“If at first you don’t succeed, fail, fail, fail again,” has become an apt description for Warner Bros.’ repeated attempts to duplicate Marvel’s multi-billion dollar exercise in multi-media branding, the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe). Stubbornly clinging to a “grimmer and bleaker is better” credo courtesy of Frank Miller acolyte Zack Snyder (Man of Steel, Sucker Punch, Watchmen, 300), Warner Bros. managed to turned the Big Blue Boy Scout, a.k.a. Superman/Clark Kent, into a monosyllabic, fragile, conflicted brooder and the Caped Crusader, a.k.a. Batman/Bruce Wayne, into an ultra-violent, paranoid, amoral sociopath. Not surprisingly, moviegoers rejected – or to temporarily sidestep hyperbole, yawned indifferently – when Snyder’s bloated, nonsensical Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice arrived in multiplexes just four months ago. By then, however, it was too late for the DC Cinematic Universe (DCCU). With Wonder Woman almost completed and Justice League nearing the mid-point production wise (both are set to be released next year), the DCCU and the Snyderverse have become – for better or for worse – synonymous (the latter more than the former).
NOTE: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS CHARACTER BASED SPOILERS
But Suicide Squad, written and directed by David Ayer (Fury, End of Watch, Sabotage, Training Day), promised more than just Snyder’s minimal involvement. Ayer promised moviegoers and DC Comics readers the “Dirty Dozen with supervillains,” an intriguing promise no doubt, intriguing because for once, we hadn’t seen anything like it before (Guardian of the Galaxy offered something superficially similar, a mix of semi-lovable miscreants and outcasts, petty criminals and minor felons, but not villains, super, meta, or otherwise). Unfortunately, Ayers squanders that promise from the get-go, wheel-spinning his way through 30-40 minutes of character intros via flashbacks and voice over narration offered up by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), a high-ranking, “ends justify the means” bureaucrat behind Task Force X: Round up the “worst of the worst” (or the “best of the worst”), some with super powers (“meta-humans” in the DCCU), some minus super powers of any kind, all with sociopathic tendencies and impulse control problems, and offer them a deal they can’t refuse. That deal? Time off their decades-long and/or life sentences in exchange for their “voluntary” participation in suicide missions against existential threats like a mind-controlled Superman-gone-evil.
Superman (Henry Cavill) doesn’t appear in Suicide Squad (he’s still recuperating from his recent post-death experience), but his onetime nemesis turned ally Batman (Ben Affleck) does, albeit in flashbacks involving Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and Deadshot (Will Smith). She’s certifiable; he’s a mercenary with a never-miss shot. Batman saves Harley Quinn from certain death (drowning) after an extended car chase involving Harley’s stalker-boyfriend-crime boss, the Joker (Jared Leto) while Deadshot, the best dad an eleven-year-old girl could possibly have, surrenders quietly rather than risk lowering his daughter’s opinion. The mercenary-with-a-heart offers a cheap way out. Deadshot might be a merciless hitman, but he has a code. He doesn’t kill women and children, only men. His soft spot for his daughter opens him for a predictable, predictably trite, ultimately unearned redemption arc by the time the end credits eventually cross the screen. The Joker? He just can’t quit Harley, obsessively pursuing her even as the world threatens to implode.
Harley Quinn thankfully doesn’t have a redemption arc of her own. She’s far too gone, lost deep in her dysfunctional, co-dependent (“sick and twisted”) relationship with the Joker, to hit any of the recognizable signposts for character change, but Ayer defines her solely and exclusively as Joker’s girlfriend, the one object of desire he can’t do without. That leaves Harley with little or no agency, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise given Ayer repeatedly revels in overtly sexualizing and objectifying Harley Quinn at every opportunity. Still, Harley Quinn fares better – she gets more than her share of quotable dialogue – than Katana (Karen Fukuhara), Task Force X member and Rick Flag’s (Joel Kinnaman) right-hand woman. Flag nominally leads Task Force X under the command-and-control of Waller. Waller controls Flag through his relationship with June Moone (Cara Delevingne), an archeologist possessed by the Enchantress, a powerful deity/witch with the usual grab bag of powers (e.g., teleportation, telekinesis, mind control).
With the exception of Chato Santana / Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a gangbanger/firestarter – he’s an egregious, cringe-worthy walking, talking Latino stereotype straight out of less enlightened times (i.e., the 1990s) with the only other recognizable character arc (hint: it involves a woefully underdeveloped heel-to-hero turn and the word “family”) – the remaining members of Task Force X, Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), an unintelligible petty thief and expert boomerang thrower (or something), and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a mutant with bad skin, sharp teeth, and cannibalistic tendencies, barely make an impression except for the occasional throwaway one-liner or sight gag. Individually and collectively, though, they make more of an impression than Suicide Squad’s super-villain (minus the “super”). Rather than spoil the identity of the Big Bad/Big Boss or what the Big Bad/Big Boss wants, let’s just say for the record he/she/it could have easily stepped out of the Ghostbusters (reboot or original, take your pick) or the already forgotten Gods of Egypt and no one would have noticed.
Suicide Squad also suffers from an incessantly overbearing, over-obvious soundtrack that underscores key plot points like Amanda Waller’s entrance with the Rolling Stones’ overused “Sympathy for the Devil” or the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” at a key, “let’s meet the team in slo-mo” moment (among far too many others to list here), but it also has one or two redeeming values, namely the cast. That Margot Robbie stands out isn’t a surprise. It has little to do with Harley Quinn’s appearance and everything to do with Robbie’s performance of the mercurial, unstable Quinn. Robbie skirts the line between character and caricature multiple times, but somehow never crosses it. As Deadshot, there’s nothing in Will Smith’s performance we haven’t seen before countless times, but sometimes that’s more than enough, especially in something like Suicide Squad that leans heavily on a relatively talented cast (ex-models still taking acting classes excepted) to fill in character beats otherwise missing from a badly structured, disjointed screenplay struggling under the contradictory demands of contemporary studio-made superhero movies: Introduce little known B- through D-list characters to moviegoers eager to embrace new superheroes, expand or build out a relatively new shared universe, generate multi-media tie-in sales, tell a self-contained one-and-done story, and set-up a sequel or series. Ultimately, though, Suicide Squad collapses under those demands, leaving a few hints and traces behind of the promising superhero entry it could have been.