When the first trailer for Suicide Squad, DC’s latest film in their planned extended universe of heroes and villains, was released, the tone was decidedly bleak. The depicted band of baddies were glum in their vaguely defined plan and the biggest talking point, predictably, was Jared Leto’s Joker getting ready to torture his psychiatrist turned lover Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). Given the much criticised grim nature of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, director David Ayer’s offering felt like much of the same.
Then the panic set in.
Cut to the next trailer and fun is the name of the game. The tone is more raucous and giddy about the anti-hero exploits, with Bohemian Rhapsody scoring the scenes and underlining just how serious DC are about not taking themselves too seriously. Reshoots took place and the team ensures nervous viewers that they just wanted to bring a bit of action to the show.
Trailer three hammered home the vibrancy and good old fashioned fun on offer – how could a film with Ballroom Blitz not be fun?
I’m reminding you all of this because the marketing of Suicide Squad has fascinated me from the beginning and reveals one of the main reasons the film itself is so frustratingly bad: I’m not sure DC knew what film to make and so it seems they tried to beat them all together. That may literally be the case if the Hollywood Reporter’s piece on the film – which includes talk of reshoots and different cuts of the film, including one by the team who made the trailers – is anything to go by.
Suicide Squad is bad in so many ways it’s almost interesting. Structurally, it’s out of control, like a broken record that skips important parts while repeating others. Deadshot (Will Smith) and Harley are introduced to us first – probably because they’re the most famous actors in the cast – in prison, but then we get another introduction via My Dinner With Amanda (Viola Davis, an actress of such command that she escapes the burning wreck of a film with her dignity intact). Harley gets a flashback or two with her Mista J, but to call either or their characters fleshed out would be a lie. Usually superhero films wait until the 3rd act for their problems: this one starts from the beginning.
The B squad of the team – Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) & Slipknot (Adam Beach, who gets a grand total of about 3 lines) – fare even worse. They never truly gel as a unit, so the moment when they start pulling out the “We’re friends/like family” nonsense, it’s never believable in the way it was with DC’s clear goal, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. The only character with anything remotely resembling a complete arc is Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and that’s one rooted in some questionable racial stereotypes. For a film with as diverse a cast as this in terms of gender and race, seeing the way it constantly returns to misogyny, rape culture and racial stereotyping isn’t exactly surprising but it is supremely disheartening.
A heartfelt scene where Diablo confesses his sins over murdering his family is responded to with an “inspirational” cry to “own it”; Deadshot jokes about punching Harley (something Batman actually does – what a hero) and tells Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman, an actor so devoid of charisma that Jai Courtney can rest easy) to slap his witch-possessed girlfriend in the butt to keep her in line; Katana, Flagg’s bodyguard, is the recipient of multiple “jokey” pick-up lines by Captain Boomerang when she’s not stuck as the silent warrior fighting for honour; a man hugging another man is played for a ‘no homo’ laugh; there’s not one but two scenes of a women being punched for comedic effect (the mostly teen audience at my screening only laughed at one – small graces); and then there’s Harley.
There are great feminist and cultural arguments for and against Harley, the psychiatrist who threw away her life and sanity for The Joker before going solo (and dating Poison Ivy). I’m the right hands, like Amanda Conner’s, she can be hilarious and dangerous but always retain her intelligence, empathy and self-awareness. Here, not only has she been reduced to a Hot Topic branding exercise to be pimped out by her boyfriend, she’s kind of stupid. Sure, she can kick arse and swing a bat, but her scenes as a clear victim of domestic abuse are played with such a straight face that you begin to wonder if Ayer and DC really believe the pair are relationship goals. At one point, Amanda Waller says Harley is just as bad as the Joker, and she clearly isn’t. Margot Robbie, a truly charismatic screen presence, does the best she can, but the more she sank into Kate Beaton’s Strong Female Character trope, the sadder I felt. The booty shorts were the least offensive thing (but seriously, those were ridiculous).
I haven’t mentioned the story yet because I’m honestly struggling to remember it. Waller plans to put together a team of the worst of the worst just in case someone worse than the Superman who decimated cities comes along. Said team was to include the Enchantress, a millennia old spirit currently residing in the body of Dr June Moone (Cara Delevingne, who spends most of the film in body paint doing the Macarena). She goes rogue and now the squad must work to stop the threat that only exists because of Waller’s plan to stop stuff like this happening in the first place!
Peril unfolds because the story forces characters into situations they’re supposed to be smart enough to avoid. Every attempt to increase the stakes only highlights how few there actually are. You don’t care about these characters or their fates: They’re too thinly drawn to make a real impression yet the film is too timid to make them truly dangerous. It’s too self-serious while relying on bad shoehorned in jokes to bring desperately needed levity to the proceedings. Even Will Smith, one of the greatest leading men of this or any generation of film, can only do so much when stuck with a crudely drawn series of tropes passed off as a character (describing a group of innocents being gunned down as ‘gangster’? Really, David Ayer?)
It says a lot about this film that I got almost a thousand words into my review without really focusing on the Joker. Leto is easily the worst incarnation of the character, stuck somewhere between Goodfellas fanboy and the biggest tryhard at the Gathering of the Juggalos, but he’s barely on-screen. We spent months hearing about his super-edgy method acting in order to get into character – which included sending dead pigs to his cast-mates and generally being a sexually harassing creep – and this was the result we got? He’s not especially scary, nor is he charismatic or unnerving. Every tic or growl of his voice feels achingly rehearsed yet lacking on a cohesive vision. You could remove him entirely from the plot and it wouldn’t make a difference. The DC Snyder-verse’s inability to effectively use the incredible arsenal of villains in their canon is perhaps one of their most egregious problems.
Suicide Squad isn’t just bad: It’s maddeningly frustrating in the way it repeatedly stumbles over the most avoidable of problems. The clunky humour, under-developed ensemble, incoherent plot, dishwater-dull visuals and full house of stereotype bingo could so easily have been fixed with a rewrite or two (and a script edit by a woman). This feels less like a movie than it does a series of market research charts clumsily glued onto a leather jacket. You can see the faults a mile away, yet this film barrages right into them with overloud music, a bad quip and an almost pornographic belief that this is as good as it gets. Suicide Squad aims for edgy, adults-only nihilism, but the result is pathetically infantile.