Review: The Contradictory Pleasures of ‘SUICIDE SQUAD’

The latest DC installment is more a victim of overblown hype than a truly bad film.

Suicide Squad, in fact, succeeds exactly where it needs to: it’s a natural popcorn-stuffer, never trying to be anything more than a “comic book movie,” by its original definition. Somewhere along the way, amidst Christopher Nolan’s intellectual treatises and Marvel’s recent forays into political thriller, we’ve forgotten what that means. Those films attempt to say something. This Zack Synder-led iteration of DC films have never been good at saying anything.

With the recent failures of Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Can you get through that name without snickering and thinking of “MARTHA!” still? Me neither) X-Men: Apocalypse, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, it’s obvious that attempting a thematic axiom beyond “a leggy actress in hot pants” is entirely beyond the grasp of this creative team. HOWEVER…maybe it’s my headspace when seeing it, or the way the world is right now, but it should also be okay for Suicide Squad to be just plain fun. Call it “Trash, with Character.” And with an open mind, you could even appreciate some of those character moments as honest-to-goodness storytelling.

A bit of housekeeping before we kick off the actual review: this is a critique based solely on what I viewed in the theater. Regardless of these beloved (sure?) characters’ rich history, one must always be able to judge a piece of work on its merits. Suicide Squad exists for me only in the two hours I spent with it — not the two years of marketing, on-set reports, and increasingly bizarre interviews that preceded it. Let us also set aside “caped-crusader fatigue” for the moment — forget Marvel, forget Snyder, forget Jared f-ing Leto, and see how Squad (#Skwad?) stands on its own. If it stands. In the immortal words of Khan: shall we begin?

We're still rooting for you, Margo.
We’re still rooting for you, Margo.
Modern G-Woman Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), capitalizing on the recent “death” of Superman and all out of ideas, purports to assemble a group of the worst bad guys people genetics has cooked up to arm the Good Ol’ USA against the impending attack of other-worldly even badder people. She recruits favorite crazy, battered girlfriend Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie — wasted, for the most part); Archeologist Dr. June Moone – who, incidentally, moonlights as the ancient Enchantress; the deadly assassin cleverly-named (that’s my sarcastic voice) Deadshot (Will Smith); Captain Boomerang (I’m not wasting words on Hollywood’s repeated attempts to make Jai Courtney happen); former pyro-equipped gangster Diablo (Jay Hernandez); and some spares for a covert mission into Midway City to liberate its people and stop another impending apocalypse. This, I am sure, you’ve gathered all from the trailer.

Neither the fun nor the successful parts of the film come from the plot, obviously. Many critics flooded to their cells to decry the film’s lack of character development when, in reality, character exploration is the best thing Squad has going for it. Save a few of the minor characters – I’ll get to that in a moment – we know, right away, what everyone wants. Whether it’s acknowledgement from a lover, respect from a child, a chance at a normal life, or redemption, each “villain” is seeking something. Those without much of a backstory are dispatched quite quickly, in a single move that makes little logical sense. But for the main Squad, Waller’s dossiers/Cliff’s Notes serve to introduce all the characters to both the audience and the government. This eventually becomes an unbearable expository chain of yawn-inducing segments; although I suppose I prefer it to giving each of these thugs their own movie, what an unusual collection of stories that would have made?

Other than Davis, the actors that emerge the cleanest are Will Smith and Jay Hernandez, with Hernandez showing surprisingly subtle emotional depths as the pyromaniac Diablo. Smith takes a more on-the-nose approach, charismatically chewing scenery whenever he appears, but it doesn’t diminish how much the audience ends up caring for him. Unfortunately for Ms. Robbie, Harley Quinn — a deeply troubled and multifaceted character — is played for mostly cheap laughs that never land. Robbie fully commits to the sadness and lost nature within Harley’s quieter moments, but her crazy is not quite crazy enough, and her attempts at sex appeal are too blatant for anyone who’s not a pre-teen boy. That said, why it is not okay for her to fight in breathable, mobile material? Who cares what she decides to dress herself in?

In fact, the strongest characters are the female characters. Not only does Suicide Squad pass the Bechdel test, but it shows how women can be just as evil as men, and just as absolutely corrupted by absolute power. Further, the archetypical heroes are rewritten as weak, misguided, and unapologetic in an attempt to make the villains that much more audience-pleasing. This frankly isn’t needed as the Squad has enough going for it, and it’s not a problem limited to just this film, either.

Writer/Director David Ayer’s Midway City is an explosion of neon and heroin dreams. His use of color and contrast separate his DC Universe from previous auteurs (*cough*, Snyder, *cough*) and demonstrates his love of the comic genre. Though tryhard Jared Leto’s Joker only appears on screen sporadically (and far less than you’d think), his presence is nevertheless felt throughout in the color palette and  editing choices. He looms large in the background, a story-thread waiting to be pulled. Similarly, Batman threatens the Squad with ghostly whispers, clearly meant to build a bridge to Justice League, but these moments only remind us of Dawn of Justice’s failure. (Stop trying to Marvel us, DC! You do you.) The end result is a film so dead-set on being edgy and different inevitably leaning on a comfortable three-act structure, with an ending that lurches toward “hopeful;” beneath the makeup and the nihilism, it bleeds traditional narrative blood. That in itself is not a bad thing.

Ultimately, this is no Deadpool — by violence or entertainment standards — but I appreciated it all the same. (On violence: these are bad guys, people are going to die, guns exist, and do not get me started on the MPAA.) I turned off my brain for two hours, but I didn’t feel like I was losing cells just watching it. I had moments where I genuinely connected with these characters, the film’s cinematography is striking, and apart from the overly-expository opening, there is rarely a wasted scene. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that you shouldn’t expect those who are paid to weigh the virtues of art to always agree with you, nor blame them when they don’t. Film criticism, like all criticism, relies in part on subjectivity and gut reaction. So go with YOUR gut, like what YOU like, and give Suicide Squad a chance. I enjoyed my time with it far more than I have for any Thor film. So…there’s that.

Grade: B-

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