In the wake of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, DC Comics expands its movie universe with an off-kilter episode whose band of unlikely heroes draws upon lesser-known names from the comics, relying on their spunk and (eventual) camaraderie to counterbalance their relative obscurity in a genre captained by the likes of Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, and Wolverine.
As DC’s direct answer to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, David Ayer’s Suicide Squad takes what a cynic might describe as the carbon-copy approach: a motley crew, a cast sprinkled with up-and-comers and at least one former star, a soundtrack album’s worth of pop hits, and a quirky tone to distinguish it from its more conventional brethren (it even comes with its own, evil variation on Groot).
But beyond the fact that Suicide Squad chooses the villains and the crazies for its protagonists, its madcap tone and neon trimmings are little more than cosmetic toppings to a narrative so formulaic and simultaneously so muddled that neither comic lovers nor less discriminating fans of the shoot-’em-up genre – to which this unabashed ode to gun violence is indebted – are likely to find much to relish.
Directed by David Ayer.
The titular suicide squad is a supervillains’ Dirty Dozen put together by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), an unscrupulous bureaucrat convinced that without Superman on guard, this is the only way to protect the world from the threat of a malevolent “meta-human.” (That the mystical antagonist, Cara Delevingne’s millennia-old Enchantress, arises only as a direct consequence of Waller’s machinations seems to have escaped notice, but it serves to encapsulate the film’s glaring narrative deficiencies.)
Chaperoned by Special Forces officer Rick Flag (a thoroughly vanilla Joel Kinnaman as the dutiful narrative straight guy), Waller’s recruits are incarcerated criminals as dangerous as they are disposable, beginning with Deadshot (Will Smith), a marksman-assassin who is emblematic of the entire squad in that he has only a single character trait: he loves his daughter.
As the first character introduced and the film’s putative protagonist, Deadshot vacillates between a very poor writer’s idea of chivalrousness (“I don’t kill women or children,” he declares to his comrades, despite the deadly and unmistakably evil females around him) and a very poor writer’s idea of badassness (“I will knock your ass out – I don’t care that you’re a girl,” he threatens elsewhere), alternately reaffirmed and then undercut as a figure worth identifying with.
Joining him are Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), an Arkham Asylum psychiatrist turned psychotic princess to her former charge, the Clown Prince of Crime; Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), a mouthy thief named for his weapon of choice; pyrokinetic El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), who turned himself in after losing control; Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), whose role amounts to an impressive make-up job and a nickname; expert swordswoman Katana (Karen Fukuhara); and Slipknot (Adam Beach), whose full measure as a character is summed up in his risible last-minute introduction as “the man who can climb anything.”
Diablo’s renunciation of violence at least gives him an arc with a turning point, which is more than the rest of them can say. But when his long-suppressed powers finally manifest, the anticlimactic spectacle is impressive only to his co-stars – a brief eruption of fake-looking flame amid what feels like half an hour of constant gunfire.
Margot Robbie is without a doubt the film’s beating heart and damaged soul; the most unpredictable and most garrulous member of the team, Quinn is the only truly memorable character and earns more laughs than the rest put together.
Deadshot’s few stilted scenes with his daughter are the story’s best approximation of an emotional core – unless you count the twisted romance between Quinn and a barely-present Joker (Jared Leto), who flits around the periphery, appearing in the film for a scant few minutes but exerting his own gravity upon its proceedings. Helplessly overshadowed by Heath Ledger’s turn in the same role, Leto nonetheless does justice to the character’s rebirth, but his scarcity on-screen is akin to a broken promise.
Then again, Batman (Ben Affleck) comes and goes even faster – though not quite “in a flash,” that being reserved for Ezra Miller reappearing as the Flash to apprehend one of Waller’s prospects.
Meanwhile, Cara Delevigne gives fellow supermodel and DC Extended Universe-mate Gal Gadot a run for her money as the most wooden actress in the business in each of three distinct incarnations. An archeologist whose first act upon discovering an ancient human doll in an unexplored cave is to rip the priceless relic in half, she is possessed by an ancient entity which transforms her into a feral-looking witch and eventually into a queenly villain best described as “Evil Galadriel.”
As her Enchantress mutates the denizens of Midway City into a stock horde of faceless, expendable minions, Waller’s team arrives on the scene – cue fireworks.
Though it takes pains to dehumanize the living cannon-fodder of the Enchantress’s legions, Suicide Squad nevertheless features an unsettling number of casual murders for a PG-13 film which has in its purview so many lengthy rap sheets but never takes crimes or their consequences the least bit seriously.
Ayer presents a story as morally dark as its visual palette of unrelenting night scenes, in which every problem can be tackled with sufficient firepower. And it is equally dim on an intellectual level, since the characters all opt to travel everywhere by helicopter even though whenever a helicopter takes off, it is shot down within seconds (inevitably killing all the anonymous tertiary characters aboard, while leaving unscathed anybody whose face is attached to a name).
More slapdash than slam-bang, Suicide Squad marks another misstep for DC’s would-be movie universe, which will expand further next year with Wonder Woman and Justice League.