While not strictly a bad movie as the media would have us believe, Suicide Squad does suffer from a failing that consigns the film to a footnote in DC’s film universe rather than a milestone: a lack of ambition, which is all the more obvious in contrast to the acid trip promise of its marketing campaign and the relative novelty of its concept. It’s not just that Suicide Squad ends up subjecting its supervillainous Dirty Dozen to a rather banal save-the-world plot, but that it sets up promising ideas only to give us lackluster follow-through. The most obvious example of this rests in David Ayers split-personality direction. He starts us with half-an-hour of exposition delivered with a modicum of guerilla style (complete with cutesy graphic overlays), but then drops the guerilla and settles for the usual hum-drum once the plot gets going. A catalog of characters, even when livened up by Batman and the Flash, is no way to start a film – remember show don’t tell? – and abandoning the flourishes that might electrify an otherwise middling narrative is no way to finish a film. Suicide Squad should be edgy, but the tame results beg the question: what happened to the grit and harrowing pathos that David Ayers so capably delivered in the WWII tank drama Fury, with considerably more panache than he does here?
Perhaps it’s time to dispense with the industry’s obsession with realism – Marvel movies all look the same, and DC has so far relied on Zack Snyder’s moody aesthetic and Christopher Nolan’s urban pragmatism. Let’s have the idiosyncratic and unabashedly artsy approach Tim Burton used for his Batman films and Robert Rodriguez for his Sin City films. Or how about taking inspiration from Kerry Conran and his criminally underappreciated Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow?
Stylistic inconsistencies might be overlooked if Ayers had opted for a more sophisticated narrative approach. Off the top of my head, the film could have started mid-mission and used flashbacks to fill in the gaps. Or it could have more openly aped its inspiration, The Dirty Dozen, which provides a more plausible perspective of how a team of misfits could be forged into a cohesive unit capable of fighting a dire menace. It could have used stories of encounters with Batman and other heroes as a means of bonding the villains together. Heck, it could have just followed the path Ayers capably tread in Fury. There are any number of creative ways to tell the story, but instead we get as many empty promises as genuine pleasures, particularly in how characters are described versus how they are developed throughout the narrative. Joel Kinnaman’s Colonel Flag, for instance, comes across especially poorly; although described as the world’s best special-ops commando, he acts like a wishy-washy mop, a far cry from Lee Marvin’s Colonel Reisman. (He even hugs Deadshot at the end.) And Karen Fukuhara’ Katana, ostensibly Flag’s bodyguard, is described as not only the deadliest woman in the room but gifted with a soul-stealing sword that is depicted as little else than a good listener and a sharp blade. This all typifies the struggle Suicide Squad has in managing an ensemble cast; some characters get more attention than others, and only one – Jay Hernandez’ tragic criminal-with-a-conscience El Diablo – is given the opportunity to grow and change. Even the story’s major players – Will Smith’s Deadshot and Robbie Margot’s Harley Quinn – are kept in neutral. Essentially, Suicide Squad’s dramatic conceit is limited to the notion of forcing villains to act on behalf of the great thanks to implanted explosives. How the experience changes them, or reinforces their initial villainous proclivities, is yet another missed opportunity.
Strip away the film’s unrealized potential, and you’re left with a serviceable action movie that plausibly contributes to DC’s world-building and is punctuated by enthusiastic but unambitious character design. Will Smith is enjoyable as a version of his usual action movie personal, and Viola Davis offers us a terrifying and sociopathic Amanda Waller (creator of the Suicide Squad), but Margot Robbie especially sparkles as the psychedelically psychotic and homicidal Harley Quinn. Her gleefully off-kilter performance, however, is limited by the film’s refusal to emancipate Quinn from her definition as the Joker’s victim and plaything. A telling scene is when the film’s supernatural antagonist offers the Squad their deepest desires in exchange for loyalty; Quinn’s wish is for a domestic bliss with a de-Jokerized Joker, which suggests that her innermost psyche is just as much an appendage to the Clown Prince of Crime as her body. In the comics, Quinn achieves an independence that doesn’t rely on the consent of men. The film, however, squanders a major opportunity to give her agency distinct from male expectations. And Clara Delevigne, as an archaeologist possessed by an ancient evil witch, gets even less than that.
On to the Joker, then, performed by Jared Leto. His version, a suitably deranged synthesis of Nicholson and Ledger generously seasoned with MTV and Miami Vice chic, worked for me. Where some complain that there is too little Joker in the film, I submit that there was too much. However deliciously menacing, and however much Leto and Quinn share a disturbing chemistry on-screen as the King and Queen of Gotham, the Joker is nevertheless locked into a “love” story that goes nowhere and takes away from other characters. Once again, the impression is that the filmmakers didn’t have the courage of their conviction, preferring to elevate the film’s most marketable elements at the expense of fully embracing the ensemble nature of its cast of villains forced to do good.
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