"Suicide Squad": What could have been
Did Suicide Squad ever have a chance?
The forces at play here all have different demands. Warner Brothers has dumped $175 million into this film (allegedly; it's probably more, given the reshoots and marketing blitz), a major investment for which they want a major return. The DC Comics movie universe needs to boost its shaky track record, especially after the lackluster critical and commercial response to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice back in March. And fans, pumped from the great Wonder Woman and Justice League trailers released at SDCC this year, are practically salivating at the possibility that Suicide Squad could be really, really good.
Keep all those elements in mind when you consider what Suicide Squad actually is: an overly thought out collection of character vignettes that doesn't really come together cohesively as a movie. I'm writing a full review for Chesapeake Family that will run on the film's official opening date of Friday, Aug. 5, but I've been thinking since seeing Suicide Squad Tuesday night about all the ways it could have been better.
Let me fire off some buzzwords for you: What I wanted was a nihilistic, gritty, but still coherent stab at the villains of DC Comics. Isn't that what David Ayer, with his history of films about the street and about war (Training Day, The Fast and the Furious, End of Watch, Fury) was hired to do? Isn't that what the first trailer for the film promised?
But after sitting through its 123 minutes, you can tell where the studio meddled in Suicide Squad, where they changed the tone and where they altered the storyline, and that intrusion makes the movie feel, more than anything, sloppy.
You can tell the reshot scenes by Joel Kinnaman's varying haircut (sometimes it's a short buzz, sometimes it's a longer sidepart, but it's always sexy, so at least there's that). You can see how the film tried to leverage the Joker character by giving Harley Quinn extensive flashback sequences that drag down the forward movement. And you can guess where the film moved away from being a gleefully dark celebration of these twisted characters to one that limply suggests they're all good guys at heart, all willing to do the right thing when the world demands it. Is that sentimentality what Suicide Squad needed? Is there enough character development done here, in the span of only two hours, to take us from "These are the worst people on Earth" to "But we can trust them because they're softies, really"? I don't think so.
What's frustrating about this all, of course, is that there are a number of invigorating things about Suicide Squad. Really, there are! But there are a more glaring array of disappointing things, and I'll give you a rundown of a few of each.
SPOILERS AHEAD, OBVIOUSLY.
WILL SMITH, MOVIE STAR
How long has it been since Will Smith was legitimately great? It's been a string of weird choices for the former Fresh Prince: Men in Black 3 was terrible, let's not speak of After Earth, his role in Anchorman 2 was barely a cameo, his Devil in Winter's Tale was SO ABSURD, and then there was Concussion, which everyone forgot before it even came out.
But as Deadshot, Will Smith is, praise be, a proper Movie Star again. He is charismatic, he is committed, he is excellent. His alpha-male posturing against Kinnaman's Rick Flag is an enjoyable ongoing gag throughout the film, and his constant concern that people are threatening him shows you the kind of character he is -- a threat is something to be followed up on, and Deadshot is absolutely one to follow up. It's really irritating that most of his humor comes from misogyny, but Suicide Squad needed a huge star as its central anchor, and Smith delivers.
BAD-ASS FEMALE CHARACTERS: HARLEY QUINN, AMANDA WALLER, KATANA
Margot Robbie is the breakout star of this film, full stop. You may already know the infamous story of how she got cast in The Wolf of Wall Street by unexpectedly slapping Leonardo DiCaprio in the face during her audition, but that's not half of her excellence in Suicide Squad. She is, well, unhinged, and the zeal and energy she brings to Harley Quinn is unparalleled. (When a bad guy played by Common admiringly calls her a "bad bitch," you get it.) The entire movie seems like it was reshaped to have more of her in it, and while that's admirable, it should have been executed better.
Robbie has good company in Viola Davis as Amanda Waller, the ruthless and ambitious mastermind behind the Suicide Squad team, and Karen Fukuhara as Katana, Flag's sword-wielding comrade. Katana has barely a dozen lines, but this one scene of her sobbing over the sword that has her murdered husband's soul trapped inside -- that image will stick with you.
DOUBLING DOWN ON METAHUMANS
DC Comics has to catch up with the universe Marvel has built, and they made a good-if-clunky first start with the introduction of the metahumans Wonder Woman, the Flash, and Aquaman in Lex Luthor's files in Batman v Superman. Another step forward was made with the SDCC trailer for Justice League, and Suicide Squad keeps the metahumans as a running theme: the Enchantress and Killer Croc fall under that category, the Flash shows up, and there's a post-credits scene where Waller and Bruce Wayne face off about them. The consistency of that storytelling is one of the only things Suicide Squad really doubles down on, and it's a good reminder of where the DC Comics films are going.
THE ENCHANTRESS'S EVIL PLAN
The Enchantress is an ancient god humans used to worship who comes back to the present day and realizes people care more about machines than her. So, as you do, she wants to create a gigantic machine to kill people, or have them worship her again, or both. So basically the Enchantress is Apocalypse from X-Men earlier this summer, and her plan here is just as lame as Oscar Isaac's plan was there.
We never really see the machine Enchantress is building (it's shown mostly as flashing lights and levitating, swirling debris in the sky); her evil demigod brother's powers are displayed as plasticky black tendrils of metal that he can control, which are destructive but not particularly unique; and how the film doesn't really focus on this "terrorist event" until the last half-hour or so means most of the middle of the film drags.
JOKER, ROMANTIC HERO
Oh, Jared Leto was really Method while filming his role as the Joker? That's cool. Too bad he's not as bonkers as Jack Nicholson or as gonzo as Heath Ledger; your Method antics were wasted, Jordan Catalano!
The Joker here is envisioned more as a modern crime lord, with lots of tattoos, a grill, and a club where Harley Quinn dances, in contrast to the kind of diabolical mastermind we've seen in previous films. That doesn't mean characters can't be reimagined, but this Joker, even with all his style, just isn't much of anything.
What the film really plays up is his relationship with Harley Quinn, but how it positions the Joker as a romantic hero is truly the goddamn worst. Harley pines for Joker, he kills a bunch of people to try and save her, and their entire subplot feels shoehorned in from the start. Most of the flashbacks we see have the Joker doing terrible things to Harley -- from when he scrambles her brain after seducing her at Arkham Asylum, to basically negging her into jumping into a vat of acid for him -- but she still loves him, she still adores him, she still rejoices when they're reunited. Why can't we care about Harley on her own merits? Why do we have to see her fantasy of living a normal life with Jared Leto, with a couple of babies and a nice suburban home? Wanting to add layers to Harley is fine. Giving her layers through the use of an abusive relationship that is being portrayed as love is not fucking fine.
Also, I understand that this relationship is pretty similar to what it is in the comics. But how the film glamorizes Joker's relationship with Harley, presenting scenes like his murder of someone who finds Harley attractive as something that should be cheered, is not a good thing.
If there's one primary problem with Suicide Squad, it's that the film doesn't pick a lane and stick with it; there is no rhythm to this thing. It's been revealed that Warner Brothers brought in the editing team who put together the film's trailer to do final work on the movie, but what you saw in the trailer is what you get -- literally. There are no additional jokes, no extra gags, and only a few hidden surprises, like Killer Croc capturing all our damn hearts with his jaunty "I'm beautiful" and his demand for BET in his cell.
But some of the jokes from the trailer (like Harley Quinn offering Diablo water instead of alcohol) aren't even in the movie! It feels like Warner Brothers pulled so much from the film to market it that they forgot they actually needed unexpected moments to shock and delight people, too, but there aren't very many of those.
What is clear, though, is how stitched together this film is. There are three introductions to the characters -- we see them in prison, then Waller talks about them to one group of men, then she does the same to another group of men -- which immediately feels like overkill. We get flashbacks for Deadshot, flashbacks for Harley Quinn, flashbacks for Diablo, flashbacks for Captain Boomerang, flashbacks for Katana -- but in the present, Boomerang and Katana do barely anything except for him hitting on her. We get a step forward and then a step backward; we get a tiny bit of progressive momentum and then a sidestep into something different.
There are other versions of this film floating out there, and I want to see Ayer's original version. Not this one, which he claims to be proud of -- but the one Warner Brothers thought needed all these changes. That's the Suicide Squad that at least had a singular vision behind it, not filmmaking by committee.
You know what I'll be thinking about next year, when we get the next DC Comics Extended Universe film, the currently promising looking Wonder Woman? I'll remember that once upon a time, Suicide Squad looked great, too. But looking great and being great are very different things, and hopefully this is the last time DC Comics learns that the hard way.