The Justice League.
Sometimes, situations get so bad that it takes more than one superhero to deal with them. And then there are times when the government is desperate enough to employ the very villains the heroes fought and caught in the first place—justified, of course, by “regulating” them. This is the premise of “Suicide Squad,” the DC film universe equivalent to “The Dirty Dozen.” It made a big impression at the box office, remaining at the top spot after over three weeks. Superman is declared dead. Aliens are now the new national security threat. Intelligence officer Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) is determined to counter that threat by any means necessary—even enlisting the help of an archaeologist possessed by Enchantress, a demonic spirit from Mesoamerica. Waller approaches the Department of Defense with a bold proposal: “I want to build a team of some very dangerous people, who I think can do some good.”
It so happens that those “dangerous people” are inmates held in a black site in Louisiana. Why does she think prisoners will cooperate for elite combat operations? “Because getting people to act against their own self-interest for the national security of the United States is what I do for a living.” What could go wrong? Waller’s pet demon slipping the leash, for starters.
Less Machine, More Magic
“Suicide Squad” is more fantasy-heavy than most recent comic book movies, which tend to lean more towards science fiction. There’s even a magic sword involved!
Anyone who’s read the comics or played the Arkham video game series knows DC’s scope for rich atmosphere, and Suicide Squad lays it on thick. Enchantress turns an entire subway station into a chthonic temple saturated in otherworldly green hues. Midway City is a post-apocalyptic wasteland infested with Enchantress’ army of nightmare creatures (where are Hawkman and Hawkgirl when they’re needed!?). The Joker and Harley Quinn flashbacks are surreal trips through pulp-fiction nightclubs, colorful car chases, and even a live-action shot right out of an actual comic book cover. A soundtrack of classic rock hits and hip-hop effectively sets the tone for a movie that is as gritty as it is blithe; whimsical graffiti of guns and flowers periodically flashed on the screen with neon dazzle reinforces the tongue already planted firmly in the cheek.
From a purely writing standpoint, the script is a real mess. The story somehow works only because certain characters’ statuses as cultural icons patch up flaws that would otherwise have sank deep into an Ace Chemicals vat. For example, the subplot between the Joker and Harley Quinn—among the best in the whole movie—has little to do with the main plot, yet the origin story of Joker and Harley’s relationship is so true to the comic lore that it actually enhances the film. The climax feels a bit sloppy, going through the motions to have a mythic showdown with lots of special effects drawn-out comic book violence. The scene isn’t without its breathtaking moments, but the end result is an only average battle scene with missed opportunities.
A DC Rogue’s Gallery
“Suicide Squad” may have plotting issues, but it does feature demonstrated character development and expands DC’s cinematic universe.
It’s hard to believe that Margot Robbie played the prim but free-spirited Jane in last month’s “Tarzan” movie when seeing her performance in “Suicide Squad.” She’s barely recognizable as she becomes Harley-Quinn (and she’s obviously having loads of fun doing it).
Jared Leto doesn’t get much screen time as the Joker, but when he does, he instantly steals the scene. His character’s look was a bold risk in combining the maître d’ suits of classic gangsters with the grungy tattoos of the urban “gangsta,” but it blends well with the rest of the movie’s visual presentation. Leto’s voice hints inspiration from Heath Ledger’s take on the character, but his personality is more of a balance between Ledger’s realistic terrorist and Jack Nicholson’s loony mob boss.
Joel Kinnaman is convincing as Rick Flag, an all-around G.I. Joe handed the unenviable task of leading the Suicide Squad while also keeping them in check during a special operation. In the midst of a pack of crazies, Flag keeps the action grounded with his discipline and commitment to seeing the mission objectives completed even when the odds are stacked against him.
Katana (Karen Fukuhara) is the fierce vigilante assigned to assist Flag in maintaining discipline in the ranks of the dishonorable. She lurks in the background for most of her scenes, but Fukuhara makes her presence felt with suitable menace for a brooding assassin driven by grief.
Flag may be the official leader of the pack, but Deadshot (Will Smith) is the one with the influence among his fellow felons. An assassin with a thief’s code of honor, Deadshot’s driving motivation is to regain the respect of his daughter. Deadshot has the most inner conflict in the group, and he often finds himself in situations torn between his natural distrust of Flag and doing what it takes to keep the squad alive. His affection for his daughter ties in nicely with fellow squad member Diablo (Jay Hernandez), who has his own family regrets.
Other members of the Suicide Squad feel like tag-alongs without much to do. Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) delivers humor while simultaneously having nothing useful to do. This is a missed opportunity—Courtney played memorable bad guys in “Jack Reacher” and the first two “Divergent” movies, and he has enough theatrical presence in “Suicide Squad” to do more with his character if only the scriptwriters gave him a chance. Instead, he’s really just an obnoxious bystander constantly plotting his escape from the situation.
Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is an extremely dangerous DC villain who has some battle moments and jokes to crack but is left in the background for most of the movie.
In other words, some characters just exist for decoration and fan-pleasing.
The Superhero Movie Identity Crisis
There are other more foundational problems with “Suicide Squad.” There is a shocking amount of profanity crammed into this supposedly PG-13 film that really should have gotten an R-rating for that content alone. There is also a lot of sleaze to go around, from Flag’s sexually active relationship with his girlfriend to exploitative scenes where Harley-Quinn is scantily-clad in a cage or on the receiving-end of abuse by guards or the Joker. Perhaps that is expected of a gritty movie about criminals, but the content in “Suicide Squad” is a case in point for a growing trend where current comic book movies test the boundaries of what is acceptable with modern audiences, and it’s not even subtle. As superheroes themselves become more and more edgy, the differences between the actual heroes and the criminals in the Suicide Squad becomes blurred.
There are times where “Suicide Squad” entertains, and there are times where the story struggles to get its footing. The plot problems can be overlooked in light of some of the film’s characters. There are even some great cameos of popular DC heroes and setup in preparation for the upcoming Justice League movie.
The movie’s biggest shortcomings are its morals. Smut and language content can be patched up by waiting to stream the movie on VidAngel, but there are some deeper problems to consider, as well.
In a year when the R-ratings of “Deadpool” and “The Killing Joke,” are celebrated, “Suicide Squad” continues to lower the standards of what it means to be a hero. As superheroes themselves become more and more edgy from “Deadpool” to “Batman V. Superman,” the differences between the actual heroes and the criminals in the Suicide Squad becomes blurred. The squad’s government supervisors often show themselves to be just as corrupt and morally reprehensible as the supervillains they put away. This can lead to an interesting discussion on whether the ends justify the means of ensuring national security, but the movie leaves the viewer without a true hero to root for (save a few cameos of Batman and the Flash). Even Flag stands by and does nothing while one of his superiors commits a highly illegal act (which subsequently is admired by the stunned criminals he leads). The abusive nature of the relationship between the Joker and Harley-Quinn, while present, is downplayed, and a psychotic serial killer like the Joker himself comes off as a swashbuckling hero swooping in with dashing pinache to rescue his Queen of Crime.
To the film’s credit, however, the government’s experiment of using villains to save the day is shown to come with a lot of baggage at the same time that it builds audience sympathy with people who have every reason to be kept off the streets. Bruce Wayne himself advises Waller to shut the project down.
Maybe the filmmakers should’ve taken his advice.