Suicide Squad was supposed to be a riot of color, a pageant of flawed figures, all of them navigating an internal struggle between their more devious instincts and their own self-interest. Instead it is a muddy mash-up of interesting characters trapped in a narrow story with, of all things, a flat, boring villain. (I know! I know! Marvel is meant to have the villain problem.) If you’ve somehow missed all of the hype around Suicide Squad, here’s a quick bit of set-up.
Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has a plan. She thinks the United States needs to be prepared to fight meta-humans (aka the next Superman to show up in the sky). Her solution? She wants to build a team of really bad people who she thinks can do a lot of good. Per the official synopsis, this group of supervillains is recruited to execute dangerous black ops missions in exchange for clemency. In reality, there is just the one mission. The gang’s all here, but this isn’t the globetrotting, multi-adventure romp the trailer might put you in mind of.
Waller puts Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), who is basically a living G.I. Joe, in charge of her motley crew. There’s Deadshot (Will Smith), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), June Moone (Cara Delevingne), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Diablo (Jay Hernandez) and Slipknot (Adam Beach), Katana (Karen Fukuhara) rounds things out for the good guys. Most of this crew are given precious little in the way of meat, but they all soldier on enthusiastically. Whatever Suicide Squad‘s shortcomings, the cast isn’t one of them. Everyone placed in these roles fits them well and brings what they can to what they’ve been given. Will Smith and Margot Robbie, in particular, keep the film pleasantly watchable even when the plot feels exceptionally meandering.
In the earliest minutes of the film, as we’re introduced to the Squad we get a taste of what this film might have been. It’s vibrant and a little weird and it seems to delight in breaking the rules. Unfortunately, the tone shifts quite abruptly. Around the time this crew embarks on this mission we walk back into the drab, muted world that has come to dominate DC films in recent years.
This in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the trouble is that this bleak world is also uninteresting. All of the stakes evaporate and what should be a film that’s markedly different from any we’ve yet seen becomes a run-of-the-mill, fate-of-the-world hangs in the balance, punch-em-up. Curiously, Suicide Squad lacks tension and possesses only sparing substance, both traits that have been central to David Ayer’s style up to this point. While both Fury and End of Watch were remarkably self-assured films with a style you could easily pick out of a lineup, Suicide Squad feels like something that has been forced to fit a certain parameter. We can’t know if that is the case, and we probably never will, but currently circulating reports of alternate cuts screened for test audiences and scenes featuring Jared Leto’s joker hitting the cutting room floor, it does seem that somewhere along the way the vision for this picture shifted.
Maybe that’s why it feels unbalanced. There are some moments that feel in line with the exuberance of the trailers, and then we’re quite suddenly back to the trudge toward the big boss battle. Along the way, the soundtrack hits the right mark and there are even a few laughs, but all of it is as nothing to the way this picture was pitched to us. More disparate even than the level of humor as compared to the expectations that were established is the amount of screen time we ultimately spend with Mr. J. Most, if not all, of his appearances are teased in the trailers, some of which are even cut as if he’s the main antagonist, but in practice, we don’t really spend enough time with Gotham’s favorite psychopath to feel out the performance. And indeed, rewatching the trailers does reveal some moments from The Joker and the rest of the Squad that I don’t recall seeing in the cut of the film I watched, which makes the question of intention versus execution all the more pertinent.
Suicide Squad is disappointing, but it’s not such a disaster as to be the beginning of the end for DC. Yes, they absolutely need a tentpole film that doesn’t render fans apoplectic with rage, and they need it fast, but this is almost certainly not that movie. Still, with a few standout characters and some rocking tunes to its name, Suicide Squad at least manages to convince us that this little ragtag band of baddies could go on to better things, if only the powers that be can stay well out of those meddling shoes.