A Disastrous Plot That Great Characters Can’t Save
There’s something clearly wrong with DC Comics’ and writer/director David Ayer’s Suicide Squad from the very first scene. Introducing two of its main characters, Deadshot (Will Smith) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) in prison to establish them as leads without real context, only to suddenly flip to government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), who spouts out background information on the world of the film, yet is abruptly cut off by the film’s title sequence, only to once again monologue about her plans to two fellow agents, including reintroducing the two characters who were just introduced. And it’s all in the first five minutes. It’s a weird, off-putting, poorly edited, directionless beginning to Suicide Squad and it works as a distillation of the film as a whole. A film whose dreadful sense of pacing, lack of narrative, and eye roll-inducing posturing is only somewhat redeemed by a cast of vibrant characters.
With a stronger story and a narrative cohesion that is not clearly compromised by dubious studio interference and reshoots that chop up both tone and story until they are wrecked, Suicide Squad could have done its characters justice.
Based on the long-running Suicide Squad comic book, which was revamped for the modern era by writer John Ostrander, the latest film in the DC Extended Universe centers on Task Force X – a government program that enlists imprisoned supervillains into doing incredibly dangerous missions. Their reward is reduced prison sentences and their coercion is a bomb placed in their necks that will explode if they get out of line. It’s a longstanding and well-loved cornerstone of the DC Comics Universe that has resulted in many fantastic stories, fleshed out characterizations for dozens of villains, and a welcome break from the typical do-gooder hero stories.
The line-up of Suicide Squad the film takes its cues from the entire history of the comic for a hodgepodge assembly of villains with a wide array of personalities. At the forefront of the film are Smith’s Deadshot and Robbie’s Harley Quinn. One is a hitman with incredible aim whose only goal is to reunite with his young daughter. The other is a former therapist turned psychotic criminal whose only goal is to reunite with the love of her life, The Joker (Jared Leto), the madman who turned her insane. They form the core of the film along with Colonel Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman), the U.S. agent who keeps Task Force X in line and has personal ties to their first mission.
Smith brings a sense of fun and charisma to the role in a way that has been lacking in his last several films. While many originally lamented his casting as Deadshot, Smith is one of the film’s strongest and most reliable aspects and manages to sell some of the film’s hammier emotional throughlines. And for comic fans, he really does feel like the Deadshot many readers have loved for years. As for Robbie, she captures the zany, quietly broken nature of the character well, most often during the film’s more intimate moments. However, she’s saddled with nonstop flashbacks, a lingering male gaze behind the camera, and a storyline that ultimately serves no greater purpose in the film.
And that brings us to The Joker himself – a thinly sketched, vaguely hammy, glorified cameo. It’s strange that The Joker was so present in all of Suicide Squad’s marketing, as his piece of the film is extraneous at best and ends in one of the most abrupt, unsatisfying, unnecessary scenes in the entire film. After beating the audience over the head again and again with Harley flashbacks that try to put meat on the bones of a barely-there story, Harley’s storyline with The Joker ends up meaning nothing at all. It’s maddeningly stupid. And it does no favors for Leto’s interpretation either, as he comes off as quite fake when given little time to explore his character.
Kinnaman as Flagg is a black hole of charisma, from which no interesting thing can escape. Unfortunately, Flagg’s character arc and his relationship with The Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) are meant to give some sort of weight to the film’s final act and finale, which is not the case in the slightest. Blame it on the flat actors. Blame it on the bland writing. Blame it on the stagnant direction. Blame it on the fact that Enchantress is a nothing villain with a vague plan and a CGI sidekick who has no real purpose. But the actual story of Suicide Squad is a dull, empty bore. There are no narrative peaks and valleys, no emotional heights, no satisfying character conclusions. The fact that the film is riddled with flashbacks certainly doesn’t help keep the central narrative flowing properly. But then again, without those flashbacks we’d be left with a dull, dry husk of a movie.
It’s telling that the first 30 minutes of Suicide Squad are its best because they are filled with character flashbacks and backstory. While it’s meant to give greater context for the key players in the story, their pasts are far more interesting and entertaining than the mission at hand. And even in that first half an hour, the pacing and editing of Suicide Squad is an utter mess. It’s just Waller tossing out information that quickly transitions to flashbacks. There’s no real reason or narrative progression here. But we get pure character work, which is the only thing saving this film. Then again, the film’s first act also introduces the audience to its biggest crutch – a constant barrage of incredibly obvious pop songs.
It’s clear that the filmmakers drew heavy inspiration from Guardians of the Galaxy’s soundtrack, which effectively used pop songs from the ‘70s throughout its sci-fi superhero story. But the songs used in Guardians were the result of careful thought and an integration that made them a cohesive part of the story, the tone, and the characters. Here, Ayer barrages the audience with constant needle drops, transitioning hard and fast without a second to spare as different characters come on screen. It quickly becomes exasperating and shows the ultimate point of the soundtrack – to cover up a total lack of depth and excitement with an avalanche of nostalgia, familiarity, and attitude.
That lack of depth extends to a large portion of the cast, as well, many of whom are given only mere moments to leave an impression, with some succeeding more than others. Of the supporting cast, El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a pyrokinetic gangster, is given the most to work with, as he deals with a fairly substantial arc coping with a haunted past and his current pacifism. Unfortunately, his arc also leads to both the film’s most emotionally-forced moment and its most hysterically strange one.
Filling out the rogues gallery are Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), a sleazy Australian thief whose charm, skullduggery, and slime are very much welcomed and not nearly showcased enough, Katana (Karen Fukuhara) a blade-wielding bodyguard who is barely given a line to say yet still looks cool, and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a mutated crocodile man whose makeup is unfortunately clunky looking and whose minimal dialogue is among the worst in the film. And then there’s Slipknot (Adam Beach), the man who can climb anything. He’s such cannon fodder that he’s not given a flashback. And even Katana’s sword is given a flashback. Yet this movie is so shoddy that he can’t even have a cool-looking death.
The reason these characters are as entertaining as they are is because Ayer thankfully kept their comic book personalities and aesthetics largely intact. So when Boomerang acts like a charismatic scumbag, you have DC Comics writers like Ostrander to thank most of all. When Harley Quinn feels like a dynamic character, it’s because Paul Dini invented her to be like that.
That’s Suicide Squad in a nutshell. Anything that works right is generally a product of decades of DC Comics, which have created some of the most vibrant and exciting comic book characters and worlds ever seen. Most everything that doesn’t work seems to come from the largely broken and flailing DC Extended Universe and the Warner Bros. team behind their interconnected world of movies.
These characters and ideas deserve better execution, but who knows when that will finally happen.