Suicide Squad

Let's just get this out of the way: Suicide Squad is terrible. Not just a regular sort of terrible, either. This is the sort of uniquely terrible movie that can only happen when an ambitious filmmaker's worst instincts are fused with a big studio's worst post-production tinkering. Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice was a mess, but Zack Snyder's gloomy, overstuffed sequel/reboot/backdoor pilot looks like a masterpiece in contrast to what David Ayer and [long list of Warner Bros. executives] have served up.

The premise seems like a pretty can't miss-idea. The U.S. Government secretly forms a task force comprised of recently-captured supervillains... people who can handle the sort of super-powered threats that might be a little too intense for the military. How does the government keep these dangerous people in line? By planting explosive devices in their necks that can be triggered with the mere push of a button. It's basically a superhero-themed version of The Dirty Dozen with a generous sprinkling of Escape from New York thrown into the mix. Sounds fun, right?

Evidently, someone at the studio felt the original version of the movie (which was reportedly pretty dark and gritty) wasn't quite fun enough, so they decided that the best thing to do would be to plaster the movie with wall-to-wall pop/rock/hip-hop songs. There are two problems with this approach. The first is that the soundtrack gives the film an unmistakable air of desperation, like a politician trying to smile when he's being booed at a rally. The second is that this is quite possibly the most on-the-nose soundtrack of all time. When sinister government intelligence operative (and task force founder) Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, Doubt) turns up, we get “Sympathy for the Devil.” In a scene detailing the history of the mentally damaged Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street), we get “Super Freak.” When the team boards a helicopter, we get “Spirit in the Sky.” Don't even get me started on the flat-out embarrassing use of “Fortunate Son.” The soundtrack is blatantly attempting to mimic the needle-drop whimsy of Guardians of the Galaxy, but that film offered both smarter song choices and had a fun explanation for their presence.

I realize it may seem a little petty to focus on the bad soundtrack (which also includes a Steven Price score that lifts shamelessly from Ramin Djawadi's work on Pacific Rim), but the music is the most striking indicator of Suicide Squad's larger problems: this feels like a film that has been re-cut as a feature-length trailer.

On the surface, the characters are an impressively diverse, potentially interesting bunch. Deadshot (Will Smith, Men in Black), who allegedly never misses a target. Harley Quinn, who's skilled in hand-to-hand combat and has a complicated romantic relationship with the demented Joker (Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club). El Diablo (Jay Hernandez, World Trade Center), who is capable of summoning a serious firestorm. Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje, The Bourne Identity), who has reptilian skin and can navigate a sewer system with ease. Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney, Terminator: Genisys), who has a boomerang. Katana (Karen Fukuhara), who has a katana. Enchantress (Cara Delevingne, Paper Towns), who is an enchantress. Plus, there's Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnemann, Robocop), a distinguished military veteran tasked with keeping the team in line. He's also sleeping with Enchantress, which gives Amanda Waller the leverage she needs to keep Flag in line. Oh! And there's a guy named Slipknot (Adam Beach, Flags of Our Fathers), but (spoiler alert, I guess) he's only around long enough to show the audience how those explosive implants work.

The actors seem to be enjoying themselves (especially Courtney, who is roughly 100 times more appealing here than he's been in anything else), and there are a few mildly amusing character beats littered throughout the film. However, the individual arcs these characters have been given range from generic to awful.

Take Harley Quinn, for example. Her relationship with the Joker is a colorful form of Stockholm Syndrome: she began as his psychiatrist, was seduced by his charming madness and eventually became his lover/sidekick. Both the comics and Batman: The Animated Series (where the character originated) have found thoughtful ways to explore the fundamentally tragic nature of this character and the complexities of her romantic relationship, but the version of the character Suicide Squad presents makes almost no sense: the flashbacks to her past with the Joker are a vague jumble of sadism and possessiveness that do a poor job of satisfactorily explaining how, exactly, Harley became the person she is. Robbie's performance is “good” in the sense that she looks and sounds like the character is supposed to look and sound, but this version of Harley is little more than a fetishized abuse victim (I'll let the thinkpiece factory unpack the pile of “problematic” there).

Leto's Joker, meanwhile, makes me think that I may have been a little too hard on Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor. There are a variety of compelling ways to play this character: Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger and Mark Hamill have given us four wildly different interpretations, and all of them work well. However, Leto's performance – an unfocused, squawky, unpersuasive portrait of lunacy – manages to turn The Clown Prince of Crime into nothing more than an irritating distraction. The Joker is given limited screen time, and you get the impression that every appearance is supposed to inject a burst of wild energy into the film. Instead, the character inspires the opposite effect: we roll our eyes and sigh, “ugh, not this dude again.”

Some of the subplots go for pathos (Deadshot has an eleven-year-old daughter he loves, El Diablo has a tragic past), some go for laughs (Captain Boomerang loves pink unicorns and energy drinks) and some go for badassery (Katana's introductory scene feels like something pulled straight out of a crappy Kill Bill spinoff), but most of the characters end up feeling either poorly-defined (Rick Flag is basically a blank space) or generic (Will Smith may be playing a hardened killer, but he's also playing the same character he plays in every action movie). The best of the bunch is probably Waller - Viola Davis does the “soulless bureaucrat” thing very well – but even she eventually gets wrapped up in some incredibly dumb stuff before the film concludes.

Speaking of incredibly dumb stuff: who came up with the bright idea to have the task force spend most of the movie fighting bland-looking blob creatures? These boring bullet sponges make large chunks of the movie feel like the world's laziest video game. Still, those scenes are better than the inevitably overblown third-act climax: a confusing mess of an action sequence that finds messy CG effects smashing into each other while tediously familiar images of destruction roll by.

Still, Suicide Squad doesn't quite feel like assembly-line product. This is very clearly a David Ayer film, albeit a very bad one. It has the same sort of alpha-male swagger that has defined much of his work, and once again goes for that “THIS IS AN INTENSE PORTRAIT OF THE REAL WORLD” vibe. Unfortunately, within the confines of a PG-13 comic book movie, that vibe feels laughable. The film's stabs at edginess and grit are consistently juvenile: this is the sort of movie that repeatedly tries to wring laughs out of having a character cap off their gruff one-liners with the word “bitch.” Also preventing the film from feeling like a cookie-cutter comic book flick: the steady trickle of misogyny, from the Joker's abuse of Harley to a pretty off-putting bit of too-intimate CPR to multiple jokes involving violence against women (“She had a mouth,” one character explains after punching a woman in the face). It seems a little pointless to complain about such things in a film that embraces murderous supervillains, but it adds to the film's decidedly sour aftertaste.

Can DC pull itself out of this tailspin? I honestly don't know. Their iconic characters certainly deserve better than this. Both Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad feel like movies that began as genuine attempts to make something that felt markedly different from Marvel's slick, upbeat stuff, but were re-shaped to be more Marvel-esque in post-production. I don't know that Suicide Squad would have been good without a bunch of nervous fingers in the pot, but surely it wouldn't have been as wretched as the ugly, misshapen, hollow thing we wound up with.

Suicide Squad

Rating: ½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 130 minutes
Release Year: 2016