There should always be a backup plan. If a nuclear missile is misfired it can be aborted. If a soldier goes rogue, there are units to deal with it. Everyone should have a backup plan. No one knows believes that more than Amanda Waller who has made it her career to be prepared for the worst: “What if Superman had decided to fly down, rip off the roof of the Whitehouse?”
Waller’s solution to the metahuman threat is to put together a team of some very bad individuals who she believes can be coerced into action should the worst inevitably come, fighting fire with fire, with the added bonus that all are entirely expendable. Officially listed as Task Force X, the team is better known by a name based on the expected survival rate of its members: the Suicide Squad.
The third film in the DC Extended Universe following on from 2013’s Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice earlier this year, DC are not only still playing catchup with Marvel’s fully established cinematic universe but desperately trying to find a consistent and successful tone for their movies, which makes it an interesting choice to turn so soon to the villains. Reports of a substantial recut following the mixed reception to Batman v Superman gave an indication of some stumbles approaching release and pressure being applied to writer/director David Ayer, no stranger to both urban violence and open warfare after End of Watch and Fury, nor egregious liberties with source material after apologising for the liberties he took with the script for U-571.
Sometimes villains can be those who are most needed, unbound by convention and thinking way outside the box, and from The Dirty Dozen to Despicable Me the concept of bad guys working for the greater good is not new. What the Suicide Squad source material had over similar conceits was that it rarely tried to paint the characters as anything other than exactly what they were. They may have grudgingly operated on the side of the angels but they remained despicable lowlifes who would kill each other without qualms given the slightest chance and smile while doing it, a crucial factor which has been lost in translation to the screen.
As Director Waller introduces her candidates for Task Force X the audience are treated to glimpses of each of the main characters in action with accompanying onscreen character sheets, jokes included for the quick of eye, a pace maintained throughout the film, and while not original it’s an efficient way to introduce the characters. From the start the focus is on Floyd “Deadshot” Lawton (After Earth‘s Will Smith), a million dollar assassin, and the antics of Harleen “Harley Quinn” Quinzel and Joker (Z for Zachariah‘s Margot Robbie and Dallas Buyers Club‘s Jared Leto), their introductions all culminating in their encounters with the Batman, Ben Affleck again looking good in the role.
The backstory of Waylon “Killer Croc” Jones (Thor: The Dark World‘s Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is brief and he is given little to do throughout, though when called upon he is solid, impressive considering the layers of prosthetic he is under; more interesting is the introduction of the powerful pyrokinetic Chato “El Diablo” Santana (The Expanse‘s Jay Hernandez) raising the question of why such a powerful metahuman would allow himself to be detained.
The capture of Digger “Captain Boomerang” Harkness (Terminator Genisys‘ Jai Courtney) by Barry “Flash” Allen (We Need to Talk About Kevin‘s Ezra Miller) seems included only to remind the audience of the forthcoming Justice League film, with Courtney anticipated to reprise his role as the principal villain in The Flash, anticipated to arrive in 2018.
Nominally leading the team is special forces officer Rick Flag (Robocop‘s Joel Kinnaman), manipulated by Waller as much as the maximum security convicts whose sentences she has offered to cut and helplessly in love with archaeologist Doctor June Moone (Pan‘s Cara Delevingne), a relationship which involves much angst and various pain filled expressions as she is possessed by a malevolent ancient entity which manifests as the Enchantress.
With the team approved for deployment they need a mission, and as (bad) luck would have it one presents itself in the form of a demon which has emerged beneath Midway City. With Superman indisposed following the events of Dawn of Justice the government turns to Waller’s Task Force X who are dispatched to Midway City where all that is left is a horde of formerly human creatures which the Squad can shoot with impunity.
Neatly avoiding any squeamishness of the audience seeing an army of actual people being killed by the ostensible heroes of the piece, the squad must fight their way through to rescue a mystery high value target from the clutches of the entirely digital metahuman who looks like it should actually be fighting the Ghostbusters while trying to look cool as they deliver witty one liners.
Man of Steel and Batman v Superman missed the chance to have the contrast of the light that Superman can bring and instead faced criticism for being overly dark and moody. Responding to that DC now seems to have swung the other way, unfortunately in the one film on their immediate roster which would actually have have benefitted from being dark and subversively humorous, yet is hampered by the incompatible desire to play to a broad family audience when Deadpool has shamelessly and unapologetically demonstrated there is a wider market for those who are bold while still remaining within the realm of a 15 certificate.
While the characters are frequently said to be “bad guys” their worst deeds are offscreen (Harley Quinn’s rap sheet culminating in the barely glimpsed “participated in the murder of Robin”), they are instead played as misunderstood, almost loveable rogues seeking redemption. Lacking the courage to actually run with the concept of villains acting villainous, DC has softened the characters to the point where by the end of the film these mass murderers are behaving towards each other as loyal friends.
Emblematic of this is the miscasting of Will Smith, a fundamental compromise from which the film cannot recover. While there is no doubt that he is a fine actor and would be capable of playing the role of Deadshot as conceived, that does not take into account that beyond this immediate role he is a brand name whose ongoing value to the studio apparently outweighs the integrity of the film. Like Tom Cruise, who with the exception of Collateral never plays the villain, Smith personifies family values; simply put, he would never agree to play a character who goes to the Jedi Temple to execute Order 66 on the younglings, yet that is exactly what is called for here.
From his opening scenes, his prison guards brutalise him, those who represent the law shown to be no better than a man who kills for money but whose heart really belongs to his plucky young daughter. The assassination scene which demonstrates his skill, an informer on whom a hit has been called, is shown not to be a terrified witness, an elderly lady who was in the wrong place at the wrong time or a young widow determined to do what is right irregardless of the danger to herself. Instead the target is a pompous Mob insider who eats donuts as he swaggers to the courtroom to give evidence on his former associates, probably in return for immunity, the implication being that he was as bad as the rest of them, so what does his death matter?
Another example of this compromise is the relationship between Harley Quinn and Joker, usually depicted as an abusive relationship between two unstable psychopaths, however Suicide Squad only shows the deeply devoted side of their relationship making it seem DC is repainting them as Gomez and Morticia Addams, their homicidal history just an eccentricity. It is a discredit to the characters and a dangerous glossing over of mental abuse as an appealing romantic ideal, although again there are reports that scenes depicting the more unbalanced side of their relationship were excised to make the tone more palatable.
For her part, Robbie makes a good Harley Quinn and as was always likely to be the case, Harley is the standout character of the shuffled deck. While generally showing the more happy-go-violent side of her personality, there are times when something more emotionally rich is glimpsed, often the scenes where the movie is trying to inject more heart and relying on Robbie to take it there.
Yet even with the cuts, Harley Quinn and Joker are a more convincing couple than Flagg and Doctor Moone whose entire relationship is described rather than depicted and which, considering her alter-ego is a prisoner under his command, is tantamount to professional misconduct and likely grounds for dishonourable discharge; that it is Enchantress who is ultimately responsible for all that occurs in the film does nothing to endear the couple to the audience, and like the Fantastic Four films of both 2005 and 2015 the end result is that the sum total of the story is that the characters are cleaning up a mess of their own making, a somewhat underwhelming dramatic construct.
His comic delivery surprisingly good, Courtney does well with the dubious character of Captain Boomerang, and Hernandez’ Diablo gets more to work with as the film progresses and performs well. As Amanda Waller, Ender’s Game‘s Viola Davis is adequate but is hampered by heavyhanded scenes which demonstrate the character’s harsher side; in one particular instance she is shown as brutally cold but the situation and the justification for her actions seem contrived, and if the intention was to demonstrate that in the right circumstances anyone can behave terribly, thus by extension giving the squad themselves a reciprocal “get out of jail free” card, it is a lazy oversimplification.
The first onscreen Joker since the passing of Heath Ledger, Oscar winner Leto was given a difficult and perhaps cursed, challenge. Ayer and Leto had to distance themselves from that portrayal and do something new to fit into this reconceived and expanded DC universe. The Joker that is portrayed is indeed very different to Ledger’s Dark Knight incarnation, the style seeming to draw more from gangster / drug cartel influences, but it never really hits the mark.
Feeling instead like Leto is trying to outdo Ledger with a slightly different brand of what he believes crazy looks like, at some points it isn’t clear if he had his mouth open to show off the weird teeth or because he believes people look more insane like that, but it just comes across as needlessly over the top, the extra decoration of endless tattoos, gold rings and metal teeth all good hints at what’s wrong with an interpretation and performance which simply amounts to trying too hard.
A mildly entertaining action movie with some fun lines and an undeniably great soundtrack, Suicide Squad is all paint by numbers, and despite the wild colour scheme hinted by the pre-publicity and the opening titles the palette is once again principally shades of dirty grey. Either through a reaction to the responses of their other recent releases or from choosing to play it safe, DC have aimed for the middle ground where lies the limbo of “deeply mediocre” with a precision Deadshot would be proud of.
Given the wealth of the source material, it is a shame that ultimately it comes down to DC and David Ayer failing to produce a movie with a good story or better representations of the characters the audience apparently care for and understand more than those charged with their guardianship. As it is, they have offered a watchable but ultimately forgettable movie.
Suicide Squad is now on general release and also screening in 3D and 3D IMAX