By Nathan Evans
Ever since Disney owned Marvel Studios revolutionized, not only comic book films, but film by being the first to successfully execute a shared cinematic universe (a series of films where, not only characters, but full plot points interweave between entries), there have been several attempts from other studios to replicate that success. Most have failed as there is very little reason for various other properties to interconnect, but nowhere else should the concept apply more fittingly than with Marvel Comics’ longtime publishing rival DC Comics. While Marvel was busy establishing themselves with 2008’s ‘Iron Man’, DC was midway through its run of Christopher Nolan’s stellar take on Batman with his ‘Dark Knight Trilogy’. Warner Bros. (parent company to DC Comics) left all of their eggs in the Christopher Nolan basket, allowing Marvel and Disney to quickly pull ahead in terms of critical and fan reception with their series of films. Once Nolan’s trilogy concluded, in an attempt to keep up with the competition, the WB shifted their eggs from Nolan’s basket to his hackier, drearier colleague, Zack Snyder’s nightmare basket of which no joy can escape. The result was 2013’s ‘Man of Steel’, Snyder’s first disappointing entry into what is now known as the DCEU (Detective Comics Entertainment Universe).
‘Man of Steel’ was succeeded with this year’s earlier, abysmal effort: ‘Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice’ and now with ‘Suicide Squad’; the first addition to the DCEU to not be helmed by pretentious, self-serious frat boy Zack Snyder. Instead ‘Squad’ finds itself in the hands of ‘Training Day’ scribe and ‘End of Watch’ auteur David Ayer, whose grimy aesthetic seemingly fits well with the less inviting universe established within the DC film cannon. So how does his film stack up against the competition? Will this be the first DCEU film to be a universal success, not only in terms of box office, but in its reception amongst critics and fans? The answer is an emphatic no. While big box office for the film was always a foregone conclusion, the quality of the film itself is a more complicated matter; which, while not ideal, does leave it in a better place than it’s aforementioned peers.
‘Suicide Squad’ follows a group of incarcerated supervillains brought together by ruthless government official Amanda Waller (played to steely, intimidating effect by Oscar nominee Viola Davis). Waller is bent on assembling a task force to deal with the increasing “metahuman” threat posed by beings like Superman and others established in ‘MOS’ and ‘BVS’, so she’s formulated a plan to use the highly skilled group of criminals and supernatural beings to combat rising extraordinary threats by injecting them with explosives and forcing them to do her bidding. She places the care of the group in the hands of her crony Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman), a special forces operative with a loose moral center and an infatuation with one of the team’s big guns, June Moon (Cara Delevingne), otherwise known as Enchantress; a research archaeologist who has been possessed by a witch with mysterious, world ending powers that will most definitely not come into play later. *wink, wink*
The group is headed up by Deadshot (Will Smith), a high-paid mercenary adept with every type of firearm and who never misses, and the Joker’s moll Harleen Quinzel aka Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). They’re joined by Katana (Karen Fukuhhara), a master swordswoman who’s blade captures the souls of all slain by it (including her husband’s), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye Agbaje), a man with a serious skin condition and animalistic strength and tendencies, Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a reformed former gangbanger with the ability to generate and manipulate fire, Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), an Australian mercenary adept with, you guessed it, boomerangs, and finally Slipknot (Adam Beach) who… can climb rope real good.
Almost immediately (and arbitrarily) the team is betrayed by Enchantress, who escapes and frees the soul of her much more powerful brother (portrayed by a generic extra glommed over with even more generic CGI) and begins a siege of fictional Midway City by transforming its inhabitants into an army of faceless muck monsters.
If all that’s not enough, the team is pursued the whole way by Harley’s aforementioned boyfriend, the Clown Prince of Crime himself, the Joker. This incarnation of the character is brought to you by Oscar winner Jared Leto and, despite the terrible “damaged” tattoo on his forehead, he’s really quite effective in the role. Rather than attempt to top Heath Ledger’s memorable performance in ‘The Dark Knight’, Leto takes a different approach. His tatted up Joker is more thuggish in nature and more concerned with managing a criminal organization than simply inciting chaos. Though there was much hype surrounding the character in the lead up to the film, the Joker is actually used quite sparingly and to great effect within the film.
While the plot of the film is fairly by the numbers, the first half, in which the team is assembled, thrives off of an inventive series of vignettes that introduce each character and their specialty. David Ayer’s intriguing, cartoonishly pulpy style, combined with the undeniable charisma of its cast, propels this section of the film and provides audiences with something the previous entries in the DCEU were lacking: a sense of fun.
Will Smith, as always, is effective. His take on Deadshot is more nuanced than the dialogue he’s forced to spout, and it’s quite interesting to see him portray a villain (a first in his career if I’m not mistaken). Margot Robbie is charming despite the depravity of her character and, armed with her own hilarious take on Harley’s distinct accent, does an admirable job of bringing the fan favorite character to life. The rest of the cast is lost in the shuffle, most disappointingly Courtney’s Boomerang. The few beats we get with him provide much of the film’s humor, and his dirty hobo take on the hokey villain is quite interesting, but the character ultimately serves as nothing more than set dressing. Likewise, Hernandez’s Diablo also suffers. There is an effort in the eleventh hour to provide a backstory for him, but it’s half hearted at best and unearned at worst, and leaves one curious as to why Ayer hangs so much of the climax on his shoulders.
Speaking of that climax, it’s indicative of the problems that plague the entire back half of the film. As the team struggles to stop Enchantress, the film gives way to horrendous, SyFy Channel level special effects (Of which Delevingne is the greatest victim. Her manic contortions as the witch are unintentionally hilarious.) and bouts of mayhem that quickly grow tedious. It doesn’t help that Ayer’s style becomes increasingly muddled. At the beginning his garish take feels fresh and inventive, by the end it’s just dull and unappealing. One gets the sense that the lack of visual flair later in the film is the result of studio interference.
One gets more than just the sense that the soundtrack is a result of studio interference as well. While the upbeat songs that constitute the playlist are excellent, they are used terribly in the context of the film (with a couple of exceptions). It’s obvious it was tacked on as an afterthought due to the horrendous critical reception and the divisive audience reception to the dreariness that permeated ‘Batman V. Superman’. The level of calculation at play is embarrassing. It was a struggle to keep from rolling my eyes at the opening guitar riff to Norman Greenbaum’s ‘Spirit in the Sky’ which was ripped directly from Marvel’s similar, but superior, film ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’.
Further compromising the integrity of the film is the studio mandated PG-13 rating. It’s clear that Ayer would really like to drag these characters through the muck, but he’s hampered at every turn by the studio’s desire to reach the widest audience possible. All is not lost though, because I’m sure Warner’s will use this as a golden opportunity to release an additional cut of the film when it reaches the home market; It’s bad business to pass up an opportunity to wring out a few more dollars from rabid fanboys and girls.
Ultimately, there’s a really cool movie somewhere within the muck that is ‘Suicide Squad’. The idea of dropping the audience into the middle of a DC Universe full of villains that have already been established and thriving for years is an interesting one, but it’s marred by a slapdash production, studio interference and an uninspired climax that wouldn’t be too bad if it weren’t for the horrendous visual effects and ham fisted soundtrack that accompany it. While there are a couple of truly awful flashback sequences featuring Ben Affleck’s Batman in the earlier moments of the film (“Hey, Ben, do you have an afternoon free to knock out a couple of these scenes?”), the first half is generally strong and would’ve made for a good movie had Ayer been allowed to see his vision to fruition without Warner Bros. input, and without a connection to Zack Snyder’s inferior film ‘Batman V. Superman’.
‘Suicide Squad’ is a failure, but unlike most uninspired blockbuster fare, it’s an interesting one that deserves points for at least attempting to be unique. For some fans and members of the general audience, that will be enough. The rest of us will consider this, not the film we deserve, or the one we need right now, but the one we’re getting. And that’s just not good enough.
RATING: 2.5 OUT OF 5