In their attempts to hit the level of success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in short order, the DC Extended Universe seems to keep making mistakes that, if they aren’t killing this universe, are seriously wounding its long-term potential. While I appreciated what the combination of Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan brought to Superman in Man of Steel, there were plenty of people who didn’t care for it, and the box office ended up lower than Warner Bros. wanted. Rather than make a straight sequel to Man of Steel, then, they brought in Batman just a few years after the end of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a film that in its theatrical cut showcases the absolute worst habits of studios trying to use a single film to launch a massive franchise. That film may have technically brought in more money at the box office, but with a much bigger budget, it was a bit of a dud both critically and commercially for the studio.
Enter Suicide Squad. What originally seemed like an off-kilter side project within the DC Extended Universe is getting a lot more attention, thanks to some well-assembled trailers and the intriguing concept of a team of supervillains in heroic roles. Throw in some major casting coups, including stars like Will Smith and rising talent like Margot Robbie, the inclusion of the biggest villain in pop culture, and the success of the R-rated Deadpool earlier this year, and it seems like a can’t-lose concept.
“Seems” is the key word there.
For the uninitiated, here’s the basic concept of the film: under the direction of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), a tough-as-nails bureaucrat, the U.S. government authorizes the creation of Task Force X, a covert team made up of imprisoned supervillains who are given the promise of time off their sentences in exchange for their work. The catch: if they try to escape, they’re rigged for immediate termination, and if they’re caught, they’ll be thrown under the bus – possibly literally.
So who are the villains Waller’s managed to wrangle up inside super-prison Belle Reve? Some real horrible people – as Waller puts it, “the worst of the worst.” Deadshot (Will Smith) is an assassin who never misses. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is the deranged girlfriend of The Joker (Jared Leto). Diablo (Jay Hernandez) has the ability to generate and control fire. Killer Croc (Adele Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is a man who mutated into a cannibalistic monster. Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) is an ancient demon possessing the body of archaeologist Dr. June Moone. Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) is…a bank robber with a boomerang. And Slipknot (Adam Beach) is…well, he’s there, too.
Keeping an eye on this group on the ground is Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), who’s forced to watch the team by Waller after he develops a relationship with Moone. His second in command is Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a Japanese woman who carries a sword that absorbs the souls of its victims.
If the idea of assembling a team of villains sounds potentially troublesome, you’re onto something. The team’s first mission is to stop Enchantress, who’s managed to sneak away from Waller’s control to awaken her brother, Incubus. The two begin to create trouble in Midway City, where they turn the local population into indiscernible gray creatures while creating a giant portal in the sky that’s intended to bring an end to humanity. So it’s up to Task Force X to stop Enchantress and Incubus. Creating a little more trouble for the Squad, though, is the reappearance of the Joker, who’s eager to get Harley back.
The most frustrating aspect of this film is how much potential there is with the basic concept, and how it’s squandered repeatedly from the beginning. In a sign of how poorly edited the film is, Deadshot is introduced in the opening scene of the film, then two scenes later when Amanda Waller narrates a flashback to Deadshot in work mode, then again when Rick Flag arrives at Belle Reve to see what Deadshot can do with a gun. Maybe there was concern that audiences wouldn’t be able to get a grasp on villains who aren’t the Joker or Harley Quinn, but this kind of repeated introduction is unnecessary, especially when other characters (ahem, Slipknot) barely get any screen time at all.
Part of the issue also lies with the script, which comes across as something with the studio’s fingerprints all over it. Take the inclusion of the Joker. His presence in the film at all makes sense when it comes to Harley Quinn’s flashbacks, since he’s the integral other person in her origin story. But outside of the flashbacks, his presence feels like a distraction. He only appears a handful of times in the film, and he only ever interacts with Harley – never with any other member of the Squad.
Even beyond shoehorning in the Joker, though, this script just feels incomplete. A lot of time is spent treading water, and the different parts of the film’s overall mission are often incoherent at best. The film’s tone varies wildly, with some lightly jokey material clashing with gritty and trashy scenes. Given the film’s length, you’d expect for more to actually happen in the film, but this is a film where the first half hour or so is spent introducing most of the characters via flashback and exposition. It’s just poorly constructed.
And yet, Suicide Squad is not unwatchable. The one thing this film has going for it is its cast, which is largely enjoyable. Thanks to four of the five main characters of the film, Suicide Squad offers something for fans to hold onto in this DC Extended Universe.
By virtue of being played by Will Smith, Deadshot is the closest thing this film has to a lead character. Smith doesn’t really sink into the role, but that kind of works in this film. He’s a cold-blooded killer, but he’s humanized by the daughter who makes him want to be a better man. Deadshot, like almost everything else here, is underdeveloped, but Smith’s natural charisma makes him watchable.
Even if she’s not a household name yet, Margot Robbie has a similar magnetic presence, and her take on Harley Quinn is delightful. The film delves into her origin story, taking aspects from her “Mad Love” origin from Batman: The Animated Series and merging it with her New 52 origins, and makes her relationship with The Joker undeniably gross. It’s in no way an ideal relationship. Outside of those flashbacks, though, Harley provides a necessary amount of chaos to the Squad. She’s easily the most aggressive member on board, and she manages to play it off with a weird amount of innocence. She’s also flat-out fun, which is hard to say about any of the other characters.
More surprising is Jay Hernandez’ Diablo. After an incident where his powers resulted in a tragic personal outcome, he’s decided to attempt to not use his powers. Unlike the other villains, he has actual remorse for his crimes, and wants some level of redemption. Diablo stays in the background for most of the film as a result, but when he’s finally put to use, there’s a power to his involvement that is pretty compelling.
And finally, there’s Viola Davis. If you’re not familiar with the comics, it’s important to know that Amanda Waller is the type of person who can put the fear of God into pretty much anyone, in spite of the fact that she herself has no special powers. She just…knows things, and knows how to use her knowledge to control others. In Davis’ hands, the amount of exposition that comes from Waller early on in the film is actually pretty palpable, and she can speak volumes with a simple look. It’s chilling.
It’s good that these four are able to add so much to the film, because the technical villains of the film are the weakest parts. Outside of some cool effects early on, Enchantress adds nothing significantly good to the film, and Incubus is a waste of CGI space. As for The Joker, Leto’s take is serviceable, but he’s unnecessary to the film. He could be excised from the final cut of the film, and it would change almost nothing.
So, to recap: Suicide Squad is a mess, but unlike large parts of Batman v Superman, it’s not unwatchable. It introduces some interesting new characters into the DC Extended Universe, and shows how important casting can be to a film. I don’t really care to see more of this particular series, but I wouldn’t mind seeing some of these characters pop up in other films – especially the rumored Harley Quinn spinoff. Three films in, though, DC and Warner Bros. don’t quite have their stuff together. It looks like time to pin all of our hopes on Wonder Woman.