There’s a lot to be said about the way that DC Comics is going about bringing their catalog of characters and stories from their many years of publishing to the big screen. A lot of what defines their work up to now, unfortunately, is that of a company desperately trying to play catch up. As of right now, DC’s long time rival Marvel is the undisputed champion at the box office, with seemingly everything they touch turning into a smash hit, which also includes sub-tier comic book characters like Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy. DC, hoping to replicate the same success, have up to now stumbled to repeat what Marvel has accomplished. For several years, DC was doing fine, riding the wave that was Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy, but with Nolan’s guidance gone, DC has had to scramble and the results are shaky at best. Man of Steel (2013) rubbed a lot of fans and casual viewers the wrong way with it’s grim and heavy-handed retelling of Superman’s origins (although I didn’t hate the movie myself as much as other people did; read my review to see what I thought). Despite it’s mixed reception, Man of Steel did make money, and DC took the next step of building an interconnected universe where all of their characters would interact with one another, just like what Marvel was doing with their Avengers series. Their first attempt at this, unfortunately, turned into a convoluted misfire called Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). While not the worst Superhero movie ever made, it was nevertheless a movie that did a terrible job of what it was trying to accomplish, which was to build the foundations on which this cinematic universe was going to stand. Even Man of Steel defenders like me couldn’t excuse the massive logical problems of the story and the uncharacteristic ways that these iconic superheroes were behaving.
The reason why Marvel is continuing to lead the way while DC is struggling is because DC and it’s parent studio Warner Brothers are making it so obvious that they are trying to copy what Marvel is doing. There is so much studio meddling behind the building of the DC universe (making sure that every movie hints at future films yet to come) that it’s drawing too much attention to itself, making it feel hollow. With Marvel, we know that much of their movies have connecting threads, but the studio makes sure that each individual movie has it’s own identity and is able to stand on it’s own outside of it’s place within the grander picture. Batman v. Superman failed because it felt too much like it was there to set things up for later and not a complete narrative in it’s own right. It was basically a two and a half hour prologue. And even at that, studio inference continued to hamper what could have been an interesting action film, with an uneven edit of the movie creating enormous plot holes and conveniences that left audiences everywhere confused and dissatistified. A lot of the fault rest on the director Zack Snyder, who has more visual sense than storytelling sense, but Warner and DC certainly hold a great deal of blame because they’ve launched this massive undertaking without ever feeling totally committed to it. There are some things that I think works for them, especially taking a darker tone which does differentiate their universe from Marvel’s. That’s why I think the best thing that they could do right now is to refocus their cinematic universe on a story that suits their darker character, but is able to stand on it’s own and have more fun with it’s characters. That’s the hope behind Suicide Squad, but is it the shot of adrenaline that DC needs, or is it a further step backwards?
Suicide Squad is a unique entry in the Comic Book adaptation genre in that it doesn’t focus on a team of Superheroes, but instead focuses on some of their rogues gallery. As the marketing for this movie has stated, most Superhero films are about Good vs. Bad. Suicide Squad on the other hand is about Bad vs. Evil. We are introduced to some of DC’s more grounded, human villains as they serve time in maximum security. They include master sharpshooter assassin Deadshot (Will Smith) and maniacal Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie); both criminals incarcerated after their encounters with Batman (Ben Affleck). Also in prison are bank robber Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), the vicious Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and the remorseful fire wielding gangster Diablo (Jay Hernandez). They are collectively brought together under the supervision of Captain Rick Flag (Joel Kinneman), who directs them to assist in a risky mission in exchange for time off of their sentences. The catch is that if they try to escape, or refuse, or attempt to kill Captain Flag, they will be instantly killed by explosives implanted in their necks. Their mission, brought to them by high level security agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), is to extract an important contact in an area under supernatural attack. One of Waller’s assets, the god-like supervillain Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), has gone rogue and is attempting to build a superweapon capable of destroying the planet. The “Suicide Squad” realize quickly that their place in the mission is to purposely be the fall guys in this foolish mission, but as they find themselves deeper into the heart of darkness, they learn that there’s a definable line between the bad things they do, and the greater evils that can threaten them all. And things get even more complicated when Harley’s devoted boyfriend, The Joker (Jared Leto) gets thrown into the mix.
So, did Suicide Squad succeed or fail at righting the ship of DC’s cinematic universe? Well, it depends on what you want to see going into this film. If you are looking for a serious comic book adaptation that rivals the spirit of Marvel’s movies, then you will probably come away from this film very disappointed. This is not the huge shift in the right direction that DC needed to move away from the issues of their previous films. Plus there are choices made with these characters and their place in the universe that may be off-putting to some die hard fans of the comics. But, at the same time, if you are just looking for an action movie that manages to have a little fun with the character dynamics of it’s ensemble players, then you might have a good time watching Suicide Squad. And that’s the reaction that I came away with from it. Suicide Squad is a flawed movie to be sure, but not one that left me dissatisfied nor angered by the direction that it took. I kind of knew going in that this movie was not going to be the “be all end all” of DC’s comic book movies, and that helped to temper my expectations a little bit. What I wanted in the end, more than anything, was to see a movie that played off of these kinds of characters and stand on it’s own separated from it’s place in the DC universe and in that respect, it worked for me. As an action movie, it’s got personality and purpose, which is much better executed here than in Batman v. Superman. Even still, I will acknowledge that it still falls short of Marvel quality entertainment, even with regards to the rival’s less successful efforts (although this didn’t anger me like Iron Man 3 did, so that’s a plus). It’s flaws don’t ruin the experience completely, but sad to say, it does prevent this movie from truly becoming the success that it wants to be.
I would say that the most obvious flaw of this movie is it’s plot, or rather the way it is handled. There are a lot of threads that are thrown into this movie, and not all of them mesh together very well. I think that it has to do with the terrible editing job that the film suffers through, which is clearly characteristic of studio interference. Whenever the movie does begin to pick up and find it’s rhythm, it’s undercut by a poorly handled scene transition or loss of perspective. The movie also suffers some serious pacing issues in the second act, which meanders through some repetitive action sequences that add nothing to the overall experience. The movie works at it’s best when it remains focused on the characters themselves and what they are going through, but even here, studio meddling messes with the chemistry. The many attempts to connect the story with the larger world undermines the story several times, and unless you’re an expert in everything related to DC comics, you might find yourself lost in the process. What I found particularly problematic was the lack of focus on the real threat of the narrative. It’s kind of ironic that a movie about a collection of villains would have a problem finding a strong antagonist, but that’s the case here. Enchantress, despite a decent performance by Cara Delevingne, is never fully developed as a character and her motives make little sense, so she kind of becomes the main villain by default. It could be argued that Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller fills that role too, but her place in the story never quite reaches that. Most infuriating is the way that the Joker is shoehorned into the movie. Some people are going to hate this version of the iconic character. I was mixed on it. Leto’s performance is different and an interesting way to take the character, but he has no business being in this movie, and if you cut him out completely, he wouldn’t have been missed. It’s strange additions like this that make the movie too messy at times.
At the same time, the movie doesn’t fall into the same morose pit that ultimately sank Batman v. Superman, and that’s largely thanks to it’s excellent casting. There aren’t any wasted performances here; they are only let down by the plot in the end. It’s to the actors credit that they manage to make us care about this ragtag group of criminals. For one thing, the headlining star, Will Smith, is well served as the brash Deadshot. Oh, how I have missed this charismatic version of the former Fresh Prince superstar and it’s so refreshing to see Will have some fun again as a character like this in a big budget action flick. Better yet is Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. While this film let’s down the Joker in many ways, it doesn’t waste the same opportunity of making his beloved Harley a welcome presence here. She is a fan favorite that people have long wanted to finally see on the big screen, and I truly believe the filmmakers succeeded by her. Margot does a great job embodying the character, making her twisted and endearing all at the same time. I especially like the fact that she nails the “puddin'” affectation that has defined the character so much in the comics and her early animated incarnations. In many ways, Harley is the movie’s shining star, and she owns every scene she’s in. However, I would say that my favorite performance in the movie comes from Viola Davis as Amanda Waller. Here you have a character with no special powers of her own, and yet she has to project complete authority over everyone regardless of how powerful they are, and Viola nails that perfectly in her commanding presence. There’s a scene late in the movie where she takes some drastic measures to ensure her security that gets a remark from Deadshot, “That was straight up gangster;” and it certainly is. It makes me anxious to see where she takes the character in future DC films, because she is definitely a highlight of their cinematic master plan so far. The remaining cast also does a credible job of portraying their characters, and most importantly, it looks like they are having fun doing it. Having an engaged cast of characters certainly helps to make some of the more flawed aspects of the movie feel less troublesome as a result.
I also think that director David Ayer should be credited for holding together a production that could have fallen apart with all the weight put on it. Coming from a background of making thoughtful action films centered around character dynamics like End of Watch (2012) and Fury (2014), and writing scripts for films like Training Day (2001) and Harsh Times (2005), this was a project that was right up his alley. And the film’s best moments, namely the character interactions and a few standout action sequences, are representative of what he’s best at as a director. It’s only when elements of the cinematic universe start to converge into the plot that the movie loses it’s focus. I get the feeling that in order for this movie to appease the wishes of the execs at Warner Brothers and DC, Ayer had to leave a lot of stuff he wanted out of the movie, and that’s probably the reason why the final edit of the film feels so scattershot. I would’ve loved a lot less backstory forced into the movie, because it ultimately is irrelevant to the story. These characters are who they are, so why don’t we just see more of them doing what they’re best at. At the same time, I am pleased that DC is recognizing that this is a problem and significant re-shoots were made to inject more humor into the movie, and prevent this from becoming the depressing slog that Batman v. Superman was. I believe the re-shoots helped, because the humor does work here. There’s also a little camp value to the way this movie goes over the top at times towards the end. Some might find it too silly, but honestly, that’s something that DC should embrace more. What David Ayer brought was some visual pop and personality, and despite the roadblocks in his way, he managed to make an engaging film.
So, in the end, this will probably be a divisive movie for many people. Some will embrace it’s quirkiness, and some will bemoan it as another convoluted mess by DC. While I can’t say that I loved the movie, I at the same time still found myself entertained for most of it. Is it a flawed film? Absolutely. There are still many nagging issues that DC has yet to address with their cinematic universe, namely their insistence on force feeding the construction of this world on us, instead of letting it grow naturally. This especially hurts Suicide Squad in the long run by undermining the separate identity that it wants to establish. On the other hand, it is pleasing to see the director and cast actually having fun with these characters, and not taking itself too seriously. In that regard, it is a step in the right direction for DC. However, what the cinematic universe needed was a giant course correction, and I don’t think that Suicide Squad was the right movie to lay that responsibility on. This movie probably would’ve worked better had it been made after a longer running cinematic universe had already been established. Pushing it to the forefront asks a lot more of this movie, and it’s something that audiences just aren’t ready for yet. I especially think that this movie does a disservice to the Joker character, considering that we know so little of his place in this universe up to this point. I hope both him and Harley are given more development in future Batman films. My hope is that this different flavor of film-making enables DC to try different things in their universe. Variety is good, and already I have high hopes for a strong showing from Wonder Woman next year. Suicide Squad may not be Marvel quality, but it tries, and it at least is way better than Batman v. Superman, which isn’t such a bad result after all.