Suicide Squad, DC Films’ third live-action feature in the newly established DC Extended Universe, is intended to connect with audiences in a way Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice failed to. Batman V Superman, even months after its release, is still divisive amongst the most diehard comic book readers. Some argue that director Snyder’s visual style was more important than a cohesive narrative, while others say it’s just enough to see Superman and Batman slug it out on the big screen. Due to Batman V Superman’s reception, the underdog ensemble picture Suicide Squad, written and directed by David Ayer (Fury, End of Watch), carries the hopes and dreams of DC fans and WB executives on its shoulders. Unfortunately, what’s advertised as high-octane rock n’ roll is more of an uneven pop song.
In the wake of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, United States intelligence officer Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) requests permission to form a squad of expendable soldiers – titled Task Force X – to be used as a deterrent for the next metahuman attack or alien invasion. Each member of this team is one of the country’s most dangerous criminals and would be granted time off of their sentence for each successful mission. The catch – failure would be met with immediate disavowal and/or death. Nicknamed “The Suicide Squad”, Task Force X is led by Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman) with assassin Deadshot (Will Smith), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Slipknot (Adam Beach), and the Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) rounding out membership. Waller’s team is authorized just as a mystical threat appears in Midway City with a plan to destroy the world.
Any ensemble picture has a difficult task of managing the character arcs of each main character, the arc of the team, and the overall narrative of the team versus the villain. Within the first forty minutes, Ayer sets up the team beautifully by way of Waller introducing each team member. Executed with the same neon flourish of the marketing campaign, the vignettes never feel like wasted time and provide audiences a nice sense of who each character is. There’s a nice rhythm to each mini-story as audiences weave from one character introduction into another. That rock n’ roll rhythm is lost once the whole team is introduced and the shift into the main story begins. At this point, the narrative shifts from an ensemble piece and focuses on Deadshot, Harley Quinn, and Rick Flag, losing the energetic rhythm the film began with in the process. This is likely done to narrow the audience’s field of attention instead of having them track eight characters; however, doing this actually slows down the inherent fun of putting together a group of criminals on a team. With the fun gone, Suicide Squad turns into the same good-guy-fights-mystical-bad-guy plot audiences have seen millions of times. As a comic book fan, I enjoyed seeing each of these comic book villains brought to life on screen, but as a movie-goer, I didn’t care about any of them. I should and so should you.
Some of this failure goes to the disconnect between the type of audience member and that member’s prior knowledge, while the rest goes to the narrative itself. Task Force X is intended to be a strike team that goes where the danger is, yet despite instant approval, it’s not until after the Enchantress turns against Waller that the rest of the team is assembled, tagged, tested, and sent into the target area of Midway City. Why wasn’t the team assembled, tagged, and tested upon approval so that they were ready to go once needed? Additionally, the Enchantress’ plan is to destroy the world, but there is no timeline provided in any form to suggest urgency. If a story is to have any tension whatsoever, it needs some kind of urgency and this comes about in a two-fold problem. One, the Enchantress sets her cataclysmic plan into motion early in the film. The plan itself is vague, though we know it involves a pillar of light and revolving debris. Second, when Task Force X arrives in Midway City, the pillar of light is already visible and that’s not their mission, leaving a pillar of light standing menacingly like a boss fight in the distance. If Task Force X doesn’t see that as a threat, neither does the audience and urgency remains low.
There is an attempt to create drama by introducing The Joker (Jared Leto), but his appearances are few and more off-putting than intimidating. (It’s not just that Leto seems to be play-acting as The Joker, but his version is a gangster with unbridled devotion to Harley. Two things so against character that how it got past Geoff Johns, the head of the DC Extended Universe, is beyond me.) More than anything, the overall narrative provides no reason for the members of Task Force X to coalesce into a squad – not for superficial reasons, not out of urgency, not because the Joker will get in the way, and not even because the world may end. When they do work together they eventually find a rhythm, but there’s no single moment where an audience member will say “yes, this is the Suicide Squad!” Maybe this is by design because it’s a story about villains and villains shouldn’t be able to work together toward a common goal. If they could, there’d be a lot less superheroes. Ok, fine. But the Suicide Squad has been in comics since 1959 and have shown time and again they can work together in order to survive. Where was that team? Heck, where is the team from the trailers?
It’s worth noting that the cast does remarkably well within the framework provided. Davis’ Amanda Waller is perfectly depicted as a no-nonsense, ball-buster who will stare each of the murderous killers she’s assembled in the eyes without budging. Joel Kinnaman’s Rick Flagg mostly serves as your standard soldier, but what moments the actor is afforded to demonstrate depth, Kinnaman sells wonderfully. The character clearly struggles with his role as leader of Task Force X and it’s not until the end that we see how much so. Will Smith’s natural bravado fits nicely within who Floyd Lawton is – an assassin whose love for his daughter trumps all. Margo Robbie faced the biggest task of all as the iconic Harley Quinn, the one-time Arkham Asylum psychiatrist who fell in love with the Joker. Depending on which backstory you go with – the New 52 or the original Batman: The Animated Series – Harley is either chemically-enhanced or naturally gifted, but she is always a force to be reckoned with. Robbie’s performance does the fan-favorite justice as she’s more than capable of holding her own in a fire fight, as well as excellently demonstrating her struggle between what she wants and how she is perceived. Jay Hernandez as El Diablo is likely the only character that has a full narrative arc in the entire film and it should have been the heart of the story. If Task Force X is a means of redemption, a violent crucible, for criminals, then Hernandez’s portrayal of El Diablo is the only one that understood that actions have consequences and it takes courage to atone. Unfortunately, the rest of the team is sidelined, though they are given a few moments throughout the film to provide meaning to their inclusion on the team.
As much as I wanted to enjoy Suicide Squad for its potential, silly antics, and over-the-top action, it’s not even the spectacle promised in the advertising. Its opening salvo is strong, however, like any song, if the lyrics aren’t there it doesn’t matter how great the beat is – there isn’t enough to carry the tune. That, I think, is why these three films rely so heavily on sense memory to fill in the gaps. Unfortunately, even tapping into the power of sense memory is no replacement for narrative. With a tighter narrative and more of a focus on the ensemble, Suicide Squad could’ve been the movie your parents warned you about: sexy, bombastic, and requiring an “Explicit Content” label. Instead, it’s a disposable one-hit-wonder with no legs. If Geoff Johns can find a way to make an entire picture for the DC Extended Universe as good as the trailers, then maybe critics and general audiences alike can finally join together to sing. Until then, this is strike three.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.
- Die-Hard DC Fan Score: 4 out of 5.
- Average Cinema Goer Score: 2.5 out of 5.
If you haven’t watched the DC animated movie Batman: Assault on Arkham, make the time to watch it. It’s cohesive, gives plenty of time for each character to develop, and provides a more linear narrative. Not even the Joker is wasted here.