In the game of catchup that Warner Bros and DC are playing out across our multiplexes, David Ayer’s Suicide Squad is their answer to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, in which a group of antiheroes band together over the course of one film to do good things despite being bad people over a soundtrack of hits. Unlike James Gunn’s crowdpleaser, Ayer’s film feels more like a first assembly reel than a finished product, and a first assembly that requires extensive edits and reshoots at that.
Despite being sold as a team of wacky crooks going on laugh-a-minute hijinks, the film takes itself very seriously; it’s quite a while into the film before there is even an attempt at a laugh, and many of the jokes fall flat. This feeling is compounded by the fact that there are gags in the trailers that aren’t in the movie, which would have gone unnoticed if the comedy that made the cut wasn’t so thin on the ground. Part of the problem is the pacing of Ayer’s own screenplay—after a slow start, the film struggles to find its feet and even when it’s racing through action sequences, it still seems to drag. This affects the entire narrative, not just the jokes, and contributes further to the feeling that the film is a rough first draft; the first third of the film constantly rehashes itself, introducing characters many times in different contexts without adding anything new.
This is exemplified in the introduction of Deadshot (Will Smith) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie); we meet them first as brutalised prisoners in a Louisiana black site, then meet them again in a montage of the proposed members of the squad, then are introduced a third time when Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) first approaches them to join the team. There’s no consistency in these introductions either, with characters like Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), who is half introduced in an early montage but seemingly forgotten until he shows up as part of the team more than half an hour later, and Katana (Karen Fukuhara), who literally jumps onto the chopper at the last second.1 Waller pitches the very idea of the Suicide Squad twice in two concurrent scenes—once in a fancy restaurant, once in a military briefing—with the second scenario a far more nuanced and engaging presentation of the same information. This all contributes to the feeling that the film is merely a collection of scenes shot with no clear direction in mind, an aim of saving it all in the edit. This uncertainty is embedded in the plot; the film seems uncertain as to whether the audience should be clued in to the scheme of its super powered villain or be kept in the dark with the Squad, and settles for something in between, where scenes that play like significant reveals for the Squad have actually already played for the viewers, and yet they still don’t quite make sense. The plot itself is borderline incomprehensible as a result, even with frequent dialogue reminders of what is happening.
The murky aesthetic that DC seems to have settled on as their house style is in full effect here, a step away from the film’s bright marketing campaign. Those who are tired of the ‘destruction in darkness’ playbook of Man of Steel and Batman V Superman will find nothing new here, and critics of Marvel’s faceless armies will find a literal army of faceless, mindless grunts. There are a few standout design decisions—Enchantress (Cara Delevigne) and her cosmic cape is one of the closest cinematic equivalents to a comic book panel in recent memory—but these are few and far between. The film tries to buy cultural cache from its soundtrack—Queen, The White Stripes, Lil Wayne and Eminem all feature—but the songs play hollow, tacked on as an afterthought rather than truly integrated in sequences, while Steven Price’s score is almost Pavlovian, playing heroic cues at typically heroic moments and leaving little room for ambiguity.
Suicide Squad introduces a number of iconic (and less iconic) characters to the DC line-up; by far the best is Davis’ Amanda Waller, whose straight, unapologetically ruthless and self-serving nature acts both as an accurate translation of the character and a refreshing alternative to the cartoonish squad members. Deadshot is functional if underdeveloped, as is Joel Kinnaman’s Rick Flagg; the defacto group leaders, they both feel more like the main character of a video game than a film. Diablo (Jay Hernandez) is billed as the pacifist heart of the crew, unwilling to let his anger take over, yet when his powers are actually unleashed they’re underwhelming, a combination of lacklustre CGI and low energy performance. Jared Leto’s heavily hyped Joker attempts to move as far away from Heath Ledger as possible, ending up as a jumbled parody of the character rather than a serious attempt. Presented as more of a gangster than agent of chaos, the Joker is a recurring plot disruption and Leto bites off more scenery than he can chew. Jai Courtney seems to be the only actor who was told the film was a comedy, and although his bogan Captain Boomerang is one of the most consistently enjoyable team members to cut away to, the fact that a white Australian plays a character so inherently appropriative of Indigenous culture begs the question of why they didn’t consider casting an Indigenous actor in the role in the first place.2
Another key issue with the film is its startlingly reductive approach to its female characters. Right off bat, the three female metahumans of the film—Harley, Enchantress and Katana—all wear significantly less clothes than their male counterparts.3 This is particularly notable in Harley’s case as, in a moment of fan service, she is shown holding her original costume (a full body black and red leotard) and instead opting for a ripped shirt and short shorts. The camera is almost as incessant in its objectification of her as the narrative is in only justifying these female characters’ action through their male partners. Harley is constantly framed as the literal property of the Joker, the words emblazoned on the back of her jacket, while Enchantress is Rick Flagg’s only weakness and Katana lives to avenge the death of her husband. The representation of Harley is by far the most problematic; a relative newcomer to DC lore, she is a character who has historically been defined by her abusive relationship with the Joker.4 The film’s attitude to this relationship is as inconsistent as its overall narrative, initially depicting Harley as a lovesick doctor, then torture victim, before settling firmly on a “it’s not abuse because she wants it” line. Both the film and its marketing have made use of “You Don’t Own Me” as a sort of anthem for Harley, but as the film goes on, it becomes depressingly clear that the reason she can’t be owned is because she is already someone else’s property.
But at the heart of many of the film’s issues is the simple fact that it has misunderstood the Suicide Squad. What was once a collection of DC’s biggest baddies banded together by the iron fist of Amanda Waller to do the dirty work that no one official can be tied to instead becomes a group of talented metahumans recruited to assist tactical forces in a “terrorist situation”. The film treats them as superheroes waiting to happen instead of villains who can be blamed for their actions without it being traced back to the government. As a result, the plot falls into stale “save the world” territory instead of the grey morality and covert operations that the Squad were formed for—the narrative mirrors The Avengers where it should be aiming for Dredd. The film also has the distinct misfortune of coming out right after Deadpool, which proved that “bad guy superhero comedy” can work as a subgenre. Ultimately, Suicide Squad is yet another misstep for DC, whose attempts at expanding into a cinematic universe have so far been consistently underwhelming.
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