(CRITIC’S NOTE – 25 November: This review existed in my drafts pretty much since the movie’s theatrical release. Somehow, I was an idiot and did not publish it. I’m going to be frank, the review is already just slightly outdated in my attitudes towards Suicide Squad. However, perplexingly little of what I say here has changed and as such I will be publishing it with few fixes (also I’m super lazy and why write more when it’s all there?). Just that my overall attitude now is more negative. If this review is to serve best as anything, I guess it’s less how a person’s opinion is always subject to changing over time (since the movie’s been out for only, what, four months?) and moreso as an illustration of how even I could sometimes try to convince myself a movie I truly understand is not good is worth a watch.
Anyway with that out of the way, please enjoy this goddamn time capsule of a review.)
Several months ago, I made a post on Panel & Frame talking about the movie Last Action Hero and how it is one of the roughest cuts I’ve ever seen released, an undeniably unfinished film. This isn’t necessarily a claim I give lightly to any bad movie, but to movies that have a much publicized troubled production history (especially if it’s backloaded onto the post-production process) where it’s probable what results will be a rushed product and the production will definitely reflect on the final picture.
It’s not an excuse for a bad or poor movie. The makers still released it. They thought it was ok for people to pay money for that. We can still wreck it critically. Like submitting half-done homework, you shouldn’t expect a good grade.
Nevertheless, they are unfinished movies and I think it’s important to discuss how what we’re watching is sloppily done and how easily a movie can be derailed.
A lot of hate is being slung towards the DC Extended Universe and I can’t pretend a lot of it is unearned, even if I am a fan of the last two movies to come out of it. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad both have glaring problems, infuriatingly visible problems that bug me so much I’d love to make a Soderbergh-ized fan edit of both movies and yet even then there’s a lot that simply re-editing the movie wouldn’t fix. And to be fair, I don’t think Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice exactly has an unfinished feel to it, it seemed like everybody was satisfied absolutely with production and what was going out there. Both the theatrical and Ultimate cut feel fully controlled (even if they’re both quite sloppy).
But Suicide Squad is not finished in the slightest, they just ran out of time before they had to submit something. Even if director/writer David Ayer expressed satisfaction and authorship of the theatrical cut (which is both very noble of him to accept his work while also pretty smart considering RIP Josh Trank), what’s on-screen makes it clear that the chefs just decided “OK, I guess we’re done cooking” rather than taking the recipe to the end [Author’s Note 25 November: At the time of this writing, obviously the Extended Edition of Suicide Squad was not announced].
The most obvious element of this is how blatantly the film wants to juggle the dark and gritty aspect of its universe established by its previous two films (Man of Steel being the first DCEU film) with a gleeful eagerness to let itself loose by its very premise – ruthless government official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) assembles a team from the DC Rogues’ Gallery to perform high-risk black ops missions – with a juvenile “lovable rogues” tale that makes them more cuddly than anti-heroes, bordering on comic and undoubtedly lifted from the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Guardians of the Galaxy… right down to the annoying usage of every fucking song that ever existed in history stapled on the soundtrack (I honestly never thought I’d be sick of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” a long-time inhabitant of my “favorite songs” playlist but here I am).
I can’t say the two don’t mix, because I’ve walked into a Hot Topic store so I know it can happen. I am almost certain it’s not the full intent of Suicide Squad to be this way. It’s too stitched together as a Frankenstein of a film where they tried to re-arrange the material at the last second. If I were editor John Gilroy (who has enough credits behind him to vouch for his ability as a film editor), I’d have Alan Smithee’d myself the moment Warner Bros. brought a team that cut trailers to change the film around to the wandering, structureless mess this is. It’s broken tonally AND narratively from the very get-go: Suicide Squad has no less than three restarts before 15 minutes pass as a misguided attempt to introduce its three defacto lead characters – in order: sharpshooting hitman Floyd Lawton/Deadshot (Will Smith), the Joker’s psychopathic girlfriend Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), and Waller herself even given a fakeout of opening narration in her appearance – as though it forgot Waller has her own monologue not that far into the film intercut with obnoxious titles spelling out the characteristics of each member of the squad and being its own mess of present-day discussion and flashback narrative. The rest of the movie is not really helped – it takes a good long while before the Squad actually is deployed into Midway City to stop Enchantress, the centuries old goddess who has possessed Dr. June Moore (Cara Delevigne), from destroying the world with her laser light show.
Once that actually gets started, the team simply has a pretty destination-less journey that includes no less than three helicopter crashes in the same film, no clear objectives until the movie decides “well, I guess they accomplished it”, and the only time the narrative feels weighty is when
Riff Raff The Joker (Jared Leto) himself jumps in to derail the mission so he and Harley can reunite again. I recognize the common complaint by many viewers (including the expectedly classless Leto himself) is that Joker is not in the movie more, but my problem is how the movie acts like it needs more of him as an anchor to the story since it otherwise doesn’t really have a clue where it’s going except laterally, it guesses.
There’s a moment halfway 3/4 in where Deadshot confronts their commanding officer/keeper Rick Flag (Joel Kinneman) on everything going on and we expect the movie will clarify itself, except that Deadshot just wants Flag to come clean on his relationship to Enchantress. And the cherry on top of Ayer’s bad writing skills is how eager he is to return to his absolute reductive cartoon stereotypes towards every member of the Squad: from making the Australian their country’s equivalent of a redneck aka the bogan (it’s not really Ayer’s fault that the character is named Captain Boomerang as played by Jai Courtenay, but it certainly does not help), to having Katana (Karen Fukuhara)’s personality begin and end with “samurai sword”, to fire-manipulating Diablo (Jay Hernandez) is a gangbanging vato in the most South Central way, to having Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje have to portray Killer Croc in the blackest manner possible as he wants to watch BET and roam around in his hoodie saying “Shawty”.
Everything else is just one giant Escape from New York riff, from its production design to its characters’ attitudes about the fate of the city to the very vague need to bring their mark out of the city and then battle a poor-rendered CGI co-villain that is essentially Corrupted Shinnok from Mortal Kombat X. None of this incompentency in filmmaking is really new: there is not a single thing prior to this film with David Ayer’s name attached to it (from U-571 to Fury) that I consider a good movie to the point so I didn’t expect myself to be impressed by Ayer nor did I really expect myself to like it.
But I’m a fan of this movie. I did like it. I realize that I’m describing a pretty big failure, yet I liked it.
It’s the cast. I can’t think of any big problems with them.
Actually I can… Delevingne doesn’t make a single move that doesn’t feel absolutely alien to her whether portraying a human being or a goddess. In her defense, a lot of her performance is interacting with CGI, but even with people… her romance with Kinnaman is very fake. Kinnaman himself is swallowing a hella chewy Texas accent, but discomfort plays well into Flag’s prickly resentment with having to watch over the character so it sloppily works. Fukuhara and Akinnuoye-Agbaje have thankless roles (again… stereotypes) but they do solid grim sobriety and menace. Hernandez himself gets very horrid lines (“I lost one family, I’m not gonna lose another”, he says as I wonder if he even talked to Slipknot or Killer Croc) and a hamfisted haunted backstory that only adds to paint the portrayal of Latinos more on the racist side as abusing spouses, but he gives more than enough humanity to the character that he’s probably one of the more compelling presences even during Diablo’s pacifism. Davis can play the Waller role her sleep which is probably why I’m not impressed with her performance while still recognizing it as completely flawless in its cold, inhuman distance (I still think C.C.H. Pounder was born for the role and would do wonders with it). Courtney is a riot honestly, so it’s the first time I’ve ever liked him. Smith also gives humanity to Deadshot in a character the script hands him with a daughter to think of. But it’s not just the writing, Smith seems to have been a lot more awake here after a dark age for him between 2008 and 2015 and I’d swear it helps that he gets to share screentime with Margot Robbie, whom he was already doing very well with in Focus.
Ahhhhh, Margot Robbie. The poor woman has taken on role after role that would essentially function as star vehicles back in the 1930s and yet here she is smashing them and we’re not really giving her the same star status as Jennifer Lawrence, somehow. At least, we have her Harley Quinn to keep us happy – a performance that takes all the unhinged danger of such a clearly disturbed character and try to wrap it as an evil-mirror-universe version of ditzy ingenue energy. In the meantime, she’s allowed little windows to show how her mentally broken status affects her emotionally broken status and vice versa. It’s there too – the movie doesn’t believe in subtlety – her flashbacks with the Joker, her sitting in the rain on a damaged car staring out – Robbie clearly wanted to earn the role and does so every step of the way. Not least in moments she shares with the Joker.
So, the Joker-Harley relationship. I am among the many who have a problem with glorifying the abusive relationship between those characters like Hot Topic tends to and I don’t think it’s ok. But Leto and Robbie have surprisingly incredible chemistry together that I honestly don’t care. Like a twisted fairytale romance together, where it’s clear the Joker’s cruelty to Harley just as well disturbs him leading to moments where he tries to fix the damage he makes. It’s twisted, but it’s believable and it’s electric between the two of them and this really shocks me because out of all the actors cast that I don’t generally like, Leto is among the ones I get closer to hating. Yet despite the trash makeup and costume design looking like Justin Bieber visiting the Gathering of the Juggalos, Leto also grounds himself less as a chaotic absolute like Heath Ledger before him (and let’s not pretend Leto’s performance is better than Ledger’s) and more like a young maniac who is willing to go just far enough to keep unpredictable to his enemies yet hanging off the edge close enough for his henchmen to follow. I can see how this Joker became a gangster kingpin and still retains Joker esque moments of mania like his entrance via helicopter machine gun while wearing a tuxedo and having a bearskin rug on the floor of the chopper. And I can see how Harley finds him irresistible and he finds her such.
That chemistry is a perfect synecdoche for the whole mass that is Suicide Squad. I can take all these elements together, even if they don’t fit together. The parts are faulty and broken and misshapen and desperate for a movie universe (with shoed-in appearances by Ben Affleck that make Batman the biggest dick ever) yet I have no problem accepting Suicide Squad as a movie that I really liked. It should not work. I’m not sure it does work. But it was a good time to spend 2 hours with this squad.