney Seibold has been a film critic for nearly 20 years, and is currently the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast on CraveOnline. He also co-hosts the TV podcast Canceled Too Soon. You can contact him on Twitter at @WitneySeibold.