One of the problems in film, generally, is being able to present a cohesive story with backstory, arcs, character development, conflicts to resolve and loose ends to tie up within a limited window of time. Now, the more characters you have in the story, the less time you can give any one of them, so that their stories get condensed and abridged until they aren’t really robust anymore.
Suicide Squad suffers from this problem in scads. With the DC comic villains each having their own origin stories and arcs from the comics, it’s hard to transpose those into a coherent narrative, and instead the overarching story feels like it’s cobbled together with a handful of random metahumans doing what they’re good at, with the writers being ordered to make a comic book film more like Marvel’s. At least they tried, I guess.
The film is set in the days post Batman vs. Superman, and with Superman gone there’s a big hole for potential world-saving, and Amanda Waller (played brilliantly by Viola Davis) decides to fill that hole with the worst of the worst. Why? Who knows? The logic for it seems to go over the military’s head, and they support Task Force X. Their mission? To save the world from Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), who is 6000 year old demon possessing an archeologist. Of course, it turns out that Enchantress was on the squad and then literally ran away to become the antagonist, so that should give you an idea that Task Force X is pretty harebrained, but if one member of the squad is rogue, why not send the others in after her? What could possibly go wrong?
So, who (is forced to) answer the call? There’s Deadshot (Will Smith), whose entire story arc focused on him not really being a bad guy because he was a bad guy for good reasons, and of course, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), who vacillates between being endearing and completely batshit crazy pretty well, although her overall story was much less interesting than the trailers would have you think. For one, her backstory is intrinsically (yet, it seems, unnecessarily) tied to the Joker (Jared Leto), but for all the crazy tattoos and maniacal laughing and chasing each other around the plotholes, the question of how exactly she went from being a psychologist to a psychopathic supervillain isn’t clearly explained. Why would Dr. Quinzel fall for the Joker in the first place? It also doesn’t help that the parts with the Joker in them in the film don’t seem to mesh with the rest of the story, and feel stubbed in to, well, show that the Joker is there. And don’t get me started on the scene when she’s at the nightclub literally getting pimped out by the Joker to Common. Like, what?
Then there’s Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), whose role seems to comprise mainly of eating things, smashing things, and looking murderous in his brown velour hoodie:
He does, at least, have brute strength on his side, which is to say more than Captain Kangaroo Boomerang (Jai Courtney), who has no discernible powers besides being probably the most obnoxious chav bogan stereotype of an Australian I’ve ever seen. (As an Australian watching this, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes every time he said something and slammed down a beer, because you know, we Australians are all about slamming down beers and yelling incoherently.) My favorite squad member was El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a gangbanger with a gnarly skull tattoo and penchant for repressing his firebending abilities and potentially fantastic (or at least better) storyline.
There are several other members of the squad, but they don’t really warrant much mention, except to say that the screen time for one of them was probably shorter than the amount of time it’s taken you to read to this point. Yes. I’m not even sure what the point of introducing this character was (except maybe to get my hopes up about diversity and representation in mainstream film), only to callously remove them from the plot minutes later. I guess I should mention that the squad’s leader is supposedly Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), who has an eye-rolling romance arc with June Moone (the archaeologist whose body Enchantress possesses), but other than that he doesn’t do much at all.
Storywise, it felt like the developmental focus of Suicide Squad was front-loaded. The first act of the film, when we’re introduced to the characters, is the strongest. Most of the squad members–there wasn’t enough time/bandwidth/effort to introduce all of them–are presented with their own graffiti-style name, logo and description to what is presumably their signature song. (The soundtrack generally is hit or miss, and the genres range so vastly it’s like someone just threw a bunch of records in the air and played the ones that landed right side up.) Getting the band together was a really fun exploration of the character’s dynamics, but then it quickly spirals into a tired cliche of “the bad guy (or lady in this case) is trying to destroy the world because of reasons”. It’s so cliched it even has the swirling vortex of garbage, complete with lightning and everything.
In the premise of the film, the squad (and some human soldiers–which makes the squad’s purpose moot) are dropped in to rescue some very important people from the threat of the Enchantress and her magical vortex. I should also mention that other antagonists include Enchantress’ brother (Incubus, but whose name is never mentioned in the film), and I’m really not sure what he’s there for except that he has some pretty neat CG effects and unnecessarily takes up too much space on the screen in the scenes when they are together. He helps her build an army of amorphous bullet sponges from local humans, in that she turns them into said bullet sponges by making out with them (why?). And this whole time, she’s wearing a metal bikini (not canon by the way) and pelvic thrusting towards the unspecified garbage vortex.
It’s probably obvious already from the controversy over Harley Quinn’s costume that there’s a lot of male gaze in this film. Yep. Literally the only woman who escapes it is Viola Davis as Amanda Waller, but that’s probably because Waller is the type of woman who will fuck you up if you look at her sideways. In some ways, she’s the most villainous, even though she doesn’t engage in combat. However, even she can’t escape from the jankiness of the story. In part of the plot later in the film, she’s relegated by the story to a passive role, and then randomly appears in a “how are you still alive?!” moment, which is echoed by the other characters. That said, her presence is a great force, and Davis works well with what she’s got, but sadly, it’s not enough to save the film.
Suicide Squad promises a zany rollercoaster ride but at best provides you with a sinking ship. It had a lot of potential, but it does not live up to the hype. The film asks interesting questions about morality, and what it means to be a hero or villain, but provides mundane answers, often punctuated with poorly-timed humor. The characters–if they were fully fledged–could be interesting, but they’re so underdeveloped in the film that they’re almost forgettable, and that’s sad.
I’m sure that different people will get different mileage from a film like Suicide Squad–if you’re into action movies that have lots of cool effects and not much story, and with characters you think you know, this might work for you. Otherwise, save your money. You could watch it for the spectacle, but it’s not worth throwing money at. Incidentally, the Task Force X episode of Justice League Unlimited is on Netflix so if you wanted to watch something more coherent, there’s that.
Suicide Squad opens in theaters on Thursday, August 4.