Okay, here goes. I’ve been putting this off for a while now, but I’m ready to stand up. Ready to plunge my hands into the filth of the internet, so that you can keep yours clean. I’m ready to say some things that might not be popular. Ready to suggest that this film might not be perfect, but that it still might not be an abject failure. Ready to tell you all to calm the hell down with your hyperbole. Because I’m the reviewer that you need, not the one that you deserve.
We all know by now that Suicide Squad has split people distinctly into two camps. Those who think it’s an entertaining blast that does justice to DC’s quirky supervillain team, and those who want to hunt down the studio heads of Warner Bros. and drop them into a vat of Ace Chemicals. There aren’t too many people in the middle. Except for me.
Truth be told, I wanted more, as I thought that this could be one of my favourite action films of all time. I really believed that it had that potential. It was just one of those films that seemed poised to tick all of my personal boxes. 1) It’s a comic book movie. 2) It’s heavily linked to the Batman universe. 3) It’s got a punky and anarchic attitude. 4) It’s about bad guys/ anti-heroes. 5) It has a crocodile man! 6) It has an extensive soundtrack. 7) The plot is simple and it’s contained to mostly one location. 8) It has a slightly darker tone. These are things I should love. And in fact, they’re all things that I do love in Suicide Squad. When they’re actually utilised properly.
But unlike, say, Kingsman, where all of my personal boxes were ticked and the final product was executed brilliantly, this is a case where I feel more like I’m going easy on it because of those ticked boxes. It’s the difference between a film that is tailor made for me, and a film that panders to me just enough so that I let it off the hook. Because Suicide Squad is flawed as hell. It’s structurally incoherent, it’s tonally bizarre and features at least 2 majorly misjudged performances. But, I can’t bring myself to dislike it.
For those who don’t know, this is essentially DC’s answer to Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s a film focused on a core group of obscure anti-heroes, who have to put aside their own selfish motivations in order to save the day. But there’s a bit more to it than that. Where the Guardians had some agency and choice in the matter, the squad here is kept under a tight leash. The majority of the band is made up of supervillian convicts, who are recruited to go out on black-ops missions for the government, in exchange for reduced jail sentences. The gist being that they’re expendable, and no one will miss them. This idea is the brain child of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), a ruthless government official who will do whatever it takes to get the job done. The job in this particular instance, is to clean up her own meta-human shaped mess.
So the titular squad, which consists of Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Deadshot (Will Smith), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Katana (Karen Fukuhara) and Slipknot (Adam Beach), is lead by their custodian Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) into the heart of Midway City, in order to deal with this ambiguous threat. Boy that was a lot of names. Oh and the Joker (Jared Leto) is loosely involved.
Now I am being deliberately vague about the nature of their mission, much like the film’s marketing, because it’s not my place to spoil things. All I will say is, the actual idea of a simple and contained mission is perfect for this kind of film. They’re initially told that they have to extract a high-value target from the city, which is a clear and concise objective. If that was it, I’d be fine with the overall plot. It would facilitate exactly what we want from this story, which is plenty of time to get to know the characters and ample opportunity to watch them do cool things. Unfortunately, there’s more, and the objective soon morphs into something else entirely, as the squad are sent to deal with the big bad behind everything, who is incidentally, one of the worst villains ever utilised by a comic-book movie. And that is saying a lot.
You might be thinking ‘okay, so the plot’s a bit meh, but at least the rest of it’s good right’? Well, kind of. Let’s put it this way, I’m sure it was originally pretty great. Alas, the putrid stench of studio interference can be detected all over this. The highly publicised re-edits and re-shoots have taken their toll on the narrative clarity of the film, and also on the pacing. So many scenes are cut far too abruptly short, while backstories that are intriguing are butchered into their shortest possible form and some are even omitted altogether. It might seem nitpicky if you haven’t seen the film, but trust me it’s extremely off-putting, especially in the instances where you can see the germ of a great scene that’s been cut to shreds.
It’s so irritating, as there are barely any ‘scenes’ at all, just 10 second long cutaways that communicate the minimum amount of information necessary. You end up really wanting conversations and moments to be allowed to breath. On the odd occasion where a scene has been left intact, it feels great, as if you’re finally being given something of substance. But that’s frankly all too rare an occurrence.
I wanted to see Joker and Harley’s backstory played out in full, not reduced to a ‘previously on Suicide Squad’ style catch up. I wanted to see the characters talk and interact for more than a few lines at a time. Most of all, I just wanted there to be actual scenes, not a loose collection of shots and moments stringed together in seemingly random succession! I don’t understand the motivation for cutting everything so brutally. It doesn’t make the film more fun or accessible, it does the exact opposite. It’s alienating.
Again, this is coming from someone who really wanted to love the film, but as hard as I try to forgive these problems, I still know deep down that this should be so much better. The issues don’t stop there either. The film lacks a proper commitment to its ‘edgy’ attitude. These villains are not the worst of the worst, they’re not that bad at all. One of them just robs banks! Elsewhere, Diablo is intensely remorseful about what he’s done, Croc is just a product of the way society treats him, and Katana isn’t even a bad guy in the first place!
Throughout the entire film they never do anything that bad. In fact, they’re fairly complicit with Amanda’s mission and they even make self-sacrifices. I wanted it to have more bite. It just feels too sanitised for a film about the bad-guys. Hell, Batman and Superman are currently more reckless than these people! Seriously, a movie about the bad guys could be really cool, but it won’t be if you dance around the concept and play it safe!
Nevertheless, as I said, the film is far from terrible and has its fair share of good qualities. Most of these good qualities come from the impeccable casting. While the story and editing may detract from their potential, these characters are bold, enticing and really, really well performed. The four standouts are Waller, Deadshot, Boomerang and Harley. They’re really badass and deserve to be in a much better film.
Davis brings a palpable menace to Waller, a quality that honestly makes her a much better villain than the actual antagonist of the film. She’s legitimately scary, hateful and compelling all at the same time. Meanwhile, it’s so nice to have fun Will Smith back. He’s spent so long repressing his innate charisma in garbage like After Earth, and it’s great to see him playing someone with spark and personality again. He gets basically all of the best dialogue, and when he’s allowed to crack wise and be a little edgy, he really shines. Also, as a side-note, he looks fucking cool with the mask on. Just saying.
And holy crap, we have a film that made me actually like Jai Courtney! I mean that’s worth at least 2 stars on its own isn’t it? He’s honestly got decent comedic chops, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I wanted much more of him in the film. Captain Boomerang might be my biggest surprise of the summer (even if I am thoroughly confused as to why Waller would recruit him to fight meta-humans…. he just has a boomerang.)
However, the absolute, undeniable MVP here is Margot Robbie. Harley Quinn is one of DC’s most enduring, tragic, captivating and complex characters and many of us have been dying to see her on the big screen for quite some time. This is a role that comes burdened with a lot of expectation, almost as much as the Joker himself, and Robbie absolutely nails it. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that she ranks up there with Ryan Reynolds, Robert Downey Jr. and Hugh Jackman in terms of actors who are perfectly suited to their characters. To fans of Batman: The Animated Series or the comic books, she is Harley Quinn. Everything from the manic energy, to the voice, to the mannerisms; she just gets it all so right. I could watch a thousand films about Robbie’s Harley Quinn, because she is exceptional. Which is more than can be said for her puddin’.
Yeah fuck Jared Leto’s Joker. I don’t know what the hell that was. Why did he go so insanely method to bring us that shit-show? Like seriously, dude, you could have just tired… acting. You didn’t need to go overboard with all the immersion. It certainly didn’t pay off anyway. It was remarkably bland at the best of times and when it wasn’t that, it was just a little bit embarrassing. Leto kept talking about how he was going to do something bold and unique with the character, something that would distance it from Heath Ledger’s iconic portrayal. I’m totally down for that. That’s something I’d like to see. The Joker is one of the most malleable characters in all of fiction, you could do anything with him. You could do literally anything. ANYTHING! And what did you do? You just did Heath Ledger’s version anyway! The voice was pretty similar and he adopted the same brand of ‘mad-dog’ craziness, the only difference is, he just did it much worse. And all while dressed like a complete tit.
My biggest problem was that it had a knock-on effect for Harley’s characterisation. Remember, she’s supposed to be enthralled with this man. She thinks the world of him. She hangs on his every word. But why? He’s just a thug! He’s a boring, charmless, wannabee pimp who lacks any appeal. I couldn’t become properly engaged in their relationship, and therefore her major emotional moments, because I couldn’t understand her attachment to him.
Mark Hamill’s Joker was an extravagant source of lunacy and chaos, someone who looked like he had a lot of fun with his schemes. Ledger’s Joker was a magnetic presence that was dangerous, eccentric, unpredictable, and oddly likeable.They’re Jokers that you could fall for. They’re people you could become sucked in by. In short, they’re suitable people for Harley to literally go crazy over. I wish Robbie was playing off of them. Not this posing tosser.
Anyway, back to the positives. The design of the film is mostly superb and this extends to everything from the costumes, to the make-up, right down to the sets. It’s a style that beautifully captures the comic-book aesthetic, even if it does seem to lose its vibrancy as the film goes on. I was particularly fond of the way that certain members of the squad were introduced with accompanying text reeling off background info. It felt very in-keeping with the source material, and even hinted at some intriguing backstory stuff (including a little something about the Boy Wonder). Moreover, and this is a small thing but hear me out, they really nailed the body language and poses of these characters. I know that sounds stupid, but there are shots in this film that could easily have been translated directly from comic-book panels in this respect.
David Ayer’s direction is also suitably brash and kinetic, whilst his visuals can be very at inventive at times (I love the way Diablo makes little cartoons with his fire. That was cool) When you’re able to see the director’s vision seeping though all the blatant studio interference, you can glimpse greatness. Which brings me to the the action, which is pretty solid too. If you were more invested in ‘who’ the squad were fighting and ‘why’, you might have even called it great. It is lacking in the stakes department, and the characters don’t seem to be in any immediate peril, but it’s extremely well choreographed and nicely put together.
I even thought the soundtrack was pretty top-notch, and I know that this has been a point of contention. I do agree that it’s very obviously been added in retrospectively, in order to try and capitalize on the whole ‘fun’ thing, and a couple of cues don’t really fit their scenes at all, but most of them did. In particular, Lesley Gore’s ‘You Don’t Own Me’ and The Rolling Stones’ ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ were quite evocative of the characters that they were each used to introduce. And for anyone who says ‘yeah, but it was inconsistently bouncing around different musical genres and styles’, I’ll just retort with ‘you mean like Guardians of the Galaxy, Goodfellas, Forrest Gump and every Tarantino movie ever’? Honestly, generic consistency in a soundtrack is highly overrated, especially if you’re going for a fun, upbeat tone. Mixing it up just keeps things fresh, I don’t see the problem with that. This film has enough problems, you don’t need to go looking for things to hate.
For all the issues that Suicide Squad has, and it has a lot, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it. It’s fun, it has some great characters, and it embraces it’s comic-book identity whole-heartedly. But that’s not really enough. This should have been the superhero equivalent to Fight Club. This should have been the moment that DC got Marvel quaking in their boots. This should have been the highlight of the summer. Instead, it’s a film that I have to try quite hard to defend. A film that requires me to forgive a lot.
RATING: 6/10- Despite a ton of issues, this is still a series that I would LOVE to see more of. Here’s hoping they can pull their act together next time, because the potential is there.
Suicide Squad (2016) is directed by David Ayer and is distributed in the the UK by Warner Bros., Certificate 15.