Of the two DC Cinematic Universe films coming out this year, it was David Ayer’s “Suicide Squad” that had piqued my interest over Zack Snyder’s “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” The superhero battle royale felt primarily as a way for DC to catch up with Marvel and their Phase Three head-start, but more than that, “Suicide Squad” offered something we hadn’t seen yet in a comic book movie- a film where the villains are the “heroes.” Sony was working towards a Marvel equivalent with their “Amazing Spider-Man” franchise building up to “Sinister Six,” but the way that story fell apart and inspired apathy in audiences put the kibosh on that. It’s a credit to DC that while they were in the middle of making what seemed like the most obvious direction for their universe with “BvS,” they had Ayer swinging for something different in “Suicide Squad.” The trailers felt more enticing than Snyder’s film, but the more you think about “Suicide Squad,” the more you feel like it makes similar mistakes as “Dawn of Justice” does. Still, one has to give the upper hand to Ayer’s film, which not only introduces us to some fresh faces, but also puts some compelling spins on fan favorites.
I haven’t seen his last film, “Fury,” but just on the basis of “End of Watch,” “Sabotage” and his script for “Training Day,” you feel very much at home with him directing one of the most distinctive comic book movie concepts we’ve seen. In particular, his views of the way power in law enforcement can corrupt make it juicy to have a band of the worst of the worst being recruited to saving the day. But it feels like something is off in the story the more you think about it after the fact. Ayer has two stories going that feel like they could stand on their own- one powered by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) and her idea of having a squad of some of DC’s baddest members of their Rogue’s gallery, including Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the squeeze of The Joker (Jared Leto), who misses his girl and will do anything to reunite them, the other by the tenuous relationship between Captain Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and his love for June Moone (Cara Delevingne), an archaeologist who was taken over by a powerful spirit during an expedition that transforms her into the witch, The Enchantress. Waller has found a way to keep The Enchantress locked in Moone’s body by controlling the witch’s heart, but one day, The Enchantress breaks through and resurrects the spirit of her brother Incubus (Alain Chanoine). At this point, Waller’s plan is put into action, with Harley joining a gang that includes Deadshot (Will Smith), an assassin; Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a gang leader with a penchant for pyrotechnics, Human Torch style; a sewer-dwelling mutant, Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje); Slipknot (Adam Beach), who’s able to climb anywhere; and Boomerang (Jai Courtney), an Aussie with deadly instruments of evil. They are all led by Flag into battle, and in addition to a chip that is implanted in each member that can be detonated if need be, he has further insurance for himself with Katana (Karen Fukuhara), who uses a sword containing the souls of all of the people it has cut down.
I love this film from a production standpoint: it’s got a distinctive look from “Man of Steel” and “Batman v. Superman,” has a rich sonic landscape fueled by a dynamic song soundtrack (it’s not as good as “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but it’s a pleasant difference-maker from previous DC films) and Steven Price score, and brings typical “apocalyptic” moments to life with flair and energy. Unfortunately, it’s the last part of that trio that brings “Suicide Squad’s” biggest flaws front-and-center. Because we see the villains up front, without a traditional superhero in sight (Batman only makes a cameo appearance in flashbacks showing him apprehend Deadshot, in front of the latter’s daughter, no less, and Harley Quinn; I’m really excited about the future of Ben Affleck’s Caped Crusader), it feels like we should see a story that goes away from superhero movie conventions, and fighting a big bad with sights of destroying the world is as conventional as you can get. It also points to one of the most disappointing aspects of the film, and that’s Leto’s Joker. Don’t get me wrong- Leto does a great job distinguishing his Clown Prince of Crime from Nicholson’s and Ledger’s and Hamill’s, but other than his connection with Harley Quinn (more on that below), he is quite superfluous to the plot of this film. If he had been the main villain of the film (and maybe played off of an antagonism against Waller, whom Davis plays with sharp venom), it not only would have added an intriguing layer to Harley’s character arc, but also would have established him as a force to be reckoned with in the current DC universe, setting up some exciting potential for his showdowns with Batfleck down the road. It also would have a climactic scenario far away from the apocalyptic ending Enchantress tries to bring to the DC world, which is more like an “Avengers”-type moment. Enchantress-as-baddest-guy also folds into a structure issue the film has: Waller is putting the team together ahead of said apocalyptic event. Enchantress is someone picked for the Suicide Squad before the action happens because she can (supposedly) be controlled, but she breaks free. At that point, the gang is put into action, but it feels like we should have seen the opening of this movie (with Waller’s hard sell, and the character introductions) after that event rather than before. I know there were much-documented reshoots on the film earlier this year, but that’s usually supposed to iron out structural issues. Now I wonder if it may have added to them.
There are two main characters from the squad that standout, although there’s not really a false note hit by anyone in terms of performance. (Although Slipknot is given so little to do he shouldn’t have even been in the film.) They are, not surprisingly, Deadshot and Harley Quinn. First, about Deadshot, played by Smith in a performance it feels like he’s been itching to give again since “Hancock.” Though the film establishes an emotional bond between Deadshot and his daughter (Shailyn Pierre-Dixon), and it pays off well in the scene where Batman takes him down, Deadshot is as amoral as any of his cohorts here, able to remove emotion from the equation when it comes to killing, and understanding that just because he has a daughter he loves, that doesn’t redeem him. There really isn’t any redemption for him, and one of the things the script by Ayer does very well is setting up each character’s motivations for going along with Waller’s plan as wholly selfish, but still worth following, and seeing how that unfolds. They’re not doing it because they want to be heroes, but because maybe, they can get some taste of freedom for themselves. He’s basically the leader of the group on the “bad guys” side because, well, he’s played by Will Smith, and it’s hard to see anyone else being a bigger alpha dog in the film. (Waller is not far off, though.) You certainly can’t picture Harley Quinn taking charge, and believe me, that’s very much in line with the fan-favorite character brought to life by Robbie. Her story is wound tightly with The Joker, whom she fell in love with while visiting him as a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum, and it was a downward spiral of a relationship from there. Theirs is not a match made in heaven, however, but an emotionally abusive, dependent union between a sociopath and a psychically and physically damaged woman. Her origins, and relationship with the joker she affectionately calls “Puddin’,” have been some of the most complex since Paul Dini created her for the acclaimed “Batman: The Animated Series” in the ’90s. That complexity and bruised psyche comes through wonderfully in Robbie’s performance, and her scenes with Leto have a charge that demands further exploration. The character has easily been the most anticipated aspect of “Suicide Squad,” and Robbie (“The Wolf of Wall Street”) delivers the goods. I’d like to see a movie that focuses on these two without necessarily being an extension of either Batman’s arc or the Suicide Squad Waller has put together. The close of this film has us thinking we’ll be seeing more of this toxic duo sooner rather than later, and I can’t wait for that to happen.
The DC Cinematic Universe has been a mixed bag, thus far. (I’m still curious if the “Ultimate Edition” of “BvS” really does improve that film.) “Suicide Squad” doesn’t do enough to put things on a positive course after the “Justice League”-lite “BvS,” but I love that we’ve seen something just different enough from anything Marvel has put out to get the mind going about what directions we might see this mega-franchise take in the future. Hopefully, however, we’ll see the filmmakers deviate further from formula to make something truly original shine through.