Like the mismatched cadre of super villains of the title, writer/director David Ayer’s Suicide Squad is chaotic and frantic and all over the place. At times this fractured nature can be propulsive and even invigorating. Other times—too often—this means the film is a messy jumble, awkwardly paced, and sorely lacks focus or depth. It’s a mess. An occasionally interesting mess, one not entirely without promise, but still a mess.
In the wake of the events of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the burgeoning DC Extended Universe continues to deal with the fallout from the presence of meta-humans, those gifted folks who could do just about anything they damn well please while us run-of-the-mill citizens watch helplessly from the sidelines. Shady government agent/manipulative puppet master Amada Waller (Viola Davis), however, has a plan. She assembles Task Force X, which she calls “very bad people” who she thinks can “do some good.”
In other words, she puts together a team of incarcerated bad guys to run black ops, a team she can throw under the bus, made up of expert marksman and assassin-for-hire Floyd Lawton/Deadshot (Will Smith), Joker’s lunatic main squeeze Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Australian dirt-bag bank robber Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), fire-starting gangbanger El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and Slipknot (Adam Beach), who can climb stuff good, or something. Additionally, special forces super stud Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) leads the crew, ancient mystical being Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) plays a role, and Katana (Karen Fukuhara) rounds out the party. At its core, Suicide Squad is the story of a group of mismatched anti-heroes coming together on their first mission to face a supernatural threat.
If this sounds convoluted and like a lot of ground to cover, it is, and Suicide Squad doesn’t cover it particularly well. So much space and so many opportunities get squandered, and the film kicks off with redundancy. We begin with Waller—in a film full of baddies, she is, of course, the worst of the worst—laying out her plan in the midst of a dimly lit restaurant, touting the various skills and attributes of Deadshot and Harley. It then immediately repeats itself by showing each of them in action, showing the audience what we were just told.
The second approach is so much more effective and illustrates one of the biggest issues in Suicide Squad: it’s never sure how to reveal its story. We’re told just as much as we’re shown, if not more, and it’s repetitive, unnecessary filler. For instance, when Katana first shows up, Flagg informs the Squad that she’s a badass with a sword, a point rendered moot a moment later as we see a flashback of hacking her way through the Yakuza. This is symptomatic of the herky jerky pace and start-and-stop momentum that plagues the picture.
Deadshot and Harley are the centerpieces of Suicide Squad, and rightly so. They’re the most developed characters, the ones with the most backstory, and are the most engaging by miles. Floyd is a little Will Smith charm, a little sadness, and a lot of badass as he tries to reconcile his murderous ways with his love for his daughter, the one good thing in his life.
Harley is already the breakout star of Suicide Squad. A fan favorite to begin with, Robbie plays the former psychiatrist as delightfully unhinged, with a vicious glee in her eye that belies deep, disturbing trauma and brutal origins. It’s with Harley where David Ayer truly strikes the balance the movie is after, squaring off perky fun with underlying visceral darkness. It wavers other places, but is steadiest with her.
This is especially true with Harley’s uncomfortably dysfunctional relationship with Joker (Jared Leto), a subplot that takes up a fair amount of time—in all honesty, Joker could have been trimmed entirely with little impact. Instead of playing foil for the Squad’s mission as he tries to get his girl back, he’s wedged into flashbacks and scenes that have no impact on the larger narrative. More gangster, like his early comic book days, than lone-wolf madman, he’s not Suicide Squad’s antagonist, he’s an incidental side note—not exactly what you want out of the greatest comic book villain of all time.
For all the time taken up by Deadshot and Harley—who are both still incomplete, but the best Suicide Squad has to offer—there is zero space spent on most of the others. Katana has a sword that traps the souls of its victims and a dead husband, and that’s it. Killer Croc is Killer Croc, and that’s about all. I don’t know why Slipknot is in this movie. I’m not even sure Adam Beach has any lines. Captain Boomerang provides a few nice moments of levity, and Jai Courtney has a hell of a good time playing in the mud—this is by far the best use of Jai Courtney ever committed to film—but it never amounts to anything more.
Rick Flag has a half-baked relationship with Dr. June Moone, the human alter-ego of Enchantress. Reminiscent of a big-budget Zuul from Ghostbusters, she spends most of her time gyrating and talking in a deep, computer-muddled voice. After his own trauma, El Diablo aims to keep his skills to himself and repent for past sins. Beyond Deadshot and Harley, he’s the most sympathetic, relatable character, but his generic, “I’ve done bad things,” shtick is tired, underdeveloped, and doesn’t do the character any favors. You may be sensing a theme here.
The whole narrative of Suicide Squad is set up so these broken misfit weirdoes can come together to form a weird, fucked up family. That’s the obvious intention, voiced explicitly a couple of times during the climax in case you weren’t sure, but it’s too shallow to carry the weight it needs. Big emotional payoff moments ring false and hollow because the connection that’s supposed to exist between these character is never established, and the result plays contrived rather than sincere.
Big, bold, Day-Glo grime, Suicide Squad takes great pains to separate itself from the dour, humorless tone Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice takes so much flack for. Packed with on-the-nose musical coding that pulls focus off of the on-screen images, and full of subplots that come and go (Ike Barinholtz’s skeevy prison guard simply evaporates), Suicide Squad could and should be a svelte, streamlined jolt of adrenaline.
This could have been a manic leap for the DCEU, but it’s really just a modest shuffle forward. While there are glimpses and glimmers of what could have been—it definitely loosens up, smashes shit, and has some fun—the finished product suffocates under the operatic scope and isn’t remotely as edgy as it aims to be. Suicide Squad may look like candy, and it’s not entirely sour, but that doesn’t make it sweet. [Grade: C]