Posted on Monday, August 8th, 2016 by Jacob Hall
Based on its massive box office over the weekend, chances are strong that you’ve seen David Ayer‘s Suicide Squad. And based on how everyone is screaming about it, chances are just as strong that you have an opinion about it.
I’m not sure what to make of Suicide Squad, a movie that feels compromised from frame one, constantly confused about what it wants to be. I’m not sure if its uglier elements are intentional or the result of too many cooks not seeing the forest for the trees. I’m not sure we’ll ever know exactly what went wrong here until someone from the production decides to speak up in the future. Because right now, this is a baffling misfire of a movie with a few interesting highlights.
You’ve Got to Take the Good…
Will Smith and Margot Robbie are movie stars.
For Smith, that’s literal – there’s a reason he’s one of the most famous faces in the world. Suicide Squad is a reminder that natural onscreen charisma isn’t something you can fake and no number of questionable editing choices or questionable character beats can take away his natural magnetism. When the camera is turned in the general direction of Floyd Lawton, AKA Deadshot, the man who never misses, you pay attention. Smith is so innately watchable that you can forgive the softening of this character to fit better into a familiar mold. Yes, Deadshot kills people for a living, but he doesn’t kill women or children! He loves his daughter! He’s got a heart of gold! I don’t know if these details were added before or after Smith was cast in the part, but they allow Smith to play to his strengths as the Inherently Likable Wiseass Who Ultimately Does The Right Thing. And it works, because Deadshot is one of the few characters I decided I wanted to see again when the credits rolled.
Margot Robbie’s movie stardom is bit more theoretical at this point. Her name and face won’t open movies yet, but she’s getting there and Suicide Squad provides the latest pile of evidence. However, she’s got the same thing that Will Smith has, that natural comfort on camera that makes her watchable in even the direst of scenes. There are severe problems with the character of Harley Quinn (and we’ll address them in a bit), but none of those issues can be laid at the feet of Robbie, whose spirited performance is wickedly funny and weird and sad. Even when the script lets her down, Robbie feels like ideal casting for the role of the Joker’s girlfriend. Creating an instantly likable sociopath is no easy task (just ask some of her co-stars) and she pulls it off with aplomb.
The third performance to celebrate in Suicide Squad is Viola Davis as Amanda Waller, who takes one the DC universe’s great, unsung villains and brings her to the big screen with everything that made her great on the page intact. In a comic book landscape filled with evil clowns and crocodile men, Waller somehow measures up to the worst of the worst, wielding bureaucracy like Harley wields a blunt object. Davis’ firm, no-nonsense performance provides the foundation upon which the rest of the movie’s silliness can flourish. A great deal of that silliness doesn’t quite work, but it’s easy to imagine her playing the “straight man” to the increasingly colorful DC Extended Universe moving forward.
…With the Forgettable…
One of the big problems with Suicide Squad is that it frequently neglects its ensemble. While Smith, Robbie, and Davis are allowed to own the screen, the rest of the team is frequently shuffled off into the margins, only occasionally emerging to do, well, anything at all.
As straight-arrow team leader Rick Flag, Joel Kinnaman is a genuine snooze, doing the same job as Amanda Waller (a foil to the rest of the team) while being significantly less interesting. His motivation – he just wants his girl back – is a borderline unforgivable cliche and Kinnaman doesn’t have the Will Smith-level charisma to make us care about a storyline this obvious.
Other characters simply suffer from never getting anything interesting to do. Jai Courtney‘s Captain Boomerang feels like he was supposed to act as the comic relief of the film, but his time on screen is limited at best. When he is on screen, the movie never justifies why this guy would be recruited alongside these far more talented psychopaths. Rather than play up his bizarre skill set and find new ways to make boomerang efficiency feel deadly and unique, he’s portrayed as just another brawler. The same goes for Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje‘s Killer Croc, who is ultimately just a waste of some killer practical prosthetics – he adds nothing to the story and his contribution to the various action scenes comes down to him just punch things. Jay Hernandez‘s El Diablo comes the closest to being interesting (he has an actual arc and everything!), but even he is sidelined for much of the film, with his backstory spilling out just in time for his big act three death.
Most damning of all is Jared Leto‘s Joker, not because it’s a bad performance, but because I honestly couldn’t tell you if it was bad or not. I can’t tell you if it’s good, either. Remember how Jack Nicholson’s Joker was introduced by him slowly stepping out of the shadows and into the light? Or how Heath Ledger ripped off that clown mask in leaned in for a giant, IMAX-sized close-up? Leto’s Joker never gets a proper introduction and that’s indicative of how the rest of the film treats him. Ayer is playing with an icon here, reinventing one of the most famous villains in all of pop culture, and none of his scenes carry any weight or ultimately matter to the story. He’s just another crazy guy in a movie full of ’em. There is no definitive Joker scene, no moment that establishes why this guy is so terrifying and why this guy is the arch-enemy of Batman. Rather than leave me wanting to see the Joker face off against the Dark Knight in a future movie, Suicide Squad left me not knowing the new Joker at all.
…and the Worst
Enchantress and Incubus are the worst comic book movie villains of all time. Full-stop. At least we know what the endlessly dull Malekith from Thor: The Dark World wants. At least Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze is a campy hoot to watch and quote. At least Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor was weird enough to create conversation and at least Doomsday felt like a world-threatening force of nature (even thought he looked like a big pile of troll poop). These two want to destroy humanity just because. They spend the entire movie hanging out around a giant sky portal just because. While Enchantress is embarrassing because she spends the bulk of her screen time gyrating in front of an ill-defined “weapon,” Incubus is a debacle on every level, a CGI creation who gave me flashbacks to the Scorpion King from The Mummy Returns. He is the first special effects character in over a decade that made me want to crawl under my seat because I was so embarrassed for the movie I was watching.
The good guys don’t get out of this. Karen Fukuhara‘s Katana is also an outright disaster, a character who feels shoehorned into the story for no reason other than the studio wanting to squeeze as many vaguely recognizable characters into the film as possible. Cut her from the movie and nothing changes. If she once did anything important, it’s no longer in the film. She has no memorable interactions with the cast. She has no memorable action beats. She’s a non-entity in a cool mask.