As the lights dimmed in my theater this weekend, I realized that despite the multiple trailers I'd seen, the trailers showcased the premise but nothing about the actual story. I still really didn't have any idea what the main plot of SUICIDE SQUAD was going to be.
Two hours later when the lights came up, I STILL wasn't sure I knew the actual plot.
It is not a good sign that each WB/DC movie gets successively worse in quality. I liked MAN OF STEEL quite a bit, probably more than most. BATMAN V. SUPERMAN was a massive disappointment, one not really reversed by the longer Ultimate Cut, and now arrives SUICIDE SQUAD, which might not be the Worst Superhero Movie Ever (CATWOMAN, STEEL and last year's FANTASTIC 4 all are objectively worse). On the other hand, if you're debating exactly where a particular movie falls on a "worst" list, chances are more than a few things went wrong on the way to release date.
Much has been made about the behind the scenes drama of SUICIDE SQUAD, particularly in articles like this one from The Hollywood Reporter. I don't know how accurate this story and those like it are. I've heard gossip rumblings both ways. Speaking as someone who has worked for companies that have made some real stinkers, I can tell you that with a movie this misguided, there's plenty of blame to go around. The culprit is never JUST studio meddling. The problems start when you develop the script wrong, or you hire the wrong writer, or you put the wrong director at the helm, or the producers don't understand the genre that they're making, or the film is miscast, and so on. You'll usually find bad creative decisions made at multiple levels and they all compound each other.
The strongest stretch of the film is the first twenty minutes or so. Intelligence advisor Amanda Waller, played wonderfully by Viola Davis, foresees that the next war will be fought with metahumans. Her plan is to bring captured criminal assets under the thumb of the U.S. Government, recruiting them for suicide missions in return for leniency. This is actually the fourth live action incarnation of Waller so far (following Smallville, Green Lantern, and Arrow) but Davis is such a cold sociopathic presence that she makes all other contenders irrelevant. There are a lot of questionable decisions in SUICIDE SQUAD, but Davis's casting is one point where writer/director David Ayer nailed the bullseye.
As she assembles her team, we're treated to flashbacks of these criminals' origins. At times, it's a bit choppy, but the sheer entertainment value of the vignettes eases those transitions. Deadshot, played by Will Smith is an early standout. He seems to be played a bit more irreverently than in the comic and Smith seems to be having more fun here than he has in a while. While he's not a metahuman, he IS an expert marksman who never misses his shot.
I'll get to the other members of the team in a minute, but first I want to address a plotting issue. In these sorts of team movies, it helps if everyone has a different skill set or super power, and that each one is essential to the solution. Think of OCEAN'S ELEVEN. You've got the charmer, the tech guy, the bomb expert, and so on. In superhero terms, look at the first X-MEN. It all builds to a climax where every character's power comes into play and is critical to how they work together.
I bring this up because it's a failure of plotting that SUICIDE SQUAD's objective doesn't rely on each character's powers. In fact, for much of the film, the end goal of their mission is only vaguely defined. Let's look at each character and consider the logic of their recruitment.
Deadshot - Okay, having a perfect marksman makes sense. He's in.
Killer Croc - mutant monster who eats people. Okay, muscle makes sense.
El Diablo - Shoots fire from his hands. Definitely some kind of application for that.
Captain Boomerang - Expert thief whose gimmick is boomerangs. Um... really?
Harley Quinn - Homicidal nut case with no super powers and armed with a baseball bat. Okay, Waller is just screwing with us at this point, right?
Harley is at least entertaining, probably the MOST entertaining member of the cast. Half the time you forget Boomerang is there, he's so boring. Margot Robbie, on the other hand, fully commits to the role of the Joker's girlfriend. The character is a bit of an odd fit for this mission, though. There's really no point at all where her recruitment makes sense, and the one instance where she DOES get to do something critical, it's a moment that could have been given to any of the characters.
Because Harley's involved, a subplot is built around the notion of the Joker coming to get her back. I feel very strongly that you could cut every present day scene of the Joker and not impact the plot at all. (My own theory is that Joker's involvment was once limited to flashbacks and at some point in the rewrites, they couldn't resist trying to beef up his role.) The most interesting thing about the Joker in this film is his seduction of Harley, and even that is only shown in fleeting glimpses. It's a waste to having him hanging around outside Harley's origin, and it might have been better to make the mission somehow involve a hunt for the Joker.
And just from an acting standpoint, Jared Leto won't erase anyone's memories of prior Jokers. The script doesn't provide many opportunities for the character's delightful lunacy to pop to the surface and this gangster incarnation had me longing for the days when The Joker was a ghoulish prankster who'd create smiling fish rather than a brutal sadist bent on topping how sick he was.
I'm going to have to wade into spoiler territory to discuss the film's other main villain - The Enchantress. She's a witch several thousand years old who's possessed an archeologist named June Moon. Waller arrogantly believes she's got her under control, but the Enchantress manages to betray her with the help of her brother and then begins building... some kind of machine that will supposedly wipe out humanity. This is the mission the Suicide Squad are assembled for.
Naturally with this being a superhero film, those end-of-the-world stakes are represented by a giant glowing portal in the sky. For everything in the third act to come down to this feels so uninspired. The character beats of the story are fun, but character is totally divorced from plot. I had a lot of problems with Batman v. Superman, but you can't deny that from the first sequence, there is a clear and distinct mission to link character motivation with the core conflict of the story. Even the battle with Doomsday is more motivated in character than SUICIDE SQUAD's climax.
So many beats are mishandled on the way to that climax. There's some business where the team is deceived about who they are sent in to retrieve from the war zone. This reveal is botched, both in when the audience is let in on the twist and then later when the squad members realize they've been duped. I wish to stay out of spoiling too many late-game turns, but Waller's status during the third act is another piece I really don't buy at all. I feel like the film plays it safe.
Speaking of Waller, I was glad to see her amoral attitudes made the transition from the comics mostly unscathed. Whenever she showed up in a storyline, I tended to loathe her, which is the exact correct reaction because she's usually an antagonist to the "good" heroes like Superman and Batman. Davis had so much presense that I found myself thinking, "Oh man, it's gonna be awesome to get her and Affleck in the same scene eventually. Batman facing off against her will be intense."
Well, they take that potential and they throw it away in a credits scene that has Waller and Bruce Wayne face to face. It's a fairly mundane scene too, and it also makes it clear that Waller knows Bruce is Batman, and that Wayne knows she knows. It takes so much potential tension out of that dynamic, robbing JUSTICE LEAGUE of a moment where we could see Waller put it all together, or have Batman realize his secret is compromised. Placed in this context, the moment is completely unearned.
There's so much wasted potential in this film. I want to say that Robbie, Smith and Davis save it, but the truth is that they don't even come close. The plot, the editing, and the whole aesthetic are just too much of a mess. I haven't even gotten into the goofiness of how Katana is said to have a knife that captures the soul of the person she kills, and how the team BARELY reacts to a statement that nutty. (Later she talks to the blade.) Hell, Harley gets more reactions when she pretends to be hearing voices.
And the less said about The Enchantress's pelvic throbbing, the better. It was one of those points where I was physically embarrassed for the actress that this was what 70% of her scenes boiled down to.
When SUICIDE SQUAD was announced, it felt like it was going to be a weird one-off that played as more of a tangent to the DCU. After BvS under-performed, the narrative shifted to how this film would become the one critical to selling the mass audience on the DC filmic universe. Personally, I think the first expectations were more accurate. And if the box office doesn't come out the way WB expects, they'd better hope a lot of viewers see it that way.
This is easily the weakest comic book movie of the year. X-MEN: APOCALYPSE was an uninspired letdown that wasted a lot of talent on a weak script, but even that wasn't as eye-rollingly bad as this film is. This film left me wanting The Joker to get locked up in the DC Vault for a good long time until someone has a story worthy of his involvement.
SS is a dud, but it doesn't necessarily foretell doom for the rest of the franchise. I think this means that WONDER WOMAN probably really is their last chance to right the ship. JUSTICE LEAGUE will still be made, of course, but a botched WW film means a strikeout for WB/DC before JL gets up to the plate.