REVIEW: Suicide Squad (2016)

Another DC movie. Another mixed response. Oscar gives us his take on the comic book Dirty Dozen. 

Suicide Squad has always been a wildcard of the DC Extended Universe. After an impressive marketing campaign in recent months, perhaps it was simply fated to be ravaged by critics looking for something much lighter and snazzier akin to Guardians of the Galaxy. I myself was expecting something closer to The Dirty Dozen with supervillains, and that is more or less what I got. But does that equate to a great film? Well, let’s take a look.

In the aftermath of Superman’s death, intelligence operative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) assembles a team of dangerous criminals to be dubbed Taskforce X. The team consists of elite hitman Deadshot (Will Smith); the deranged Harley Quinn (Margo Robbie); pyrokinetic gangster El Diablo (Jay Hernandez); opportunistic thief Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney); reptilian cannibal Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje); and specialised mercenary Slipknot (Adam Beach). They are interned at Belle Reve Penitentiary and placed under the command of Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and Katana (Karen Fukuhara) to be used as disposable assets in high-risk military operations. Each member has a small bomb implanted in his or her neck, designed to detonate should any member mutiny or escape. One of Waller’s intended recruits is Flag’s archaeologist girlfriend, Dr. June Moone (Cara Delevingne), who is possessed by a witch goddess known as “Enchantress” after touching a cursed idol. A supernatural disaster strikes Midway City and a horde of monsters is stalking the evacuated streets, and Taskforce X, whom Deadshot sardonically dubs the “Suicide Squad,” is deployed to investigate and terminate the threat. Meanwhile, Harley’s lover, The Joker (Jared Leto), finds out about her predicament and plans to free her from Waller’s control.

The greatest asset of this film is the main cast. Smith channels his familiar badass charm and attitude whilst still fitting in well with the DC setting. Robbie was perfectly cast as Harley Quinn, capturing the insanity and offbeat deadliness of the character while still having a sense of deranged innocence and the barest of humanity. Courtney was surprisingly funny as Captain Boomerang, bringing a lot of energy and crass wit to the film; it turns out miracles can happen! Hernandez was a surprise as Diablo, who manages to work in a lot of depth and a degree of emotion without as much screentime as Smith or Robbie. For me, Leto’s take on Mr J. hit a lot of the key notes – dark comedy, soft and leery malice, and occasional scenery-chewing. While he’s not in the film a lot, what we did get of him was intriguing enough for me, even if Heath Ledger remains the best overall. Davis was brilliant as the calculating and intimidating Amanda Waller, bringing a commanding presence and a sense of cold authority, being just as brilliantly cast as Robbie.

Unfortunately, the rest don’t get any substantial character development. Adewale is unfortunately forgettable as Killer Croc, and is mostly left in the corner snarling and saying one-liners, which is very disappointing for the character’s first cinematic appearance. Beach was just kind of there as Slipknot. Fukuhara has a good scene that gives emotional weight to what happened to her, but again, there isn’t time for her to show real depth. Kinnaman is a fairly standard straightman figure to the maniacal Squad, but he serves his purpose. Delevingne’s performance was pretty shallow and two-dimensional, and her cool look only goes so far. Scott Eastwood even appears as a Navy Seal who accompanies Flag and the Squad though Midway City, and for a fairly meaningless role, he worked well with the material given to him.

The action is something of a double-edged sword. For the most part, it was competently shot and choreographed, if not exceptional, and there were notable standout scenes such as Deadshot mowing down entire hordes of faceless mooks and Harley gleefully whacking away at bad guys with her bat. The one exception was during the climax when the team prepare for one final attack and the film goes into slow-mo mode, and it goes on for what feels like thirty seconds too long, sapping away the momentum of the scene. Eventually, the deserted city setting does become stale, and the initial excitement of the Squad adapting to their monstrous foes gets boring after a while, and it does fall on the characters to carry the film. While a dark and desaturated look is pretty much wrong for Superman, this time the dark and punk grunge style works a lot better because it suits our main “heroes” strongly. The soundtrack has attracted some mixed opinions as well; while some of the songs did cut into scenes that really didn’t need them, I enjoyed the soundtrack at first. The actual score by Simon Price is decent action music and has its rousing moments.

A mixed case for me is the visual effects; most of them are perfectly functional but the CGI on the demon known as Incubus looks like something out of the phony Gods of Egypt. I realise this is the sort of comic book visual that’s almost impossible to get right on film, but it did not impress me. Some of the bad CG shots are just plain uninspired, such as a helicopter crash that didn’t look like it had any weight behind it. The CG magic shots did look kinda cool and creative, though. The design of Enchantress in her full form is certainly eye-catching, and the effect of Dr. Moone turning into her darker alter-ego was a creative revelation, which I won’t spoil here. On the plus side, the practical material and stuntwork is excellent, especially the prosthetic work on Killer Croc – he looks utterly terrifying, and the film is better for that despite his limited appearance.

What really keeps the film alive is the chemistry between each of the Squad members. Ayer really nailed the scenes between The Joker and Harley, and gave us a tantalising glimpse at the psychotic nature of their relationship. Despite the clichèd nature of it, the integration of Deadshot’s daughter did humanise him and allowed me to be somewhat invested in his mission, largely thanks to Will’s performance rather than the script. Because of this, Deadshot is the most developed of the cast and is the one with the most clear-cut arc, going from selfish assassin for hire to a de facto leader. The best parts of the movie are the scenes where the Squad are allowed to be a dysfunctional team of misfits. My favourite beat in the film involves the rogues simply sitting in a deserted bar having some drinks and sharing some personal conversations. 

We get a couple of Justice League cameos, primarily in Ben Affleck’s Batman, who was responsible for delivering Deadshot and Harley in the first place, as well as Ezra Miller’s Flash appearing in scene to take Captain Boomerang alive with style. Those did get legitimate smiles and chuckles from me. There is certainly the question as to why Waller didn’t just enlist a non-hostile metahuman like The Flash or Batman to fight the threat in Midway City, but it’s more likely a reflection of the desperate climate that Waller would dispatch a collection of super-criminals in the firing line as a last resort. More so since the other meta-humans are still in hiding and not likely to respond kindly to her “persuasion methods.”

The film has a degree of self-awareness regarding its concept of a supervillain team as the main protagonists. Deadshot makes frequent remarks about him and the other Squad members being the “bad guys” and pointing out Waller’s less than virtuous actions to Flag at various points in the film. It’s very on-the-nose, but not in a way that really works. Ironically, Harley’s own brand of insanity is over-the-top and inane but she is also self-aware and sardonic in her madness; a lot of the great jokes came from her.

The first twenty minutes had me worried, because while we were being visually cued in on what these rogues were up to before being captured, a lot of the dialogue was just characters talking about other characters. Simply being told who these Squad members are without allowing us to see them as they are is not good enough. If the film really insisted on having these flashback scenes or giving the Squaddies backstory, then they should have spread their backstories throughout the film, allowing it to flow better. Guardians of the Galaxy did this to great effect, and that is coming from one of the few people who genuinely doesn’t care about that film. In its current format, the first twenty minutes feels like like an awkward TV pilot.

The Joker doesn’t feature very much in the movie, and there is no single standout scene that really makes him come alive in the way previous actors have with the Clown Prince of Crime. Joker is more of a catalyst and a plot device in Harley Quinn’s backstory than a fully-fledged rogue in this outing. Another pitfall of the marketing was the misconception that The Joker would be the main antagonist of the film, as he was featured prominently in the trailers but only has a few scenes in the released cut. Instead, we have a villain whose motivations are not much better than X-Men’s Apocalypse, in that the world is threatened with genocide and/or enslavement and the combatants are pretty much faceless drones made from dead people. There is no sense of moral ambiguity or tension when the Squad go about their business. This trend of underdeveloped villains is something that needs to die very soon or it will continue to hurt the comic book movie genre for the foreseeable future.

Like the theatrical cut of Batman v Superman before it, there is a serious editing issue here. The narrative feels very truncated and stilted. A key example of this is during the first ten minutes when Waller is describing the powers of each of the Taskforce members, and we get to see how Dr. Moone became possessed by the entity Enchantress. Introducing the main foe like this comes off as an afterthought rather than giving us any sense of intrigue or investment, because its sandwiched between the lighter introductory scenes. There is the overwhelming sense that, to have more emphasis on comedy and action, material was cut in a reactionary manner. Word of deleted scenes hinting towards a darker film makes me wonder what that alternate cut is like. The reason why I’m inclined to believe that, even without reading into the finer details, is because there are moments between characters that are supposed to carry some form of emotional resonance for the audience, such as the relationship between Rick Flag and Dr. Moone, but my ability to care was just nonexistent. With all the material filmed for Harley and The Joker, it’s tempting to believe that there’s enough for a full movie there. It should be a known fact that filming or reshooting based on fan reaction is not a good filmmaking practice, and only highlights Warner’s frustrating timidity.

In the end, I would say I’m in two minds about this film. It was a lot of fun for me personally thanks to its charismatic cast, but its construction was very flimsy due to bad editing from studio meddling and a truncated story. Suicide Squad could have been an incredible blast for both fans and critics, but due to the incoherency of the story, it’s tough to really become fully immersed. There’s too much missing and, because there is such tonal unevenness, it gets lost in the shuffle. It is still worth checking out if you are curious and want to see something different from the largely self-serious DC movies. And just like Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice, I believe the extent of the backlash is largely hyperbolic. If there is a superior edit of Suicide Squad out there, I would love to see these actors getting more time to shine.

Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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