Review: Suicide Squad (2016)

Suicide Squad is a failure of execution, not of vision. Its concept is promising. Take a bunch of supervillains, put them together on a Dirty Dozen-style task force, and send them into an urban apocalypse to take down a haywire meta-human. Sounds good. The setup would ideally allow for subversions of the typical heroic conventions of the genre, as well as excuse some of the baser elements, like sex and violence, that lurk beneath nearly every comic book property.

Sadly, similarly to this year’s earlier subversive, bad guy-as-hero film, Deadpool, Suicide Squad’s starring supervillains are only bad guys in word, not deed. They like to talk about how bad they are, but the film never has the courage to show them being bad guys. Director David Ayer even goes out of his way to make them sympathetic, tagging on tragic backstories or noble motivations. In the end, the squad may say they’re bad, and act entertainingly caustic towards each other, but they behave like heroes and fulfill all the functions of a conventional heroic journey. In the end, there’s not much room left for genuine subversion.

The supervillains on the task force are DC B-listers: an assassin, Deadshot (Will Smith); the Joker’s girlfriend, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie); a special forces colonel, Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman); a bank robber, Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney); a human crocodile, Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje); and a fire-starting cholo, El Diablo (Jay Hernandez). There are also some other supervillains and soldiers on the squad, but they don’t matter one whit. (Poor Adam Beach. His Slipknot is introduced while punching a woman in the face and exits the film in an unintentionally-hilarious getaway. What an awful way to treat the great Indigenous actor!)

There’s also the Joker (Jared Leto), who lurks around the edges of the film or pops up in flashback, always acting in relation to Harley. He might as well be a figment of her imagination. And there’s Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, looking vexed), who forms the squad and threatens all the supervillains with instant death if they refuse orders. The first half of the film is devoted to getting the team together. The second half is them carrying out Waller’s mission. That’s it. The film is two acts and a coda. This misshappenness is the film’s major problem.

Suicide Squad is a tonal and structural mess. The introduction overloads on exposition, as if the audience couldn’t be trusted to learn about the characters piecemeal over the course of the film. The film’s tone is all over the place too. Part of this is due to the distracting musical cues on the soundtrack.

Ayer doesn’t know when to let the film carry the mood, choosing to instead pile on famous tunes that overwhelm whatever his scenes are doing. There’s some Rolling Stones here, some Queen-covers there, and a bit of Eminem and Kanye West to round out the genres. Ayer’s intentions are pure—he wants to lean into the bombast of the material, which is as broad and ironic as the songs he uses. But instead of matching the material, the songs steamroll whichever scenes they play over, erasing anything that might distinguish the material. It’s jarring to cut from “Sympathy for the Devil” to a disturbing scene of a father unintentionally holding a gun to his daughter’s head. Tongue-in-cheek and sober don’t belong in the same scene.

Still, there are highlights. Ayer is developing an eye for intriguing images. Whether it’s the Joker laughing on the floor surrounded by a perfect spiral of knifes, or Deadshot walking down a wintery street in a felt cap, he’s getting better at shooting scenes that actually look like comicbook panels. Maybe someday he’ll be as good as Zack Snyder in conjuring genuine tapestries of mythic awe, but he’s not there yet.

The other main highlight is the majority of the cast. Will Smith is very good here. Smith is almost always good, but here he taps into the swaggering charisma that made him a star, with an added touch of the weariness that his age has earned him. He rocks the part, making me wish we’d had gotten a solo Deadshot movie instead of this team film.

Also good: Margot Robbie, even if she’s fighting some misshapen writing that turns her from empowered sex queen in one scene to victim of domestic abuse in the next. This could’ve been a star-making turn if the script had pinned down who Harley Quinn is as a woman, and not just a pin-up. On the flipside of Robbie, Jared Leto is bewildering as the Joker. It’s not that he’s bad: he’s too committed and interesting to watch to be bad. But he’s performing like he’s in a great film, like he’s in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, perhaps, and not a sardonic antihero romp by the guy who wrote Training Day. He miscalculates and misjudges scenes. It’s a bizarre performance and the film would’ve been better suited if it had jettisoned the character as a whole.

Had the script been streamlined and a consistent vision maintained, the film could have been saved. A smaller squad, no Joker, shorter introductions, and a genuine villain instead of Cara Delevingne's bellydancing Enchantress would’ve done wonders to enliven the material. As it remains, Suicide Squad is the DC Extended Universe’s first misstep after two excellent films. It’s a film with intriguing elements and a strong hook, but a rambling execution.

But at least it’s not boring.

5 out of 10

Suicide Squad (2016, USA)

Written and directed by David Ayer; starring Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Cara Delevingne, Ike Barinholtz, Scott Eastwood, David Harbour, Karen Fukuhara, Adam Beach, Common.