Suicide Squad (2016)

I felt like I had some stock in Suicide Squad, the latest in Warner Bros.’ attempts to rival Marvel with their own series of DC Comics adaptation, and the fourth film from writer-director David Ayer. I felt moved to some kind of loyalty to the DC series as it’s been trying to establish a brand of far more cinematic import and gravitas than the sardines-in-a-can aesthetic of the Marvel films, and particularly because Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013) was a genuinely grand synthesis of classical superhero stuff and a more intensive, questioning sensibility. I liked David Ayer’s cop drama End of Watch (2012) and his scuzz-noir neo-western Sabotage (2014). The latter was generally dismissed but I found myself hooked by its intense, often ugly imagery and its spunky characters, particularly its women. Both brands have been, I admit, already shaken by letdowns. Ayer’s war film Fury (2014) was cumulatively trite and self-contradicting, whilst Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) juddered about like a superliner in a storm sea with a broken rudder, impressive but floundering in the competing tides of franchise service and creative wont. Suicide Squad promised, in abstract, a great chance for the Warner/DC imprimatur to kick out the jams and make the kind of rowdy, cyberpunky, ‘80s underground comic book-style movie the house talent pool have clearly been itching to capture on film, a work for all the former and current latchkey kids with a fondness for their mother’s Percodan and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre rather than all the squeaky-clean nerds of the Marvel crowd. A glimpse of the smiley face symbol from Watchmen, filmed by Snyder, in a shop window gives winking acknowledgement to this lineage. 

The Suicide Squad comic book offered a killer premise, proposing that the many supervillains of the DC universe gain employment for dirty government operations when they’ve been captured and sentenced to prison, explaining why they always seem to get loose again to make further mischief for their more consistently heroic nemeses. The stage seems set for a mean and impudent revision of The Dirty Dozen (1967), one of the comic series’ admitted inspirations. And that’s what we get, to some extent, I suppose. Shady government heavy Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), recognising a need for a new form of defence in the wake of Superman’s death, floats an idea to her Washington superiors, to recruit some of the proliferating number of strangely gifted villains filling up high security prisons to be put into action in case any more pesky “meta-humans” start trashing major cities. Waller’s proposed outfit is a gang of motley outcasts and deadly weirdoes. Their ranks are drawn from a broad selection of almost comically low-rent villains turned mangy protagonists, including Aussie thief Digger ‘Captain Boomerang’ Harkness (Jai Courtney), man-beast Waylon ‘Killer Croc’ Jones (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and mercenary Christopher ‘Slipknot’ Weiss (Adam Beach).

The headline acts here, however, are creatures of a more complex stripe. Assassin Floyd ‘Deadshot’ Lawton (Will Smith) has a general contempt for the world but joins the gang in hope of being reunited with his daughter (Shailyn Pierre-Dixon). Pyrokinetic Chato ‘El Diablo’ Santana (Jay Hernandez) is a former gangbanger who used to take pride in his ability to incinerate hordes of enemies, but now is trying to keep his fiery streak under control after accidentally killing his wife in a rage. Lapsed psychiatrist Harleen Quinzel (Margot Robbie), who fell from grace when she fell in love with perennial Batman adversary the Joker (Jared Leto), has remade herself as psychotic gangland moll Harley Quinn, with a taste in clothing that can only be described as commedia dell’arte-goes-roller derby, and a cute way with a Louisville slugger. Dr June Moone (Cara Delevingne) is an archaeologist who has been possessed by an ancient witch spirit called Enchantress. Waller’s choice as team captain, Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), a valiant, straight-arrow Special Forces warrior, has fallen in love with the benighted Moone, an affair that suits Waller as it keeps both of them pacified. For good measure Waller has, more literally, the Enchantress’s heart in a box, retrieved along with other relics from the witch’s tomb. But Enchantress, stirred from dormancy when Waller makes Moone show off what her alter ego can do to a panel of bigwigs, has ideas of her own. She unleashes her brother Incubus, whose spirit is kept in another retrieved relic, helping him take possession of a random stranger on the subway (Alain Chanoine). The supernatural siblings begin constructing a doomsday device to rain death upon the world that refuses to worship her kind any longer, whilst creating an army of petrified henchmen out of luckless captives to fend off the forces hoping to bring the magic siblings down.

Suicide Squad offers relatively fresh angles for the comic book movie, including the chance to embrace a dark, snarky, brashly corrupt worldview, through the eyes of characters usually only presented as foils and grotesques on the margins of other dramas. Ben Affleck’s Batman is glimpsed early on, in the mode of the near-mythic night stalker his prey regard as superstition-worthy persecutor, a way of seeing him that hasn’t really been captured since the opening reels of Tim Burton’s foundation work way back in 1989. At the heart of the tale are three fascinating variations of doomed and tortured love. Harley’s crucifixion on her ardour for a vile and destructive man is part of her identity, but so too is her own desire to understand the lunacy looking into the madness of others stirred in her, a project for which the Joker is in fact only a tool. Moone, by contrast, is desperate to hang on to her own identity, lest the monster peel her from about itself like so much snake skin. When she’s endangered it forces Flag, who loathes the team he’s been given to lord over, to take them all more seriously than he’d like. Flag imports a final team member, a trusty heroine to watch his back, in the form of blade-wielding Japanese assassin Tatsu ‘Katana’ Yamashiro (Karen Fukuhara). She wields a magical sword that entraps the souls of its victims, with the discomforting corollary that her own husband was one of those victims, and so she whispers prayers to her eternally trapped lover in the steel, fighting to avenge him and honour a commitment to justice. Such motifs come roaring out of Germanic and Asian myths and high opera, as well as befitting the DC imprint’s old and hallowed footing in the gothic-romantic sensibility of 1930s Universal horror cinema.

Delevingne’s eye-catching but too-brief inhabitation of Moone captures the quivering, fragile remnant of a confident savant before the strident plot device takes over. Robbie gets far more of the spotlight, inevitably. I dare say a greater part of the appeal of Suicide Squad comes simply from the chance to see Harley Quinn on the big screen at last. Created for the great Batman: The Animated Series of the 1990s, Harley is one of the few authentic archetypes nascent in recent pop culture; a wilfully mad, slavish-by-choice concubine-cum-killer queen. Her romance with the Joker is depicted as full-on Frankensteinian process as the good doctor Quinzen, glimpsed in flashback as a caricature of uptight professional femininity, evolves into a new animal through rape on a gurney, forced electroshock therapy for her half-terrified, half-thrilled edification, and dared leaps into chemical vats for improved complexion. Robbie is assured and highly entertaining in the role. Indeed, all in all she’s easily the best reason to watch this. However ill-served by setting, Harley still wields a peculiar power in her taunting blend of jaunty sociopathy and masochistic affectation, a warring yin and yang in one body, representing an act of therapeutic self-creation stitched together over a howling void where her lost sense of morality and intellect once were. That said, whether because it’s slightly out of Robbie’s reach as a performer or because Ayer gave no space, the fractured and flailing soul beneath isn’t seen glimpsed with enough conviction to give this incarnation the wild grandeur she should have – think of how well Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman succeeded in this.

Leto’s take on the Joker was hyped to ludicrous levels in the film’s pre-release build-up and therefore also became one of the biggest, ripest targets for takedown. I admit though I found it one of the stronger elements on hand. Leto struts into frame with such calculated, iconic presence he changes the gravity flow of the movie, his characterisation referring back to the role’s roots in ‘30s gangster films with his yawing, taunting vocal patterns recalling both James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. Ayer signals he understands this as he lets the Joker wield a Tommy gun and scare the living shit out of victims with sadistic aplomb reminiscent of Scorsese’s more recent derivations of those canonical gangsters. He’s barely in the film, sadly, and when he is Ayer doesn’t always seem to know what to do with him. His great plan to pluck Harley out of the squad (they’ve all been implanted with explosive trackers, a la Escape From New York, 1981) is an anticlimactic bust. Davis repurposes the hard-as-nails glare she mastered on Blackhat (2015) in playing a character supposedly on the side of the angels but entirely willing to embrace fascistic means, glimpsed gunning down her own operatives to cover her ass once her genius plan goes nutzoid. Davis grasps the peculiar charisma inherent in someone entirely lacking scruples in pursuing a given end, but eventually she’s pushed into irrelevance by the storyline. Smith is encaged by his own exceptional stature, as the big star on the roster. He must be given a lion’s share of screen time, play a relatively acceptable antihero, and be saddled with motivation so boring it’s possible to have a microsleep during his scenes with his daughter. Kinnaman’s Flag isn’t any more engaging, in a role that desperately needs some of the badass swagger Lee Marvin brought to his role as lion tamer in The Dirty Dozen. Instead he’s just another ripped, wiry bore. All Smith and Kinnaman accomplish is taking screen time away from the interesting characters.

All this is preamble to stating outright that in spite of its many elements loaded with interest, potential, and talent, Suicide Squad arrives on screen as a serious mess. Sometimes it's compelling, other times tedious in its approach to pop moviemaking. That said, it’s not a calamity of waned inspiration and flaccid box-ticking like this year’s X-Men: Apocalypse was. It is rather a work that has collapsed under the weight of too much baggage and expectation, and imprecise creative objectives. It wants to be a work of gonzo wit and energy, but instead, like a poorly made IED, it only tosses scrap around rather than igniting with the proper, compressed force that makes for a real bang. I liked that the essential premise is also its own plot motive, with the story hinging on Waller’s promise to keep her loonies all on a leash, only then to be forced to take down one of their own who proves too strong to be contained. But Ayer proves susceptible to some of the biggest clichés and constant failings of superhero filmmaking. He sets up his mighty villains, Enchantress and Incubus, with their reality-bending, sorcerous powers, only to quite literally have them stand around for most of the movie, waving their hands in the air and generating spools of greeny-blue digi-light. They build their death machine thing, interchangeable with the one fashioned in X-Men: Apocalypse, and generate one of those sparky, swirly energy vortexes in the sky, as we've seen in about a dozen other recent FX spectacles, including last year’s Fantastic Four. Deadshot’s quip about the “swirling ring of trash in the sky” is just a stab at using lampooning to cover up a total lack of conceptual imagination.

Meanwhile our non-heroes fight their way through streets busy with charcoal-crusted man-monsters, in frames so badly lit and churned with so much unnecessary cutting that at times frames threaten to devolve into abstract impressionism as painted by Wednesday Addams. I’ve seen worse-edited and constructed films than Suicide Squad, but I’m not sure when. Production rumour has it the film was hastily reconstructed to offer a lighter, pithier mood after Dawn of Justice was criticised for its solemnity. I don’t know how true that rumour is, but it might explain the often dizzying messiness of the cutting and scene flow. Suicide Squad feels like a three hour film hacked down to two with little rhyme or reason. Flashing up titles giving essential details and statistics about the various Squad members on screen when they first appear would be a fun touch if, firstly, that wasn’t already a wearisome pseudo-clever canard in recent would-be cult movies, and secondly if the film didn’t then proceed to belabour introducing the characters at length anyway. Music cues are used to delineate the characters and to constantly nudge the audience into thinking this all a really fun ride even as supposed laugh-lines drop like lead. Ike Barinholtz as Griggs, a mean guard in the black site prison where most of the squad are kept, does earn a chuckle with a request to avenge his death and delete his internet browser history. 

Even before the editing gremlins got at it, Suicide Squad surely still had the same flimsy, generic plotting and lack of any place interesting to take its team once assembled, settling instead for having them march about city streets like a pick-up version of The Warriors. Ayer’s visual and authorial sensibility, previously jagged and ornery, has been nudged into mere clumsiness. It is telling, perhaps, that the film's weirder and more serious ideas are far more engaging than the humour. The finale raises an interesting idea, as Enchantress tries to fend off her fellows with fantasies of the lives they really want to live, but then we get another lame-brain tag-team fight. Part of the problem here is one of guiding aesthetic. The comic book superhero story demands filmmaking that can acknowledge and provide room to celebrate the skill set. Much like the director of a musical stepping back to observe rather than manipulate the physical immediacy of the dancer, a director handling this sort of movie must create a cinematic space where the action can unfold. That’s actually where Singer was able to pull just a little fat from the fire with X-Men: Apocalypse, as he depicted multiple characters with radically different powers ganging up on their enemy with a show of visual punch in his climax. Ayer, on the other hand, presents action as maelstrom, a form of pseudo-realism and jazzy elision that is completely out of place here. 

The real disappointment is that throughout Suicide Squad I glimpsed fragments of purpose and power so often, suggesting the film Ayer had in mind, a genuinely vigorous and dusky take on superhero stuff that bleeds out of the darker well-pots of the id. Joker and Harley in a pool of chemical filth laced with surreal colours, rejoicing in their discarded cocoons of humanity. Moone lying in a bath of black water under a pentagram, begging for help, and her transformation scenes that see black fingers sprouting under her own like a lover’s hand taking hers, the devil inside close as a kiss. Moreover, so much detail, some of it wry, some of it gaudy, some of it warped, is hurled at the screen that some sticks. This finally starts to pay off late in the film when the characters get time to interact properly, and locate the peculiar nobility in their various states of interior anarchy, in moments like Katana vowing to bring pride to her husband with wincing, almost operatic emotive intensity before heading off to battle, or Harley advising Chato to “own that shit” when he speaks of his remorse and capacity for inflicting damage. Her own embraced madness and ingrained healer’s art are suggested here to have fused into amoral form of cognitive therapy that holds the will of the self above all other concerns. There are many tantalising ideas like this trying desperately to be born in Suicide Squad. The problem is there’s too many of them, and it has no idea what to run with.

This review was made possible by the invaluable financial aid of The Walt Disney Company and Marvel Studios. Copyright 2016 All Rights Reserved.

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