Director: David Ayer
Stars: Margot Robbie, Will Smith, Viola Davis
For the second time this year we are presented with a tent-pole superhero blockbuster movie being sold on its credibility for being in some way subversive to the usual glut of identikit spandex adventures. This time it’s DC cashing in on the idea that there is something more to offer in such a saturated market. However, like Deadpool, the film presented only really shows the awkwardness inherent in trying to tailor counter-culture aesthetics and ideals to a mass market audience. By definition whatever attitude you’re trying to sell – underground, punk, whathaveyou – gets watered down in the process. Transgressive behaviour becomes fetishised and consumable. Any sense of authenticity is lost.
So Suicide Squad is another failure from this standpoint. Big deal. Was anyone expecting a genuinely anarchic film with so much dollar on the table, so much cost? Superhero movies are Hollywood’s biggest business. This entry in the canon does nothing to rock the boat and why should it? If anything its main intent is to quickly course correct DC’s fortunes following the critical drubbing justly applied to Zack Snyder’s turgid Batman vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice. Here, the studio seems to be saying, it’s not all po-faced drudgery; look, we can offer you simplistic fun too.
David Ayer’s film does have some things going for it to back this up. After the bum-numbing marathons of Snyder’s aforementioned flick and the equally weighty (but far more successful) Captain America: Civil War offered up earlier this year by Marvel, here we have a film that wears its svelte narrative ambition like a badge of honour.
Suicide Squad careers out the gate breathlessly with Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) sitting down with some anonymous government types in order to briskly introduce the film’s antiheroes to the audience; taking fifteen minutes to do what might’ve been done over hours and hours of independent origin stories. It’s perhaps the film’s most ambitious play. Imagine if Marvel had attempted to jump right in with Avengers Assemble instead of saving it for the end of ‘Phase One’. Once this team of lesser-known villains are gathered together, the remainder of Suicide Squad is a straightforward march in the direction of this movie’s Big Bad. No messing. No side plots. Straight down to business. In the wake of so many convoluted tales from both sides of the comic book isle becoming the norm, this approach is almost certainly the most subversive thing the movie achieves.
Too bad the rest of it is such a compromised muddle. Said intro is admirable in one sense, but it also hampers the film as each of the squad’s characters feel paper-thin and decidedly one note as a result. Margot Robbie’s performance as Harley Quinn may indeed be spirited, but there’s no dimension to it whatsoever, and it’s a routine that wears as thin as her outfit once you realise Ayer has no intention of painting with anything but primary colours.
This extends out to the group around her. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s Killer Croc has little function within the team and much less in the way of personality, while Jai Courtney’s laughably named Captain Boomerang seems built solely around the premise that being Australian is a character trait in itself. Most ineffectual is the squad’s wrangler Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman); a performance of such powerful anonymity that every scene feels like his first. It’s almost like a superpower in its own right; the power to be forgotten even while you’re still on the screen.
And the real ‘villains’ of the piece fare much, much worse. Cara Delevingne is miscast in a severely underwritten part as June Moon / The Enchantress whose wicked plan seems to amount to erecting a tower of light surrounded by trash, while her ‘brother’ Incubus played by Alain Chanoine functions, essentially, as her glowy, grouchy Mr Tickle henchman. DC’s casual relationship to collateral damage continues here also, as the general public are turned into faceless enemies to be thoughtlessly destroyed like the stock automatons that they are.
But back to our not-quite-good-guys. Actually bringing some game we have Will Smith as Deadshot in one of his most memorable performances in years (though still well within comfortable parameters), while the aforementioned Viola Davis struts formidably amongst this ragtag group of criminals brought to heel. Her Amanda Waller accepts no bullshit other than the preposterous mission she’s hellbent on realising; that the world’s supernatural threats ought to be quelled by the worst-of-the-worst already held in lockup.
Peripheral to all of this is Jared Leto’s Joker; as one-note crazy as Robbie’s Quinn but cast as some kind of improbable 30’s-style gangster with retrograde attitude to boot. He adds spice to the mixture but is a side rather than a main on this occasion. Which is just as well. One imagines anymore time spent with him would quickly become insufferable.
If you want a real key to understanding this movie then you just have to listen to it. For all it’s mild-mannered efforts to appear edgy, the music is the real giveaway to how fraudulent a notion that is. The source music that crushes the film is as predictable and diverse as a small town pub jukebox; Ayer here echoing Snyder’s affection for miring well-known hits by strapping them to mundane music-video action sequences. The Rolling Stones, The White Stripes, Kanye West, Eminem, Queen. You’re not likely to need to go digging in the crates to assemble your own soundtrack album. It’s doggedly, pointedly populist. As lumpenly unoriginal is the surrounding score provided by Steven Price which sledgehammers the audience with emotional handholds, so forcefully as to often feel like self-parody. You want to yell back, yes, we get it!
Such boring heavy-handed tendencies are par for the course in Suicide Squad; a film desperate for you to understand that it’s serious, but also just kidding, okay? Once we get down to it, a bulk of the action amounts to little more than uninspired and often visually hampered gun porn. It’s reminiscent of when you go back to The Matrix only to realise that once it’s done wooing you with its high concept sci-fi, what follows is just so much loud and tedious gun play. Suicide Squad loves guns and festishes them almost as much as it does Robbie’s tiny hot pants.
All of this is presented by Ayer in a murky swamp of blues and browns. Suicide Squad mistakes darkness for gravitas. Bafflingly one of the final battles even takes place in a cloud of fog; the real loser in this instance being the audience.
In essence what you have here then is something of a hedged bet; a film trying to be all things to all comers – which is what the bigwigs at DC evidently believe will rake in the most cash. It’s an assumption that looks good on paper but in practice leads to uninspired and forgettable films. You’d have thought they’d learned this already. Ayer, who previously directed End Of Watch and Fury makes this three misses in a row, but at least manages to avoid the kind of outright catastrophe his mentor Snyder dolls out on a regular basis, which is hardly thrilling praise.
Suicide Squad isn’t enough of anything to be truly worthy of some of the vitriol it’s already started to receive in some critics’ circles, but it ought to placate the same audience leaving poorly constructed death threats on forums discussing the recent Ghostbusters reboot. At worst it’s a film on autopilot gifting us another summer of generic bullet-ridden banality. It’s not shocking. It’s not funny (to this reviewer there seemed only one attempt at physical comedy; a limp and sour moment in which Harley Quinn gets punched in the face by Batman). It’s not really a whole lot of anything. Mostly it’s just a bit like Sucker Punch with the colour turned down. And who was waiting for that movie?