(dir. David Ayer)
“You know what they say about the crazy ones...”
In our age of cinematic universes, franchise crossovers, and spin-offs there’s a lot to be said about the stakes of a movie, and the weight we place upon it. These stakes are no longer simply narrative ones, but financial and critical ones as well. For months we’ve heard about how Suicide Squad was not only the film to save a lackluster summer movie season, but also a film positioned to save the still novel DC Expanded Universe (DCEU). Positioned not as a movie, but as a seismic event, Suicide Squad never stood a chance with critics looking to hang the studio’s fiscal goals, their critical reputation, and the state of fandom all upon a single film’s shoulders. In all the ruckus created from elements outside of the film itself, we lost sight of the fact that Suicide Squad is simply a movie, not a Dark Knight or Avengers level event meant to change the superhero film landscape for the next five to ten years. Making a superhero film has become akin to playing a high-stakes round, and while David Ayer may keep a disheveled hand and lose a few chips in the process, Suicide Squad never folds. While Ayer falls short of hitting the jackpot, he manages to stand out from the ever-growing pool of superhero filmmakers and give us a game that never becomes one to bet against.
In the aftermath of the events of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad picks up with government official Amanda Waller (Viola Waller) putting together a task force of expendable supervillains to handle Metahuman threats. The team, consisting of Deadshot (Will Smith), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Slipknot (Adam Beach), Katana (Karen Fukuhara), and Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), is dropped in the midst of a supernatural event at the heart of Midway City where they must battle the forces of the Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), and try to get out alive.
Suicide Squad feels like a David Ayer movie through and through. Despite its blockbuster sized budget and marketing platform, Suicide Squad is, at its heart, a B-level urban action movie with a secondary theme about the painful and pleasurable destruction that results from personal loss. It may feature some of DC Comics most iconic characters (and a handful of misfits) but it fits right in with Ayer’s filmography. Characterization outweighs an admittedly slight story, but given the characters involved it’s hard to find too much fault with that aspect. As far back as Training Day, Ayer’s screenwriting abilities have been defined by moments—specific lines, scenes, and performances that remain highpoints even as the actual A to B story fades from memory or care. Part of Ayer’s success with character comes from his ability to lean into that which is considered visually pleasing and emotionally honest to urban audiences, while welcoming in those who can appreciate the hip-hop grunge of it all while standing just outside of it. Ayer doesn’t simply cast diversely. He gives the film a unique voice that celebrates urban identity to a degree. Suicide Squad may very well be the first hip-hop comic book movie.
Suicide Squad’s cast elevates the whole production with Margot Robbie, Will Smith, and Viola Davis being the obvious standouts. Robbie and Davis both fully inhabit their characters as if they stepped off the page onto the screen, and everything from the way they eat to their stance shows a perfect understanding of character and psychosis that extends beyond what we just see on the screen. Smith adds personality and charisma to a previously stock-character, giving us the “movie-star Will Smith” that’s been missing from the majority of his more recent performances. While the rest of the cast serve more supporting roles they’re each given a moment to shine and a measured level of pathos. Jay Hernandez in particular stands out as El Diablo and delivers one of the film’s highpoints, a dramatic scene right before the film’s action packed final act. So many of these characters would have been generic throwaways in another film, but each member of the cast offers these characters something to make them feel like an indispensable part of the film’s unique identity. The film manages to balance depictions of these characters that feel true to the source material while also allowing their Ayer-isms to create moments of unexpected emotion.
There are few characters as steeped in the unexpected as the Joker, and Jared Leto offers his own unique take that feels familiar, disconcerting, and surprising. While the late Heath Ledger’s Joker is often described as reptilian, Leto’s Joker is feline. He’s cagey, dangerous, and dryly morose. Leto doesn’t just speak his lines he purrs them, while his dead eyes and slow grin hint at both violence and lust. Perhaps more than any incarnation of the character, Leto’s Joker plays into that comic’s idea that the Joker is only playing at being insane and is in fact totally in control of what he’s doing. The film prods at the Joker’s manipulation of Harley Quinn, and obsession for control under the guise of seemingly random chaos, but any real insight into the character is tabled for a better film yet to come. Ultimately the Joker has very little effect on the plot and he’s used in sporadic bursts but never carries the film away with him. In his previous iterations in both Batman and The Dark Knight an oft-repeated complaint was that the Joker’s presence takes away from every other character in the film, making them feel secondary to his all-consuming whirlwind of intrigue. But in Suicide Squad, the Joker feels secondary, perhaps to the point of being extraneous, but given his historical scene presence it’s not surprising that he’s only allowed to nip at the characters in the film instead of biting them full on.
Earlier this year I discussed the comic book movie experimentation at the heart of Batman v Superman. Suicide Squad displays its own willingness to experiment and adhere to the comic book source material, perhaps closer than some would find comfortable. Where Batman v Superman operated under the prestige format graphic novel with its grand themes and weighty desire to understand the roots of these characters, Suicide Squad acts as a collection of issues. Much has been made about the film’s editing and while it certainly has its share of issues in its break from structure, and occasionally logic, there is an actual purpose behind it even though the results are messy and at times tedious. The beginning of the film is where Suicide Squad faces its greatest pacing issues in its aim to introduce each member of the Squad through a series of flashbacks, exposition, and pop-musical cues. As each character is introduced their name and criminal history appears across the screen acting like a cinematic version of DC’s Who’s Who. These character introductions don’t feel much different from the back-up stories or one-shots that comic books often feature as supplements to their main story arc. In fact, DC Comics is currently in the midst of a line-wide reboot and before the start of these new comic stories DC offered a Rebirth issue that re-introduces the characters central to the book and establishes their status quo. The first half hour or so of Suicide Squad functions in the same manner, and while these introductions are both too long and occasionally too broadly sketched they do serve their purpose in introducing audiences to a world for which the entire basis so far has been Batman and Superman. Once that opening chunk of introductory business is over the film settles into itself and both Ayer and the characters are able to let loose. But even then the film never loses its comic book sensibilities with flashbacks coming connected to certain images or lines and shots created to directly echo the work of famed comic book artists (Alex Ross, Lee Bermejo, Eduardo Risso, and Bruce Timm most notably). And as the film careens into its final act it becomes increasingly clear that the story is following that of the most simplistic comic book storylines where a protagonist(s) must confront a massively powered villain with flimsy motivations. Everything from structure, the skimpy outfits, the villain’s motivation, and the timing of set pieces are built on the foundations of comic book basics, not much different at all from the new releases that hit shops every Wednesday. We’ve heard both fans and critics say for years that they wish comic book movies would hew closer to their source material well for better or worse this is it. Suicide Squad is about as close to the average comic book as you can get and that’s a hell of an experience.