The modern DC Cinematic Universe just can’t seem to get the engine started. Man of Steel was divisive as hell and while its follow-up Batman v Superman had its ardent defenders (this reviewer included), it failed to light the fire Warner Bros. hoped it might. David Ayer’s messy Suicide Squad was in the post-production stage when all those horrible BvS reviews hit, sending the studio into the kind of psychotic tampering tizzy that Fox underwent with their dud Fantastic Four reboot. The resulting final product is a failure on most counts, but it’s not entirely without merit.

The premise behind this adaptation comes from some of the most original and incendiary comics DC ever published. “Suicide Squad,” as conceived by writers like John Ostrander and Kim Yale in the late ‘80s, was a thrilling concept that sent the colorful punch-line supervillains of the DC Universe into politically charged black ops missions for the government. Putting in danger expendable characters that readers know to be inessential to the grand publishing scheme was a major stakes elevator. In any splash page cliffhanger, you just know that Batman will make it out alive. The same can’t be said for someone called Captain Boomerang.

The film adaptation takes its cues from more modern iterations of the concept that place a higher premium on flashy caricatures and straightforward action than the polemic machinations of the earlier series. But the set-up remains the same. Intelligence officer Amanda Waller (a pitch perfect Viola Davis) puts together a project called Task Force X to fill the metahuman void left by Superman’s death at the end of BvS. She drafts expert marksman/single parent Deadshot (Will Smith), the Joker’s manic pixie dream girl from hell Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and the aforementioned Australian boomerang enthusiast Digger Harkness (Jai Courtney) to do the nation’s bidding in exchange for commuted sentences.

The first major mistake the film makes is its choice of central antagonist. Where these supervillains’ comics counterparts are designed to perform dirty deeds for the government that no superhero would willingly be party to, the movie interpretation sees them as a necessary stopgap in a world without a Superman. Due to this alteration, the main threat has to be on a scale grand enough to warrant a conversation about metahuman catastrophe. For that, Cara Delevingne’s Enchantress, an ancient supernatural force possessing Dr. June Moone, fits the bill. Originally intended to be the ringer on Waller’s team, she rebels, bringing her equally powerful brother to the modern era, where they collude to make a giant ghost robot that turns Midway City into an army of Cronenberg Soldier Drones?

Yeah, it doesn’t make much sense. Especially when you consider that, without Enchantress, the team has very few legitimate powers. Deadshot and Harley use guns and baseballs bats, respectively. Digger literally throws fucking boomerangs. Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is a reptile person. The only other heavy-hitter is Jay Hernandez as El Diablo, a fire wielding ex-gangbanger who’s decided to become a pacifist after inadvertently murdering his family. They’re a motley outmatched crew up against a destructive force more suited to The Mummy or Ghostbusters.

But that miscalculation alone isn’t enough to fall the film’s ambitions. The Too Many Cooks approach to Suicide Squad’s editing process throws a baker’s dozen worth of wrenches into any of Ayer’s original ambitions. What has the skeleton of a pretty lean, uncomplicated action picture instead is weighted down by a bulk of unnecessary plot excursions, each unto itself driven by innocuous intentions but collectively tugging the film’s limbs in too many directions. There are clear seams where the studio wanted to punch up the humor or artificially inseminate endearing charm. Rather than follow the kind of narrative economy any movie with a sprawling cast ought to adhere to, characters are introduced, then reintroduced and then showcased in exhaustive succession. It feels like there’s a meet-cute debut every 10 minutes, even if it’s not the first time someone is appearing on screen. Characterization in this kind of movie should either be blunt and to the point or subtle and clever. Suicide Squad aims to do both and misses by half.

This is such a shame for the cast who, all told, seem to be having the time of their lives on set (despite having to be anywhere near Jared Leto). There’s a really enjoyable little section hidden in the film’s middle where the core performers bounce off one another with admirable aplomb, displaying the type of chemistry that team pictures rely on. But all of this talent is wasted by the undercooked writing. Lines of dialogue constantly ring like placeholders for a smarter, sharper film nobody had time to craft with an impending, immovable release date on the horizon. Smith is more exciting on screen here than he has been in ages, and Robbie does all she can to transcend one of the most troubling versions of Harley Quinn ever. This killer cast is being forced to act out what amounts to a spirited table read of a loose script draft amid bland, second unit-shot mayhem.

Even the action fails to impress. None of it is particularly stylish or engrossing, but it’s the inconsistent tone and poor character work that gets in the way. Even though the logline is an undemanding one, Suicide Squad has a troubling relationship with character alignment. Nearly every single character is a huge piece of shit. There’s a disturbing sense that no one involved could come to a consensus of what actually makes a “bad guy.” There are the makings of some interesting philosophical debates on the nature of evil, but they’re all non-starters.

You’ve got Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman as a Michael Biehn-esque shitkicker) running the crew and butting heads with Deadshot over who is the worst kind of killer, the soldier or the mercenary. To put it into Fast & Furious terms, they’ve got serious Hobbs/Toretto vibes working for them, but it never goes anywhere. Harley repeatedly flirts with an incisive self-awareness the film could sorely use, but it doesn’t ever blossom. It’s a real shame, too, because this movie goes out of its way to normalize violent misogyny as laughline fodder. An audience shouldn’t be enticed to guffaw at Batman decking a woman in the face.

Add to that a lot of curiously unsexy male gaze and unexplored narrative strands on the prison industrial complex and Jared Leto’s oddball take on the Joker seems downright wholesome. Of every element in the film, his 10 or so minutes of screentime marks the least obscured arc. While everyone else flip-flops between conflicting personal codes, Mr. J seems like a regular run-of-the-mill maniac who’s just trying to break his girlfriend out of jail. For all the cloying buzz about sending people dead rats, Leto portrays maybe the least unhinged Joker since Cesar Romero, with his Scott Disick-as-Young Thug cosplay reading more overt than ambitious.

Scored by an unironic procession of blatant needle drops, Suicide Squad ends up being a complacent endeavor, more than happy to move Hot Topic Funkos while alienating any audience members who expect more than timely bursts of Eminem music to keep them entertained. It’s a real shame, too, because this could have been an easy layup for the WB. What could have been a brisk $60 million espionage thriller with an amazing cast transplanting gaudy superheroics onto a Zero Dark Thirty landscape becomes a bloated, money-wasting calamity.

Maybe enough tickets will be sold to the type of people who type “#relationshipgoals” under Tumblr edits of the Joker and Harley arm in arm to allow the film to break even, but more than likely the studio interlopers will just descend on the set of Justice League with a new list of misguided corrections. Hopefully whatever the box office bottom line, Warner Bros learns the right lesson this time. Get the fuck out of the kitchen and let the chef cook.

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