Suicide Squad is a petty crime. It is a work of stupid badness, clumsy as a graffiti scrawl, and less motivated on a world stage where it hopes to earn $800 million than actual scrawls I’ve seen, on the bottoms of bridges where they expect to earn nothing but contempt. The final heinous step to its crime is that it actually earned those millions, an act that makes me so pessimistic about the state of the art that I would call it diabolical, if I had the slightest inkling that it was terrible on purpose.
But every second of Suicide Squad, every leery, sewer-colored montage, reveals the tugs-of-war with different expectations that ruined its production as clearly as the rings of a tree stump. My only pleasure in having watched it will be the feeling, if I do my job well, that I get to chop down something that was ruining the view.
David Ayer directs procedural military movies with a cocky twist: Denzel Washington unpacking his clean teeth around the word “motherfucker” was an effective avatar for him in Training Day. I would never have expected Ayer to direct Suicide Squad – in concept, a confetti gun of nihilistic urgency and masturbatory fan-fiction – as anything but a procedural military movie. Badgers don’t suddenly learn to bunny-hop. Suicide Squad is a disappointment on every conceivable technical level, but in no way as disappointingly as the fact that it’s a procedural military movie.
“Squad” seems to have been mistaken as literal, as the comics confected an image more of a post-modern rapper squad, a mercenary street band whose music is timed to killing, while the film features these persons and monsters walking in file in military-issue uniforms grumbling about their civil rights. They’re on a mission to rescue someone trapped in a besieged city. Yes, of all things, Suicide Squad aspires to be a remake of Escape from New York. They even have little contingency bombs injected into their necks.
But Escape from New York had post-apocalyptic wrestling matches lit by neon signs and the glints of studded belts, the three best things about it being Kurt Russell burnishing in the foreground and Adrienne Barbeau bouncing in the background. It was self-serious but as a ploy against other serious movies that had no idea how silly they were. Suicide Squad victimizes itself so hard to make us feel the same way that I suspect it of cinematic self-harm.
For the first forty minutes, Suicide Squad grits its crocodile teeth through the obligation of introducing each member of the team in their own separate montage. And it feels like an obligation. They use Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) reading off the villains’ profiles from a case file to disguise the fact that reading a character map is exactly what the script is doing during this section. In a moment of sublime cruelty, a character in Kill Bill Vol. 2 trivialized her rival’s death by reading to him from a notepad the Wikipedia entry for the ailment that was killing him. That was maliciously mundane, rhetoric turned to cruelty by context. Suicide Squad does this because Wikipedia was actually as far as its research went. It accompanies every entry with a new pop song, perhaps as shorthand for the emotions that Ayer and co. are inept at conveying through images alone (Skrillex will play when the party gets started; Queen will play when things get cray-cray). The songs jam up to each other so closely and frequently that they don’t always mark scene changes: you could watch the film muted with Pandora Radio’s Green Day channel on in the background to similar effect.
Did you flinch with a kind of sinking annoyance when you heard absolutely anyone in 2019, much less me, seemingly without irony, pucker their lips around the term “cray-cray?” That’s the feeling I would challenge you to imagine experiencing for two hours and seventeen minutes of pretensions of trendiness watching Suicide Squad. It wants you to think it's hip so hard that it becomes lame in direct proportion to its effort. It's Catwoman-lame.
I imagine even the script of Guardians of the Galaxy at some point amounted to just a profile of all its heroes. But Marvel knew that integrating them in the film was part of the task: taking this information and disseminating it as efficiently as possible over the action. Despite its motivation to do this effectively, even Guardians had a scene in which a prison guard rattles off a blurb for each of the heroes. But not only is this sequence brisk and funny, it is also misinformed – facts in the Guardians’ Wikipedia entries contradict things that we’ve already learned about them through action. Suicide Squad’s alternative is so leaden most of all because it casts the audience in the backseat of its exposition; in Guardians, we remained in critical control, partly through laughter.
Guardians of the Galaxy is more important here than just a comparison of method. Ever since its grand – and more importantly, surprising – success, Guardians has been coloring the tone of these industrial superhero films, like rainbow decals on an iron pipeline. Most notably, Thor: Ragnarok and Deadpool have taken a slice from its economic cream pie and reaped their own box office magic. Though I don’t suppose it’s new information that making people laugh is profitable, DC’s mega-marketers sitting around their boardroom counting their own pulse in this case seemed to obsess over what was trending at the time, and not what they initially set out to do. They are so confused in their pursuit of cinematic success that they actually sabotaged Suicide Squad after it was completed just because in the post-production interval, Marvel had come out with something funny. They ended up with a movie that aspires to be anything, anything in the world, other than a David Ayer film.
I’m talking of course about the millions in reshoots that DC spent to give Suicide Squad a lighter tone, more a match for its silly marketing than the procedural military film they no longer wanted Ayer to make. Suicide Squad ludicrously feels reshot, like scenes are cobbled together in an order in which they were not intended, as though whole chunks of the spine are physically absent (this accounts for why the whole thing slumps). It’s all so messy. The poster is a splat of mistimed color; the film is no less so, but without the color.
There’s a scene where Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) pummels a guy in an elevator and which, despite being one room, is edited to be as spatially confusing as though she was parkouring in a dimly-lit Call of Duty level. Even still, the scene stands out against the fights outside in the grey streets against a tentacled pharaoh monster and his goopy minions. I mean it when I say “dimly-lit.” Some of this movie is just impossible to see. I’ve decided to consider this a mercy.
But I don’t mean it when I call that elevator fight a “scene.” Suicide Squad has only one scene. If I was ranking this film out of ten stars, its scene would be the one star that puts it above all the films with nothing. The scene is that the team of villains, after discovering that death is imminent, ditch the faux-heroism thing and go to a bar. Everyone is more characterized in this scene than in their screwy montages. Killer Croc (Akinnuoye-Agbaje) stares wistfully at a fish tank like he’s a fish who dreamt he was a man and wonders if he still likes it. Deadshot (played by Will Smith, whose power over the quality of his films has become so ineffective that I no longer have to prioritize him in a cast list full of people I’ve never heard of) gives a toast to “honor among thieves," as a reminder that the movie was never conceived as a team of villains, but a team of underappreciated heroes. Captain Boomerang heckles the rest (yes, that’s what he’s called). Jai Courtney trouncing around, laboriously unfunny as ever, is finally not the least funny part of one of his films. El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) grandstands over his glass of water. Katana (who? She didn’t get a montage so I still have no idea who she is) doesn’t do anything to remind me who she’s supposed to be. Quinn emcees the affair as a bartender with a busted lip and world-weary sass. Joel Kinnaman shows up as Rick Flag, the squad babysitter. They don't really care. You'll have trouble trying to.
I mention who is in this film and who they play now because at the bar, the film’s only scene, they play them for the first time. Without it, I would have left the movie as it leaves itself: its own misplaced modifier, full of descriptions that don’t refer to anyone on screen. This is a greater crime than all of Suicide Squad's technical achievements: effects that would not be out of place in a sequel to The Mummy, cinematography as murky and jagged as a pre-production print, screenwriting that handcuffs every single exchange to the nearest possible cliché, editing that breaks the unspoken agreement any movie makes with its audience to not reveal the process of shoots (and reshoots) to the conscious eye. Every cut in Suicide Squad is like a train lurching beneath your feet. And sometimes, it cuts twice a second.
The lack of consistency is unfortunate to these performers; they've all been ground up by this project and none of them really deserved it. Robbie's costume is silly -- her shorts are flossing her buttcheeks more than covering them -- and this creates a pretty gross reality where the characters and the audience are enjoying her body in the context of a story that's at least partly about her toxic relationship with an abuser (though you can never quite decide if she enjoys the attention or was just told to). You get the impression that the movie was marketed with their "mad love" as kind of a high point, like we're supposed to relate to that. This doesn't stop Robbie from doing a good job: she's a spot-on incarnation of Dini's drawing even under all that getup. But it doesn't sit with me right.
And that's true of most of them: Smith serves as the movie's emotional core, and even Courtney throws himself into Captain Boomerang like he absolutely did not in A Good Day to Die Hard or Terminator Genisys. Davis is an intense zookeeper for all these personalities -- though her plot makes no sense (she causes the reason that they need the Squad in the first place?), her eyes have more passion coming out of them than any of the shots have going in. A different filmmaker in another studio could have taken all of them and made a movie worthy of the fun it thinks you're having.
Oh, and Jared Leto plays the Joker, who seems to be the result of someone who grew up on a diet of nothing but Scarface and commercials for Hot Topic. I've always thought that the cinematic Jokers were too much like eccentric gangsters (I'm thinking especially of Nicholson), but Leto and Ayer don't change that. Their only innovation seems to be the assertion that it's spelled, "gangsta." I’m sure you know that he’s not in the movie enough to sell whatever they were going for, but he might be in it enough not to: he’s so aggressively off-putting where I've always imagined Joker more sociopathically suave. This is not someone that a psychoanalyst would fall in love with, in the only film in which that matters. He’s like a cross between Marilyn Manson and no one else.
Apparently, Leto was so invested in his role in this film that he never stopped performing Joker for as long as Suicide Squad was shot (and reshot). At one point, in an ultimate show of performance love, he sent Margot Robbie a box with a live rat, a love letter, and a used condom inside. Too bad DC didn’t think to do that in place of their DVD release. I might’ve given them two stars for bravery.
Image is a screenshot from the film: copyright Warner Bros.
Cast & Crew
|Will Smith||Lawton/ Deadshot|
|Margot Robbie||Harleen Quinzel/ Harley Quinn|
|Joel Kinnaman||Rick Flag|
|Viola Davis||Amanda Waller|
|Jai Courtney||George “Digger” Harkness/ Captain Boomerang|
|Jay Hernandez||Chato Santana/ El Diablo|
|Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje||Waylon Jones/ Killer Croc|
|Cara Delevingne||June Moon/ Enchantress|
|Karen Fukuhara||Tatsu Yamashiro/ Katana|
|Adam Beach||Christopher Weiss/ Slipknot|