Say what you want about Suicide Squad: it tells you what it is right from the start. The film opens at a prison. As “House of the Rising Sun” floats across the screen we see Deadshot (Will Smith) threaten a prison guard from a solitary confinement cell and then smash cut to him being beaten. Before we get too attached, the camera jumps over to Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) doing some impromptu cage acrobatics. She proceeds to lick a cage bar seductively, get tasered, and then get her own torture session as “You Don’t Own Me” blares across the soundtrack. And then finally we cut to Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) walking purposefully a dark and stormy night as “Sympathy for the Devil” kicks in. And then we jump to our title card, Suicide Squad emblazoned with skulls and neon colors, surrounded by a swirl of spinning bullets and guns.
It’s wildly unsubtle. It’s a genuinely ridiculous way to open up a movie, but it’s hard to deny that it’s got some flair. It could have been the start to a silly, over-the-top, but fun, summer blockbuster. Instead Suicide Squad overstuffs itself, hoping that a good cast and frenetic pacing come overcome poor characterization, lazy storytelling, and a listless plot. It doesn’t.
So Many Suicide Squad Members, So Little Time
I’ll be upfront. I had a bad taste in my mouth going into Suicide Squad. Today’s fellow reviewer, Matt, was quite the opposite. But for me, with all of the press surrounding Jared Leto’s disgusting behavior on set and the seemingly-desperate attempts to appear “edgy,” I did not expect this movie to be my cup of tea. I laughed and nodded my head at all the jokes about Suicide Squad being the equivalent of a Hot Topic gaining sentience and throwing up on a movie screen.
But to my surprise, these weren’t really the film’s problems. Jared Leto’s Joker – we’ll get to him in a bit – is barely on screen and is a minor presence in the film. The tone has its problems – this is a movie that could support many articles – but it mostly calms down as the film proceeds into its second and third act. The central problem of the film is that it is massively overstuffed. In the subsequent struggle for screen time, nearly all the character arcs fall flat.
Suicide Squad, depending on your count, has ten flashbacks and four vision sequences. It’s the craziest thing in a movie that loves calling things crazy. It’s a mad-dash attempt to provide back story and motivation to a cast of relatively-unknown characters: as if you took the first Avengers movie, doubled the cast, and tried to film it without first giving the characters their own stand-alone origin stories. On a few occasions, this works fine. We learn that Deadshot is a… dead shot, a quippy extortionist with a soft spot for his daughter. Nothing ground-breaking, but perfectly fine. Some are unintentionally funny. And some are just baffling. The vague, rushed explanation of Harley Quinn’s relationship to the Joker is both upsetting and disorienting. It raises far more questions than it answers and leaves Harley on deeply unstable narrative footing for the rest of the film.
This is lazy storytelling. If you have to have 90-second vignettes to show exactly who characters are and what they want, you are going to slow down and chop up your narrative. And you probably aren’t going to get much depth in those characters to begin with. While that’s not great, it’s also not the end of the world. Suicide Squad could have been an not-terrible movie after an awkward, choppy start.
Unfortunately, the problems spiral from there. With so many characters on the table it becomes impossible for any of them to really have room to breathe and grown with the narrative. There is very little sense that they ever work as a team or have real relationships with each other. They are a brutal collection of prisoners who have to be physically strapped down so they don’t murder a bunch of prison guards. Two hours later, they’re drinking in a bar together instead of taking an opportunity to escape. An hour after that they are referring to themselves as “family” and risking their lives for each other. It all feels deeply unearned, especially for a movie that billed itself as being focused on “the bad guys” who were all about looking out for themselves.
It’s unfortunate, because the cast of the Squad ranges from good to great. Will Smith and Jai Courtney (Captain Boomerang) are charismatic and wring everything they can from the script they’re given. Margot Robbie takes a character that’s all over the map and does what she can to center her, stealing most of the scenes that she’s in. Viola Davis character is cartoonish but she radiates authority. There is good movie hidden here somewhere. If DC had paved the way with a Deadshot movie or a Harley Quinn movie, then Suicide Squad could have been fun. And that’s the frustrating thing. Suicide Squad isn’t just a bad movie. It’s a wasted one. It has plenty of good ideas. In trying to execute all of them at once, it executes none of them.
Gangbanger with a Heart of Gold
For a handful of characters, Suicide Squad doesn’t even try and ranges from lazy to casually racist. Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) has almost nothing to do over the course of the whole film. And in the film’s final scene, when other characters are asking for reduced sentences or chances to see their family, he asks for a subscription to BET. Slipknot (Adam Beach, the only Native American member of the cast) inexplicably gets no flashback back story and then dies about five minutes after his introduction. Boomerang (Courtney) is a charming blank slate. There’s no indication of what he really wants, and he’s as loyal as the plot requires him to be at any given moment.
Unfortunately, things don’t improve much when a character gets more attention. Let’s use Diablo (Jay Hernandez) as an example. Hernandez gives a good performance, providing a nice softness to a guy who we first meet with tattoos all over his face, mowing down a prison yard with fire from his hands. There’s an interesting kernel to his story. His power that frightens him, and it has caused him to do terrible things. He doesn’t want to use it anymore, but he’s faced with the question of whether he can use it for good. It’s not an original story by any means, but it’s one with the potential to generate real emotion.
Instead Diablo simply refuses to use his powers, then uses them a little, then uses them a lot. It’s like the Cliff Notes version of a character arc.
The Sexy Evil Enchantress
The same problem faces Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), the Big Bad of the film. Even more so than Diablo, there’s a compelling (if clichéd) story here. The Enchantress is a vaguely ancient spirit who wants to vaguely rule the world, while looking vaguely sexy and ominous. She is foiled in this by virtue of being trapped in an ancient clay figurine until World-Class Archaeologist June Moone, on her way to winning a professionalism award, snaps its head off.
It’s a silly origin story, but it’s also sincerely scary. An ancient spirit living inside of June periodically pops out and takes over her soul. There would be plenty of ethical and psychological things to explore. Is June responsible for the actions of the Enchantress? Is it ethical to kill her to minimize her dangers to others? To what extent can she live a normal life? But none of them come up, and June barely registers as a character.
This problem is amplified because Enchantress is the major bad guy of the story. It’s unclear what she wants beyond power, or why she wants it. It’s unclear what exactly her plan is to obtain that power, besides building a Magic Destruction Machine. Once she frees her brother she just wreaks havoc and starts creating some kind of magic thing-y in a train station. She also kisses people to turn them into her alien minions because of course she does.
She’s a weak and generic villain as it is, but she also has minimal connection to the protagonists of the story. June’s romantic relationship with Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman), the government baby-sitter of the Suicide Squad, is the only emotional connection at stake in the final battle. And it’s a flimsy one given they share about 30 seconds of screen time. It’s hard to understand why any of them would care enough to follow Rick into that fight. It’s a bad sign when you’re not convinced that the protagonists would care enough to show up to the film’s climax and another case of squandered potential. If June were a more interesting character, or if her relationships to the rest of the cast had any depth, the movie would have had infinitely more resonance.
Jared Leto Tries So Hard, Achieves So Little
I have very little to say about Jared Leto’s performance as the Joker, in large part because it’s bland. His first press still – staring into the camera with DAMAGED tattooed onto his forehead – is a very good indication of what to expect. His Joker is a collection of superficial quirks. His acting struggles to reach beyond opening his eyes very widely.
The character has HA!HA!HA! written on his walls, he wears a gold lamé suit. There’s a shot where he lies in a spiral of knives, a white grand piano off to the side. He’s a tacky gangster. He doesn’t want anything. He just wears makeup, kills people, and is blandly and imprecisely insane. Leto isn’t terrible in the role – given the scripting, costuming, and set design, it could have been much worse. But he does very little with it. It’s absurd to think that this sort of performance required any of the method-acting awfulness to which he subjected his cast mates.
It’s hard to know what to make of it. Suicide Squad’s marketing put him front and center, which feels odd considering the Joker deserves eighth or ninth billing. His role was either heavily cut in post-production or Warner Brothers is a strong believer in the “all publicity is good publicity” philosophy.
And then there’s Harley Quinn. There are a lot of things to pick apart about her character. Margot Robbie tries desperately to make her into a compelling character. And Margot Robbie is wonderful, so on a certain level she succeeds. In a movie with quite a few charismatic actors, she effortlessly steals nearly every scene she is in. Despite a backstory that borders on incoherent, she manages to imbue the character with a logic and likability.
But… yikes. It’s once again a case of wasted opportunities. There were so many chances to do something really interesting with Harley Quinn. An exploration of abusive relationships. A look at how people redefine themselves and their relationships after years of abuse. Even a window into mental illness. But the film seems to have no idea at all of what to do with her.
The problems stem from her almost non-existent backstory. It’s established early on that she was a therapist at Arkham Asylum, where she treated the Joker. She fell in love with him, helped him escape, and then he tortured her to the point that she transformed from Dr. Harleen Quinzel into Harley Quinn. This is covered in about fifteen seconds, and raises so many more questions than it answers. Why on earth would a reputable psychologist fall in love with her obviously-disturbed patient? Even if she did, why would she assent to bringing him a machine gun? What exactly did the Joker do to her? Does she remember her old life? Is her new persona authentic, or is it performative to survive life with the Joker? Suicide Squad doesn’t address any of these questions.
Instead, what could have been a fascinating character becomes an ill-defined mess. She acts largely as the plot requires her to from scene to scene. Take the depiction of her mental status. On at least two occasions it’s implied that she has a serious mental illness that involves hearing voices and experiencing visions. Both are played as jokes. That kind erratic characterization is deeply frustrating, and makes it impossible to know how to think of Harley Quinn. Is she just kinda wacky, but fully in charge of making her own choices? Or is she mentally ill, tortured out of the capacity to act of her own volition? It’s such an upsetting thing for a film to leave casually up in the air and refuse to explore. When the plot wants her to be competent, she’s competent. When it wants her to be “crazy,” she’s crazy.
At another point, Harley has a vision of a future that she most wants. She’s married to an un-Joker-ed Jared Leto with twins (this got one of the biggest laughs of the movie). Is that what Harley actually wants? Or is it what the Joker wants her to want, or has programmed her to want? It’s impossible to tell. If the script were doing this on purpose, it could have been very interesting. Instead, it just doesn’t seem to care. Without giving her character time and narrative space to unfold she’s just an unintentional cipher. She could have been a fascinating character, and instead got trapped in vagueness and lazily inconsistent characterization.
Pull yourself together, DC. I want to believe in you.
I expected the worst going into Suicide Squad, but I was hoping to be proved wrong. I want DC to be good. I would love to have some good Batman and Superman movies coming out every few years. I am cautiously hopeful about Wonder Woman. Suicide Squad seems to want to be DC’s Guardians of the Galaxy: a bunch of misfits pulled together to reluctantly do some good, scored by a premium soundtrack. But instead this is a roadmap for everything DC should avoid. It’s style over substance. It’s lazy characterization and scripting plastered over with a good cast and some bright colors. DC needs to calm down and worry less about establishing a franchise. Just focus on writing a good story for a good character.