It seems perfectly in keeping with the spirit of Suicide Squad to spill a little virtual ink dealing with existential angst. Why does this film exist? What purpose does it serve, and should we care if a bunch of notoriously bad guys are placed in mortal danger? Do those that are evil think they are evil, or are their own moral codes simply shaped by pragmatism and greed rather than ideological rage or sociopathic disinterest?
Heady stuff for comic book film fare, to be fair, and somewhere within all this there’s a satisfying, provocative, even sublime story to be told. Snyder tried this by dealing with the meta-commentary in Watchmen, which for comic book lovers may have been a failure, but as a film has moments that worked and storyline that questioned the very ethos of the superhero while presaging our current glut of costumed warriors battling it out on both sides of the DC/Marvel line.
Franchise films no longer stand alone, they’re part of larger “universes”, and this film is no exception – at its heart it’s a work about failed experiments, where they try getting the uncontrollable together to give it a shot before a league of heroes will gather to attempt to achieve justice. God is dead (Supes was buried last film), and in the absence genuine paranoia reigns – what if the next deity decides to rip off the roof of the white house, the military brass asks. The issue about knowing that this power exists is knowing that this power easily could be wielded not by one benevolent but by one fickle or, at worst, malevolent.
And so the film spends what seems a quarter its running time giving us detailed CVs of characters that even now, a day later, I struggle to remember. There’s some Crocodile guy that seems very angry but a decent swimmer, a smarmy dude that’s Australian and has drone-like Boomerangs, and then some other people including one that seems to climb walls like BB-8 (what can I say, my nerdiness flows in different rivers). With trackers injected in their necks like pets at the pound, this band of baddies (all, it seems, rounded up by a certain Bat) are tasked with going after some witch thing and her brother.
It’s all a bit convoluted from that point, feeling like a mix of Ghostbusters and Independence Day. As our anti-heroes rush into the giant, glowing destruction with spinning trash, take a moment to again recognize how empty the city is. Shit on Batman v Superman all you want, one thing it did that’s interesting is contextualize the collateral damage, showing that when shit goes down it’s about the integration of these larger-than-life creatures into the city that makes for genuine drama. Take Ledger’s Joker and the ferry scene – sure, it’s a cheap manipulation, but it gives a sense that there’s citizenry in Gotham worth caring about. Here we’ve got empty (Toronto) streets and no care whatsoever for the very populace who in this case literally are being used as fodder to be thrust against our anti-protagonists.
And thus Suicide Squad squanders its thematic consistency in favour of becoming yet another in a long line of action pieces rather than character pieces. I get that the spectacle is part of the fun, but there’s an ambitious idea at the heart here that surely could have been exploited better.
In total there are two performers that seem to completely get the the film they’re in. Will Smith hasn’t been this good in some time, and his character Deadshot, despite the saccharine yet plausible connection to his daughter, seems almost a fully realized individual. I’d rather watch him deal with the real world than Deadpool’s raunch, and Smith played the outsider with a mind of his own who recognizes those controlling him also have blood on their hands.
Then there’s Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn – yes, she’s fantastically attractive on screen, and sure to tickle any fanboy or girl’s heart, but there’s also a sophistication to her character which was refreshing. In one telling moment you can feel the strain of putting on the smile, the sadness and ennui of a clown that just wants to run away from the circus and have a “normal” life, but caught in a whirlwind of lust and larceny.
Others give it a fair shot, including Viola Davis who tries to be badass and bureaucratic at the same time, but simply comes across as unsympathetic. Then there’s Jared Leto’s Joker who, it must be said, looks the part but feels very vacant. This isn’t his film and it shows, so we don’t care very much when he rants and raves. It’s not as if there’s not enough there for him to work with, nor that a reinvention is impossible after Heath (just as Heath’s was a pleasant surprise after Jack’s), but in this context where moral complexity was being showcased then having a pure burst of sociopathy simply felt uninteresting.
Amusingly, I’m still growing on the thought of a angry, raging Batman, and Affleck’s brief appearance (including in a post-credit tease) still gives me perhaps unfounded hope that when the whole megillah comes together in Justice League (please give me Zan, Jayna and Gleek!) that we’ll be on to something kind of great.
Yet despite the good intentions, despite Ayer’s attempt to be both adult and childlike in the piece, it’s kind of a dud. Robbie and Smith aren’t enough to elevate the film beyond what feels like a very long march to the predictable, and while their individual scenes sparkle the rest feels very dour indeed. I wanted to like this film a lot, wanted to step away from the simplistic and delve into the moral quagmires with these characters. We could have got a Dirty Dozen or some such iconic tale and instead we’re simply reminded at how when the stakes for these franchise films are so high the corners are rounded off even of murders and psychos.
There are those that will hate this film beyond reason, and those that will love it beyond fact. The truth lands somewhere in the middle, as we’ve got something that feels more squandered than anything, an opportunity to make Suicide Squad sublime that simply never approached the target.