Suicide Squad comes at a weird time for the DC Movieverse. This spring’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice was viewed by its bankrollers as a total slam-dunk, a blockbuster that would bring two of the most famous and enduring superheroes in comic-book history together on screen for the nerd equivalent of the Thrilla in Manila. But then, audiences saw the film, and once solid ground for WB and DC started to feel a whole lot shakier. Simply put, Batman V Superman made money, but it wasn’t the killer springboard into a Justice League team-up pic that the studio was hoping for, and it wasn’t even the triumphant crowdpleaser execs had taken it for granted to be.
And so it is that all eyes have turned to Suicide Squad, once a somewhat peripheral, lightweight entry in this massive planned universe (after all, how many general moviegoers are familiar with the likes of Captain Boomerang and Deadshot?) that’s suddenly an all-important picture in terms of expanding the franchise’s scope, introducing some of its most notable villains, and winning back audiences turned off by the oppressive darkness (and narrative incoherence) of Batman V Superman.
That’s a lot of weight being hung around the neck of a film that was never intended to carry it and the consequence of that is visible in one key way: namely, that Suicide Squad is a different and in many ways less ambitious movie than the one that’s been advertised into oblivion by WB/DC. This film took on unexpected responsibilities after cameras had finished rolling, and no amount of reshoots could have altered it to the point of being able to handle all of them effectively, much less nimbly, and so the finished product feels (and this isn’t a bad thing) surprising in how its story unfolds and its characters interact (or don’t).
Instead, this Suicide Squad is a lot stranger, smaller, and more streamlined than you might be expecting.
Its strangeness is derived from a script that abruptly dives – and dives deep – into the magical, mystical side of the DC Universe without much explanation or acknowledgement of that side’s inherent weirdness (coming after the gritty realism of BvS, magic as a plot point takes a little getting used to, though none of the characters in the film seem all that fazed by it); much of the film’s strangeness also has to do with an amorphous aesthetic that at times revels in manic, glam-grunge imagery while at others keeps to the straight and narrow, nothing-but-business expediency that all of these movies eventually fall into in bringing their disparate protagonists together in combat against one central antagonist.
Its smallness comes from a story that introduces its villains turned heroes-for-hire, lays out one mission for them, and spends the rest of its length following them as they execute it. Given director David Ayer’s forte for tight, character-driven narratives that don’t spin their wheels, this shouldn’t come as a total surprise, but so much of the dialogue surrounding Suicide Squad has focused on its role in expanding the universe that one could be forgiven for thinking the film does more than it does.
And saying Suicide Squad is streamlined is to say that every scene in the film is doing a lot. There’s precious wasted time in the movie – clocking in at 130 minutes, it uses its time wisely, managing to create three strong dramatic characters out of its cast while finding enough opportunity to play with just about all the rest. It does drag on occasion, delivering mounds of exposition via monologue, flashback, or on-screen profile fact sheet, but the plot itself follows a brisk, linear progression with few diversions.
These three characteristics help to place Suicide Squad apart from and above Batman V Superman, even as they create other issues in terms of plot and pacing for the film as its own entity. This is on display from the get-go – as the film opens, master assassin Deadshot (Will Smith), excitable psychopath Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), scaly Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), deranged Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), and flame-harnessing Diablo (Jay Hernandez) are all locked up behind bars, and the film introduces all of them through a Russian-nesting-doll style process of scenes, with government operative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) reading out of a dossier as the film intercuts the day-to-day miseries of their incarceration.
It’s a brisk, economical way to introduce the characters but one that robs almost of them of any depth or complexity outside their criminal statuses (save Deadshot and Harley Quinn, the two most pivotal and prioritized characters in the film – and for good reason, given how great Smith and Robbie are at making their comic-book-sized dispositions and skillsets feel grounded).
Soon enough, the main thrust of the pic kicks in. Waller, playing a long game that will probably become apparent five or six films down the line, assembles the Suicide Squad under the hardened, watchful eye of Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and tasks them with saving Midway City from the vaguely evil machinations of the Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), an ancient being who has possessed the body of a young archaeologist and has a bone to pick with essentially all humankind. And from there (avoiding spoilers) the film largely follows the path most traveled by, pitting the Squad up against a seemingly endless army of the Enchantress’ minions as they try to fight their way to her and prevent what could be the end of the world – while also encountering a tattooed, menacing Joker (Jared Leto, in a small but impressively committed performance) who’s bent on retrieving his Harley.
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Ayer directs this formulaic and largely predictable story with a commitment to lean, unflinching stagecraft, which means Suicide Squad gets in a few hard-hitting action sequences (a standout finds Deadshot laying waste to an entire wave of invaders single-handedly, with impeccable aim and the kind of cooler-than-thou reserve that this film clearly wishes it had more of) before its big finale descends into CGI nonsense. And the well-dispersed strength of the cast largely carries the film through its shakier moments, though it’s disappointing that characters like Boomerang and Croc are largely resigned to comic-relief and mute-muscle roles, respectively.
What makes Suicide Squad just about work in the end, over the somewhat tremulous infusion of magic into what’s otherwise a grimy and very of-the-moment corner of the DC Movieverse and over pacing and script problems that leave a few characters with no semblance of personality and render some key plot points later in the film questionable at best, is its character-driven storytelling.
Much of this is likely thanks to Ayer, who has a proven penchant for drawing natural interactions and deep emotion out of his actors, but a lot of it has to do with the very correct, top-down approach to this project in conceiving it as the story of a motley crew of genuinely bad people drawing together to do some good. There’s power in that dynamic, and a real potency to the characters that was entirely lacking in Batman V Superman due to its crippling misinterpretation of both those characters.
Suicide Squad above all else gets its heroes. It gets Deadshot and Harley Quinn, and it understands the kind of despondency, survivalist instinct, quiet cunning, and hard-worn necessity that both of those characters as well as their teammates bring into their work with Waller’s forced initiative. It gets that the nihilism of many aspects of the universe Batman V Superman established can still hang over the proceedings of other movies within it without suffocating them – and that the government responsible for forming the Suicide Squad is in many ways the unsung villain of not just this film but potentially a great many in the Movieverse. And it gets that it’s less difficult than many at the project’s outset made it seem to craft villains that audiences already accustomed to a widespread darkening of their heroes can identify with and cheer for as enthusiastically as they normally would the heroes endeavoring to hunt them down. That’s a victory that DC and WB should tout and take full advantage of – and one that seems to indicate a surprisingly bright future for a Movieverse hitherto committed to prevailing darkness.
Haphazardly paced and generically plotted, Suicide Squad benefits immensely from the winning presence of Will Smith's Deadshot and Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn, two thrilling and tremendously well-crafted villains who are easier to root for than anyone in this year's other DC entry.