Review: Ayer's 'Suicide Squad' Squanders an Impressive DC Ensemble

August 3, 2016

Suicide Squad

Written and directed by David Ayer (of Fury, End of Watch, Street Kings, and Harsh Times previously), Suicide Squad sounds like it should be a very fun movie. A secret government agency recruits incarcerated super-villains (from DC Comics lore) to carry out high-risk black ops missions in exchange for reduced sentences? It's The Dirty Dozen with Harley Quinn and the Joker and a few other bad guys, what could possibly go wrong? As it turns out, everything. While the premise is intriguing, the movie is unfortunately an incoherent, aggressively dull mess that squanders an impressive ensemble cast of characters.

Based on the DC series by John Ostrander, Suicide Squad begins with Amanda Waller, a ruthless US intelligence officer played by Viola Davis, hand-picking bad guys from the notorious Belle Reve Federal Penitentiary, a facility designed to hold the "worst of the worst." Her team, Task Force X, includes Deadshot (Will Smith), an expert marksman and assassin; Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the Joker's psychotic girlfriend; El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a gang-banger who can summon fire; Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a monstrous human-crocodile hybrid, and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), an Australian bank robber who — you guessed it — throws boomerangs. Plus there's also Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), a 6000-year-old witch controlled by Waller, who carries her heart around in a briefcase.

Leading this team of monsters and maniacs is military man Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and his sidekick Katana (Karen Fukuhara), an expert martial artist who wields a mystical sword capable of trapping the souls of its victims. For their first assignment, the Squad is tasked with a rescue mission, but it's unclear who they're rescuing. When we finally discover who they're risking life and limb for, the reveal is so underwhelming that you wonder why it was a secret in the first place. It's mystery for the sake of mystery, an attempt to add a few twists and turns to an otherwise empty narrative.

The real mission is battling Incubus, an ancient demon who is transforming the citizens of Midway City into an army of generic blob-monsters. Incubus, who is Enchantress' brother, is building some sort of portal to another dimension, because it's mandated by Movie Code 4101-2 that if you're a villain in a superhero movie, your plans for world domination must involve: A) destroying the planet and rebuilding it in your image and B) a big blue beam of light swirling up into the heavens. A movie about super-villains teaming up to take down an even bigger threat should have a great villain at its center. Sadly, Incubus is an uninspired CGI creation that stomps around and offers little to the story. He feels like a relic of the ‘90s, when films like The Shadow and The Phantom actually passed for superhero cinema.

Suicide Squad Review

Then there's the Joker. Jared Leto's interpretation of Gotham's Clown Prince of Crime is by far the worst yet. Since his first appearance in 1940's Batman #1, we've seen countless takes on this iconic character. What's interesting is each unique version, whether it be Cesar Romero's goofy trickster, Jack Nicholson's unhinged artiste, or Heath Ledger's agent of chaos, works within the context of the world they inhabit. Leto's Joker, however, is the equivalent of a painter mixing too many colors. This joker tries to be every version of the character at once, mixing all the greens, reds, whites, and purples until all that's left is a muddy, undesirable (and irritating) shade of brown. What's worse, you could cut the Joker subplot without losing anything. He's a total nonfactor; a gaudy, gold-plated distraction that exists only to bolster Harley Quinn's paper-thin character and set up a bigger role in the upcoming standalone Batman movie.

It's easy to see why Warner Bros thought Suicide Squad would be a hit: it's a darker, grittier Guardians of the Galaxy — minus the endearing characters, emotional storytelling, and freewheeling fun that made James Gunn's Marvel movie such a success. It seems as if the studio's biggest takeaway was, "If we include a lot of popular music, everyone will love it!" Galaxy's soundtrack isn't memorable because it's filled with beloved hits. It's memorable because it's part of the story — a way for us to connect with Peter Quill as a character. It also establishes a playful, tongue-in-cheek tone that places us firmly in one era.

Here, there isn't a tone so much as 15 different tones screaming over each other for dominance. Every time the film loses momentum, which is often, we're rewarded with an on-the-nose needle drop — like some sort of demented jukebox that takes bad ideas instead of quarters. The manipulative Waller is introduced with "Sympathy for the Devil," while Killer Croc is associated with "Fortunate Son," because he's a crocodile and Creedence Clearwater Revival sings about bayous and swamps and stuff. We get a lot of songs that remind us of Galaxy, like "Spirit in the Sky," which was used in that film's trailers and included on the soundtrack, mixed with tracks like Eminem's "Without Me" and The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army," which turn uninteresting scenes into tedious music video montages.

Suicide Squad Review

Suicide Squad is a disaster, but there are a few bright spots. Will Smith is great as Deadshot, and his scene with Ben Affleck's Batman is one of the few moments that actually works. This is the best Smith's been in over a decade. As Harley Quinn, Robbie gives the movie a deranged energy with an electric performance even if the character she's portraying is oversexualized and underdeveloped. I guess the idea is that Harley will eventually become empowered, break away from the Joker, and become something of an antihero. Hopefully, someone will write a better part for her next cinematic outing — something that requires her to be more than just a "crazy bitch" in short shorts afflicted by the male gaze. Rounding out a trio of solid performances is Viola Davis, who plays the film's most complex and sinister character. She believes that what she is doing is right, and it's that conviction that makes her more dangerous than anyone else.

It's too bad these performances — and these iconic characters — are wasted on such a lackluster movie. Whether it's writer-director Ayer's fault, or the studio's fault for changing the tone of the film during reshoots, Suicide Squad is a hodgepodge of half-assed ideas and compromised visions. It's candy-coated camp drenched in faux edginess; it's Hot Topic: The Movie. It wants to be everything to everyone and ends up being nothing to nobody. If there's a silver lining, it's that Ayer's film is slightly less insufferable in comparison to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, simply because there isn't as much of it to endure — it's 20 minutes shorter, thankfully.

In their attempt to catch up to Marvel Studios' mucho-successful cinematic universe, DC Entertainment is 0-3. Just a few years ago, Warner Bros was crushing it with The Dark Knight Trilogy. They threw away the universe Christopher Nolan created for this one, and they've yet to create anything a tenth as potent. Hopefully they'll turn things around with Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman next summer, but even then, will the DC Extended Universe be worth saving? Or, like DC Comics, will Warner Bros be forced to reboot its universe all over again? Only time will tell.

To quote Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," one of the film's many idiosyncratic needle drops, until WB/DC figures out how to make a good superhero movie again, "Nothing really matters…"

Adam's Rating: 1.5 out of 5
Follow Adam on Twitter - @AdamFrazier

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