Browse Josh's Portfolio and the Comic, Reviews or Blog archive.

Josh Reviews Suicide Squad

Following the disappointment of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a movie that I found to be overly dour and grim and dull (and, even more problematically, filled with almost nonsensical plotting and paper-thin characters), I thought Suicide Squad looked like a breath of fresh air for the burgeoning DC movie-verse, fun and anarchic.  Sadly, the film has almost all of the exact same problems as Batman v. Superman: the plot makes little sense, the characters are underdeveloped, and the whole thing reeks of desperation to be cool and adult, while failing to be either.  I actually think Batman v. Superman is better than Suicide Squad — something I can’t believe I am writing.  Oy vey!

SuicideSquad.cropped

Created by John Ostrander in the eighties (actually, recreated, as there was a previous Silver Age version of the concept) (and I was happy to see that Mr. Ostrander got a fun shout-out in the third act of the film), the idea behind Suicide Squad is that government operative Amanda Waller (played here by Viola Davis) has gathered a group of meta-human super-villains and attempts to coerce them into doing good on the government’s behalf as a way to commute their sentences (and avoid getting blown up by the bombs she’s had implanted in their necks).  Here in the film, the DC world has been shaken by the arrival, and then departure, of Superman, which lends context to Amanda Waller’s desperation to have some meta-humans she can control.  Of course, the idea of trying to control these super-powered crazies is probably a bad idea.

I am somewhat shocked that this obscure property has made it to the big screen, so in this I applaud DC/Warners for having the guts to dig this deeply into the wonderful history of DC Comics.  I never really expected to see Harley Quinn in live-action on-screen, let alone Deadshot or Katana.  While I think DC/Warners are shooting themselves in the foot by rushing to create a shared cinematic universe — in slavish imitation of what Marvel Studios has done so well — without taking the time to carefully develop each property individually, which has been Marvel’s (very successful) strategy, I must admit that it’s also sort of cool that this new slate of DC movies are dropping us into a universe fully in motion.  Man of Steel was a new origin story for Superman, but Batman v. Superman presented us with a Batman who had been in operation for decades and already had a Robin killed, and a Wonder Woman who had been around since WWI at least, while also suggesting the existence of many other super-humans (all the other members of what will be the Justice League.)  Here in Suicide Squad, these super-villains have also clearly been around for quite a while, having all already had their origins and their times fighting the super-heroes (Batman and Flash are both seen in the film) before getting imprisoned where they are when the film opens.

They assembled a fairly strong ensemble for the film.  Viola Davis is perfect as Amanda Waller (even though I’d been hoping that C.C.H. Pounder would play her, seeing as Ms. Pounder voiced the character so marvelously in all of the Bruce Timm-led DC Animated TV shows).  DC/Warners is trying to set up Ms. Waller as a morally-compromised version of Nick Fury of the DC cinematic universe, linking together these films.  (Remember that this character was also present in their failed Green Lantern film, there played by Angela Bassett.)  I love seeing this character on-screen, and I like the idea behind their use of Waller in this film.  Ms. Davis is great at playing this steely-eyed, tough-as-nails woman.  But (and prepare to detect a theme in this review), both the actress and the character are let down by the script, which forces her to spend much of the first act delivering huge speeches of exposition (to basically explain everything we need to know about all the Suicide Squad characters) and then forgets about her for most of the third act.

Will Smith brings all of his movie-star charisma to the role of Deadshot, helping to create a character who we like and sort of invest in despite zero help, and I mean zero help, from the script.  Deadshot is supposed to be the character who has the most significant arc in the film.  (Most of the other characters on the “team” don’t change at all — again, another weakness of the script.  Harley starts the movie crazy and in love with the Joker, and ends it the same way.  While we the audience grow to like El Diablo — more on him in a minute — the character’s journey from violent criminal to pacifist has already happened before the film begins.  And on and on.)  But Deadshot is supposed to move from hardened, vicious assassin to someone who begins to see the value in trying to show his daughter that he’s not a piece of shit.  This transition isn’t earned at all in the film, but nevertheless Mr. Smith is able to make the character work via his tremendous, very likable movie-star presence.  It’s rare to see Mr. Smith as a part of an ensemble like this, and he is terrific.

Margot Robbie, meanwhile, owns every ounce of the character of Harley Quinn.  While Ms. Robbie is great, I hate the way the film has so overtly sexualized the Harley Quinn character.  Her costume is really inexcusable, and the way the camera lingers over her body throughout the film made me deeply uncomfortable.  But Ms. Robbie tries her hardest to make us forget all that.  She has embraced this character with a ferocity and passion that is extraordinarily impressive.  She nails the way Harley (consciously or unconsciously — the charm of this character is you can never quite be sure) balances innocence with a predatory cunning.  This is an incredible performance.

The other interesting character in the film is Jay Hernandez as El Diablo (who I just mentioned above).  I enjoyed this take on the character, and Mr. Hernandez gives him a lot of soul.  This was the one character in the film who seemed to have some layers in him, some depth.

The rest of the actors all do their best.  I actually didn’t hate Jai Courtney here (an impressive feat considering how little I have thought of his work in films like Jack Reacher, A Good Day to Die Hard, and Terminator: Genisys), who is having fun as the Aussie Captain Boomerang.  Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is buried under makeup as Killer Croc, but he’s able to bring some life and humor to the character.  Karen Fukuhara certainly looks the part as Katana, though the film doesn’t give her anything to do (or ever bother to explain her connection to Rick Flag) and that one moment when we see her bawling over her dead husband is just thrown in there without any context or having any space to breathe and thus help develop the character.  Poor Cara Delevigne is saddled with an even more outrageous costume than was Margot Robbie, in Ms. Delevigne’s role as the Enchantress.  She’s basically nude, and when the film reduces her to writhing in front of a CGI energy portal for the entire third act, I was embarrassed for her.  She tries her best, and is solid in the few scenes when she’s allowed to be normal-ish, but the film totally abandons her.  Then there’s Joel Kinnaman as Rick Flag, who Devin Faraci of BirthMoviesDeath.com hilariously described in his review of the film as looking more like a strung-out heroin addict than a highly-trained soldier.  Bingo.  What a weird choice they made with this casting, and with the way they made Mr. Kinnaman look in the film!

Suicide Squad feels like a movie that is desperately trying to be Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy.  The surface similarities are clear: both films focus on B and C-level characters from their respective comic-book universes; both are the stories of bad guys who find themselves doing good; both are designed to have a humorous tone to balance the ponderous seriousness of many/most other super-hero films.  But this film fails in every place where Guardians succeeded.  Most notably, Guardians was able top create a wonderful array of characters, bringing life and depth to each and every one of them.  That film worked — despite featuring an array of characters who no one outside of comic book nerds had ever heard of — because of the careful effort in crafting characters who movie-goers would fall in love with.  And the film was legitimately funny and clever, a wonderful balance to other super-hero films that nevertheless worked amazingly well as a spectacular super-hero film.

By contrast, Suicide Squad’s characters are flimsy and poorly-sketched.  We don’t really get to know or care about any of them.  There are all sorts of dramatic moments and turns in the third act, but none of those moments really work at all because nothing had been set up properly and I hadn’t invested in or grown to care about any of these characters.  Joss Whedon has a famous story about his script-doctoring days early in his career.  He’d often be called in to try to fix the third act of a film.  But as he tells the story, he’d usually find himself having to say to the studios: “the problem with this third act is the first two acts.”  I have never seen this idea better crystalized than in Suicide Squad.  In the third act I can see what type of film this was supposed to be, and the character arcs that were supposed to have been the backbone of the film.  But none of it works because of the failures of the first two acts.  Deadshot’s transition fails because his love for his daughter was only set up clumsily in one overly saccahrine flashback scene.  Rick Flag’s romance with Dr. Moone/Enchantress is supposed to build to a wrenching choice, as he must abandon his hope of saving the woman he loves in order to stop the super-villain, but that lands flat in the third act because the film totally failed to develop Flag or Moone as characters who we like or understand, or to give us any reason to care about their relationship or sell the idea that they’re actually in love with one another.  (I didn’t understand Rick Flag at all as a character.  Who is he?  Is he a good guy trying his best or a mercenary jackass just following orders?  His characterization is so all over the place I could never tell.)

The film’s plotting and structure is convoluted and ill-conceived.  The first thirty minutes of the film is almost all an extended monologue by Amanda Waller, giving us exposition on top of exposition to tell us everything we need to know about the characters.  It’s a hugely bizarre choice, as if the filmmakers didn’t believe we would be able to get to know and learn about these characters as the story progressed naturally.  We also get weird repetition in that several of the characters seem to be introduced twice, both during Waller’s briefing speech and then when we first encounter them in prison.  (Example: we see a lengthy flashback sequence in which we see how skilled Deadshot is with a weapon when he assassinates a target… and then later we get a similar sequence in which he is tested by Waller and Flagg with multiple weapons.)  Heck, Waller actually delivers TWO briefings — after the whole long first briefing, which is set over a dinner, we then see her go in and brief other military folks, telling them (and the audience) all over again about her idea of using super-villains for the public good.  Is some of this awkwardness the result of the film’s much-publicized reshoots, and perhaps studio interference following the critical lambasting that Batman v. Superman received?  I have no way of knowing, but my suspicion is yes because it’s hard for me to believe this weird structure was the film’s original shape.

I can go on.  The second act is hugely weird in that after the supervillains (Enchantress and Incubus, more on them in a moment) start doing crazy unexplained-by-the-script super-villain things in Midway City, the Suicide Squad is sent in on a vague rescue mission.  The movie is purposefully vague on who they are rescuing so that we can get a late-in-the-film reveal of the identity of who they are going after.  But, first of all, the movie is so vague on the purpose of their mission that it actually took me a while to realize that they weren’t going into Midway City to stop the super-villains, which I thought was the obvious purpose of using the Suicide Squad.  (Use the super-powered people to fight other super-powered people, right?  The army could meanwhile rescue the high-value individual.)  This also led to confusion, at least for me, as to where exactly the two super-villains were holed up (was it in the top of a tower, or deep in the subway system?).  Second, the reveal lands hugely flat because it doesn’t really make sense that that person would be in that particular place, and because then you’d think that person’s presence would impact the third act but no, that character is immediately taken out of the picture so it doesn’t really matter.

There’s a great scene late in the film in which the villains gather for a drink, before deciding to actually try to do something heroic and stop the other super-villains.  This should have been the highlight of the movie.  In fact, in probably is, as I think it’s the best scene in the film.  But, again, context is everything and so the scene doesn’t really work because none of the characters have been fleshed out in any way such that I cared about them at that point.

Enchantress and Incubus (who I don’t think is ever actually named in the film) are total flops as villains.  In a film about super-villains being sent to fight other super-villains, you’d think the film’s real bad-guys would be powerful heavy-hitters.  But no, we spend little time with Enchantress and Incubus and so never really have any idea of what their powers are, what they want, what their plan is, what their weird machine/portal is or will do, etc.

Slipknot is introduced as a member of the Suicide Squad team and he was in all the film’s posters and promotional materials, but curiously he’s totally absent from Waller’s extended briefing in the first act of the film.  We only meet him deep into the film, when the Suicide Squad assembles for their mission.  I thought that was a weird choice at the time, but then I understood as the character is quickly killed off once the mission begins.  I guess they figured they didn’t need to spend the time introducing and developing him at the beginning of the film, because he wouldn’t factor into the end.  But what a foolish choice!  Had they spent the time introducing the character at the start of the film, his death would’ve been a great surprise and an awesome shock to the audience, as well as a great way to illustrate the high stakes of the story.  But no, instead, like most everything else in the film, Slipknot’s death lands flat.

I mentioned the Katana-Flag relationship, and here’s yet another case where the film’s script fails us.  Katana is also not mentioned in the film’s early going, she only pops up when the mission begins.  She’s supposed to be there to have Rick Flag’s back, but the film never tells us what her connection is to Flag, why she’d be loyal enough to him to go on this crazy mission surrounded by super-villains who want to kill them, or anything like that.

Should I mention that Deadshot goes maskless for the entire movie except for one random action scene in the middle of the movie?  I guess they didn’t want to pay Will Smith to be there that week, huh?

I enjoyed the cameos of Ben Affleck as Batman and Ezra Miller as the Flash.  Though I must say the mid-credits scene of Affleck as Wayne talking to Amanda Waller totally perplexed me.  Does she know he is Batman?  I wouldn’t think she would, but on the other hand, why would playboy billionaire Wayne want this classified info on super-heroes and super-villains, and why else would Wayne make an open reference to his “friends” (clearly the Justice League) shutting down Waller’s super-villain project?  And why would the secret-protecting Waller — a woman so ruthless she murders her fellow agents to ensure her secrets are kept — just hand those files over to Wayne??  I liked the scene, but it didn’t make any sense to me in the context of the film.

I haven’t yet mentioned Jared Leto’s Joker, the biggest catastrophe of the film.  I don’t at all care for Mr. Leto’s version of the Joker.  I can say that I am open to the idea of a more grounded looking and acting Joker than we’ve gotten on film before, but the bling-covered look they gave the character didn’t work for me at all.  I found Leto’s Joker to be more annoying than scary.  I am bummed that this is the version of the Joker we’re going to be saddled with for a while, as these connected DC universe films move forward.  Most problematically in this film, I was shocked by how little the Joker’s story connected with anything else going on in the film.  I thought for sure the Joker was going to wind up being a huge threat to the Suicide Squad characters, and it was going to be an interesting twist late in the film to see these bad-ass super-villains encounter, and have to somehow overcome or at least survive, the Joker, the craziest and most evil and vicious of them all.  But the Joker doesn’t even meet any other character in the film beyond Harley!  I was shocked!  His character could have been cut out of the movie entirely and the story wouldn’t suffer at all.  This feels like a total failure of story-telling to me.

Sigh.

Back when I was a kid reading comics, I loved superheroes.  As I got older, I enjoyed the way certain writers tried to bring more adult themes or concepts into super-hero comics.  This didn’t always work, and I don’t think it’s always the way super-hero comics should be done.  But certainly there were writers, from Neal Adams to Chris Claremont to J.M. DeMatteis to Alan Moore (and many others I am not naming), who were able to create super-hero comics aimed at adults as well as kids, with more difficult/challenging themes and concepts brought into their stories, and in which the heroes could be defeated and suffer personal loss and setbacks and struggle with human failings.  For a while, I longed to see a similar adult eye on these characters and concepts brought to life on the big-screen.  It’s been a delight to see how this has happened with the Marvel cinematic universe, and how deftly they have crafted films aimed at adults that could also be enjoyed by kids.  DC, though, has struggled.  Could you imagine taking a kid to see Batman v. Superman or Suicide Squad??  Never!  In thinking about Batman v. Superman and now also about Suicide Squad, I find myself coming back to the same comment that I have made before here on this site in my reviews of the current wave of DC animated films from the past few years: in their clumsy attempts to add “adult” trappings to their super-hero stories — violence and cursing and sexuality — they have failed and instead only wound up making their films feel more juvenile.  (Done with skill and subtlety, I can be in favor of violence and cursing and sexuality, and other adult ideas or concepts, in a super-hero story, whether in a comic book or on the big screen.  But in these recent DC animated and live-action films, it has not been done with skill.  That’s putting it mildly.)  As I’ve commented a few times already in this review, I was somewhat embarrassed watching Suicide Squad.  This is a film that feels achingly desperate to be adult and to be cool, but I found it to be neither of those things.

Oh well.  DC’s next film is Wonder Woman.  They launched a great trailer last month.  We’ll see if that film is able to course-correct for this still-under-development DC universe of connected films.

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someone