Overview: A collection of supervillains are forced together as a secret government task force. Warner Bros. Pictures; 2016; Rated PG-13; 130 Minutes.
You Know What They Say About the Crazy Ones: At 17 years old, I wrote my first film review. I covered the film Snatch as an assignment for my high school newspaper. The review was a feeble 400 words and most of that, if I remember correctly, was just me parroting banal phrases I had picked up from blurbs in assorted trailers. I remember, specifically, writing that Snatch was a movie in which “the good guys are actually bad guys and the bad guys are very, very bad guys.”
The reason I bring this up: this week I saw a movie that really, really wants me to recycle that line, which is made all the more poetic when one considers that Suicide Squad is essentially what would happen if Guy Ritchie’s filmography had eight babies with the members of the band Prodigy and each baby shower was registered at your local mall’s Halloween kiosk. But the difference between Ritchie’s typical carnival of snarky villains and DC’s collection of cheer-able bad guys is the difference between a cheese tray and a bag of Cheetos. In fact, to really knot up this comparison, Suicide Squad, with its insistent and constant proclamation of its own edginess and its characters’ badness, has more in common with the high school senior emulating criticism than the movie that I was writing about. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it certainly isn’t a surprising one.
We knew what we were getting with this film from the moment Warner Bros. hired in David Ayer a director who seems almost exclusively interested in stories about makeshift families of misfits who cuss a lot. From there, the expectation was only tightened by a subsequent PR campaign that was loud, abrasive, and annoying.
It’s necessary to note here that, in many ways, I am exactly the audience this film should hope for. I have an obsession with the artifice of edginess, any cultural collective who approaches its alternative identity not through rejection of or ironic detachment from standards of conformity, but by making a sharp tonal adjustment and doubling down on those standards’ materialism and branding. This is why I love horror movies and crude cult films. This is why I think Marilyn Manson is perhaps the most interesting icon in all of modern pop. It’s why I have a Jack Skellington tattoo on one arm and an Alkaline Trio tattoo on the opposite shoulder. And it’s why I absolutely fell in love with the beginning of Suicide Squad.
The Worst of the Worst: In the first twenty minutes of Suicide Squad, there are compressed introductions of a half dozen characters that tease what might have been if Warner Bros. and its DC architects had gotten an earlier or less hurried start in chasing their pioneering competitors. The important characters actually get two introductions, with Will Smith doing a badass interpretation of a ‘70s blacksploitation hero (that unfortunately, for some reason, doesn’t really last through the rest of the film) and The Joker (a half-assured but somehow still over-acting Jared Leto) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), both gleefully sporting old timey gangster accents, psychologically tormenting one another like (500) Days of Summer turned on its head above mounds of cocaine. These opening sequences offer eight or nine blissfully generic pop music cues from universally-recognized iconic songs, each picked to match the subject baddie. The jokes here are funny and the violence is goofy. Up until this point, I felt I was dreaming a perfect comic book movie.
But making any tent-pole franchise film is a challenge, and this feels like it must have been particularly true of Suicide Squad, given the source materials’ stereotypical and troublesome characters, the reactionary political culture of 2016 having been heightened by problematic films and audiences and candidates, the prominence of comic book purists ready to wet their pants at any alteration of the existing text, the recently developed model of studio over-control, and the absolute critical and partial commercial failure of the first two films in the Justice League-centric extended universe. But, faced with an uphill battle, chased by studio pitbulls, and stuck between a mountain of man-diapers and a woke place, Ayer, perhaps the most divisive filmmaker to helm a film in this contemporary genre, hasn’t just leaned in, he’s blindly thrash danced a path through to… somewhere.
We’re the Bad Guys; It’s What We Do: While the effort is admirable, the result isn’t always. At times, Ayer, cast, and crew are so focused on emboldening and emblazing their font that there are vital instances where they neglect to clean up (or establish) the substance of their text.
For instance, there had to have been a script solution that could have sidestepped making El Diablo (the first comic-sourced Latin hero to appear in film) a Mexican “gangbanger,” but such measure would have shortened what is the most distinct and traceable redemption arc of the film, a devil who becomes a Christian martyr.
Additionally, the sexual interest of Roman Vasyanov’s camera on Harley’s barely covered derriere is wince-worthy in its obsession, cheapening both her and The Joker’s chess game of psychological damage and the earlier assessment that she sleeps “where she wants, when she wants, and with who she wants.” This discomfort is underlined later, in the film’s most-wtf moment, when Harley’s deepest desire is represented as a wish to be a baby-holding housewife in hair curlers (Seriously, wtf?). But to allow these highly uncomfortable moments of sexism to be definitional of the role and the character erases the joy of seeing that Robbie is also providing an example where an actress seems finally to be having fun with a female comic book lead, and the character proves to be the most equipped of the crew, freed from the established standard in which the token woman is expected to give softly delivered motivational speeches and occasional wrist tickles.
Even with those inexcusable errors in judgment, Suicide Squad finishes as the most diverse representation of comic [anti-]heroism that we have seen in cinemas, and it was somewhat refreshing to have a troupe’s story contain four female power players, with at least one of them being the driver in each step of resolution while the group’s two alpha males, Deadshot (Smith) and Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman) stupidly bump chests and try not to hug. The standout, though, might be Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), a lead government official who has no literal superpowers, but possesses an implied, incomparable super-agency. Waller is in charge of everything—the good guys, the bad guys, the whole country—and her authority is granted by being the kind of unflinching, no-nonsense asskicker who unhesitantly unloads a pistol on operatives who witness more than they are cleared to witness. She is a mean and narratively ugly character that some might find off-putting, but it’s necessary to ask the last time we said that about a woman in an action flick.
Don’t Forget, We’re the Bad Guys: There are sequences of rough story editing and jarringly abrupt cuts, but there are also sequences where the shadowy frames arrange into dark, comic panel fantasy. As atrocious as the climactic CGI monster is (at Gods of Egypt-level ugliness, the late-stage Enchantress may be the worst looking in any superhero movie I have seen), the early Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) offers my favorite conceptual aesthetic in the entire exercise. And as disappointing as it is that Boomerang (Jai Courtney) and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) never find their notes, it’s equally exciting that Smith, in his most engaging role in way too long, gets to do what he does best as the second most natural movie star working today (behind the inhuman Tom Cruise, of course) and Katana (Karen Fukuhara) silently and expressionlessly stalks every scene, every bit as menacing with her soul-stealing sword as Clint Eastwood’s nameless man is with a pistol.
That’s the way it works throughout. Ultimately, Ayer breaks even by traditional standards, marking as many missteps as triumphs, but Suicide Squad isn’t a film to be measured by its progress. Rather, it should be measured by its damage.
This week seems to have confirmed that Warner Bros. studio was heavily concerned with the filming of Suicide Squad by its most renegade author, and reshoots and changes were made after production to appease the concerns regarding social media and critical reaction to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. For the most part, Ayer seems to have done what he was asked. He colored within the lines provided to him, but he used his own spray paint to ensure that it looked a little like mayhem. Suicide Squad is a messy, scrappy kick in the ass to an institution that is in need of a little fuckery.
Overall: Suicide Squad, even with its numerous imperfections, feels liberated from the suffocation of an airtight formula and imaginary stakes. It’s a tad more maddened than its series predecessor, but also lacking the symbolic and academic weight of Snyder’s film. If Batman V Superman represented the undergrad deconstructionalist treatment of the superhero concept, then Suicide Squad represents what happens in a juvenile supervillain detention facility when the staff leaves the hall unlocked and unguarded on the same day they forgot to put away the art supplies. Even if the sabotage gets repaired and the graffiti erased from the walls, it makes for a fun night.
Featured Image: Warner Bros.