Movie Review: Suicide Squad
By Ben Gruchow
August 8, 2016

You are not Batman.

The problem is that almost none of this weighs anything, and the parts that hint at it are grievously truncated. Suicide Squad demonstrates, even more clearly than its predecessors, how fundamentally corrupted Warner’s answer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe is. On its own, this third entry slots in in the middle of a small heap: no better than the bloated and contemptuously juvenile Dawn of Justice, considerably worse than 2013’s Man of Steel (a film I harbor scant affection for to begin with), and not really any damn good at all in a vacuum.

Part of it is the strain behind the scenes that you can glimpse all too easily; the DC Extended Universe is conspicuously meant to pull fewer punches and land more impactful revelations and developments than the Marvel version dreams of doing. If Iron Man & Co. are the end result of years of meticulous tactics and consistency in branding by Disney, Warner is going for a vision made up of diverse and risk-taking artistic choices. This feels like the way it should be; Warner was, after all, the first studio to really legitimize comic-book movies as big-budget blockbuster entertainment in 1978 with Superman, and the first to legitimize the reboot as artistically valid and justified in 2005 with Batman Begins. But they’ve tried too hard to jump the gun and roar out of the gate with a fully-formed narrative bedrock right away, and the slapdash, creatively muddled nature of their approach is distractingly obvious by looking at the initial entries.

Looking at the results of this in hindsight, we are given some perspective: there was a scant path available for this film to ever be more than mediocre. It’s been patched together from two competing visions, utilizing two schools of stylistic influence that are utterly at odds with each other: Christopher Nolan’s punishing sound-and-music aesthetic, workable in the context of a pragmatic and adult-anchored actorly presence, and Zack Snyder’s overwhelming CG-and-slow-motion sensibility stapled to a positively juvenile approach to narrative and character. Smash these two together, and you end up with something that is loud, self-serious, visually overbearing, tonally arrhythmic, brain-dead, and occasionally - almost by accident - compositionally startling.

This is more or less what we get with Suicide Squad, a film that possesses part of a first act, most of a final act, and almost none of a middle act. In that first act, we are introduced to Deadshot (Will Smith) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the first of a crowd of antiheroes recruited by a shadowy arm of the U.S. government, headed up by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) and supervised by Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman). The goal of the Suicide Squad is, I guess, to prevent the advent of an evil being with the same powers as Superman (a government official asks in the beginning: “What would we do if Superman flew down one day and tore the roof off of Congress?”, having not been informed that a regular guy with access to a bomb was able to vaporize a Capitol building relatively easily scant months prior). It’s not particularly clear what the goal is, with the Squad being made up of the viciously homicidal, the insane, or both; none of them does much that couldn’t be accomplished with a flamethrower wielded by a tactical strike team of the non-homicidally insane.

It is a relief of sorts to discover that the movie doesn’t much care, either. Deadshot and Quinn are transparently the main characters, the filmmakers apparently unable to decide which second dimension they liked better and therefore going in on both. The remainder of the Squad struggles to achieve one-dimensionality, and they never really had a chance to overcome that struggle; in a film where the main characters are given at least two separate introductions, characters such as Diablo and Enchantress are given abbreviated flashbacks in an attempt to explain their origin. Characters such as Boomerang and Killer Croc have to hope their origin stories will be explained in the sequel.

We get overloaded on antagonists, since just about everyone on-screen is in some way a villain; with nobody to root for in particular, we are made to feel most threatened by Enchantress. She is an ancient demon residing in the body of a Dr. June Moon (Cara Delevingne). She can go anywhere, get to anyone, at lightning speed; when threatened, she can merely phase out of existence and reappear elsewhere like Nightcrawler from X-Men. How, exactly, are the Squad members expected to combat something like this? Unimpeded by the ramifications of this question, the movie resurrects her equally-ancient brother in the form of a metallic horned demon made of fire. Anything he touches gets annihilated in a manner suggesting atomic collapse crossed with candle wax in a wind machine. Meanwhile, Harley Quinn has a baseball bat; Deadshot and Boomerang have good aim with small melee weapons.

Enchantress’s collaboration with her brother and her rise to power form an incursion on the plot that feels natural, if your sole point of comparison is last year’s Fantastic Four and maybe 2004’s Blade: Trinity. The Squad’s formation is either interrupted or followed immediately by a threat involving the usual war machine, world domination, chaos and doom, et cetera, and we hurry from our first team-introduction scene to the penultimate set piece. There really is no blunter way to put it: this is nightmarishly compromised narrative structure, introducing some characters twice, others not at all, spending precious screen time reiterating terms of recruitment, and missing almost all of the connective tissue that gives a movie like this any stakes at all.

David Ayer writes and directs, but the effect is of a film produced and assembled by committee. It will come as little surprise to anyone who sees this that there was extensive studio interference here, culminating in the usual warning signs of reshoots and multiple test screenings. The end product bears the scars all too clearly: music plays incongruously on the soundtrack, patching together disparate scenes; character motivations and arcs change for seemingly no reason at all. And Ayer lacks the proper visual sensibility or knowledge of effects planning; with the exception of some unique lighting and depth effects at the movie’s climax, the visuals are muddy and indistinct, the CG lacking in discipline.

There are some moments that hint at a stronger film, tethered more to empathy and feeling. Most of these moments involve Deadshot and his daughter, and they constitute the one part of the movie that seems aware that a human connection is a necessity even to a $175 million antihero film. The only other measure of human connection comes between Quinn and Jared Leto as the Joker. If Smith and Robbie are responsible for the most relative success in character development, Leto is responsible for arguably the film’s most abject failure. His Joker is a total creative faceplant, so self-conscious and desperate to appear threatening in any way (absent any backstory or context) that he succeeds in none of them. His is the most abundant example of an actor visibly acting, instead of inhabiting a character; the result exhibits none of the fluidity and inner discord and twitchy energy of Heath Ledger’s Joker, still in a walk the defining interpretation of the character. As a matter of fact, Leto’s clown is emblematic of Suicide Squad as a whole. It is a victim of confused identity, consciously trying too hard to do what comes naturally to material conceived with a better handle on what it wants to be.