Review: ‘Suicide Squad’ won’t save the world, but it just might save DC

Suicide Squad is not the darkest mainstream superhero comic book movie ever made, nor is it even the darkest live-action film featuring Batman ever made. However, it is gleefully nihilistic, and it takes a different approach to what has become a fairly familiar story form at this point, right at the moment when it feels like superhero movies either have to evolve or die. It is very much a David Ayer film, but he”s playing with some of the biggest icons of the DC universe in a way that no one else has so far in a feature film. It suggests just how much room there is for filmmakers to think outside the box as they bring these characters to life, in part because of the ways it succeeds and because of the ways it fails.

The film is set directly after the events of Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, but all you really need to know about the previous film is that Superman died at the end of it. This is what pushes Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, who is delightfully cruel here) to try something crazy. She decides to put together a strike team headed by Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), made up of metahuman villains who have nothing left to lose. The film”s opening 20 minutes or so is almost entirely made up of introductory sequences for each of the villains (except for one, and I”ll explain what a mistake that is below when we get into more spoilery territory), and it”s some of the most fun stuff in the movie.

We also get to see a few of the big DC superheroes show up, but only as they were seen by the bad guys. There”s something fun about only seeing Batman show up in a story told by Deadshot (Will Smith), or in a revenge fantasy, and I enjoyed seeing Ezra Miller”s version of The Flash show up briefly to hand Boomerang (Jai Courtney) his ass. It”s clear from the build-up that Deadshot and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) are the main characters here, if only for sheer screen time, but I was surprised to see how important Diablo (Jay Hernandez) is to the film overall. Hernandez is largely underrated as an actor, and because he”s covered in tattoos here and unrecognizable, this could turn out to be a breakout performance for him. He vanishes into the character, and in doing so, he makes a vivid impression as someone who knows they”ve done great, unforgivable wrong in their lifetime. He”s determined to live a different life now and not do any more harm to anyone in the world.

Easier said than done, of course, and in the perfect version of the film, we”d see all of the characters genuinely struggling with their nature when offered a chance to do some sort of good in the world. That”s not really what David Ayer had in mind, though. Take his version of Harley Quinn, for example, because she is clearly the character that interested Ayer the most. She”s not really interested in reforming her ways at all, and she is still very much the Joker”s moll, and happily so. Her arc in the film has to do with whether or not she”s going to be reunited with Mr. J (Jared Leto) during her time in the field. The structure of the film has more to do with Escape From New York than The Dirty Dozen, and considering the judgment that was just handed down against Luc Besson for Lockdown, aka Escape From Earth, filmmakers should be careful about lifting that whole “You”ve got an explosive bolt we injected into your neck that we can set off any time you act up” device in the future.

Still, it”s the most logical explanation for how Flag is supposed to exert any control at all over his dangerous charges. In addition to Deadshot and Harley and Diablo and Boomerang, they”ve also got Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), an actual man-eater, and Slipknot (Adam Beach), whose power is apparently that he “can climb anything.” Flag”s got Katana (Karen Fukuhara) watching his back, and she seems fairly dangerous from the start, with a sword that holds the souls of all of the people who have been killed with the blade, but he”s still outnumbered. That constant tension drives the first 2/3 of the film, and in the best moments, it”s that friction between the various characters that makes the film interesting.

There”s no way to avoid some controversy when you”re dealing with Harley Quinn and The Joker onscreen together, and there”s a lot of pent-up expectations for fans of the characters precisely because we”ve never seen Harley as a real human live-action performance. Created originally for Batman: The Animated Series, Harley has evolved a great deal over the last quarter-century, and there”s an argument to be made that over the last decade in particular, she”s become a much richer and more empowered character as she”s taken steps away from simply being part of The Joker”s storyline. That”s not the version that Ayer used, though. He shows us glimpses of Harleen Quinzel when she was still just a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum, slowly but surely falling in love with the Joker and his madness. There are three defining moments for her that are clear examples of the Joker crossing a line into pure abuser, but I can”t get overly outraged about it. He”s The Joker. He”s not remotely meant to be heroic or a role model of any kind. This is not a relationship anyone should emulate, and frankly, I don”t want to see a healthy, loving relationship between two brutally damaged sociopaths. Harley”s choice is made before she suffers a single bit of mistreatment at the Joker”s hands, and she leans into the violence, the horror, and the cruelty. She”s not especially funny in the film, because she always seems like she”s moments away from erupting into random carnage. I would never try to defend her costume in the film as something that is empowering or that is designed to do anything but elicit a sexual response, but the Harley that is presented here is someone who is well aware of the impact she has on a room, and the more skin she shows, the more she knows that the men in that room are sloppy and stupid and paying attention to the wrong things. It's not empowering; it's just power, raw and ugly. There”s a flashback to a crazy night out with the Joker and a guest appearance by Common that is like the worst night out with a couple of swingers you can imagine. These two are both rotten, and even in her few decent and human moments in this film, Harley is still driven by her own compulsive nature. She doesn”t need the Joker around to be a horrible human being, but when the two of them are together, they take it to another level.

The film is fairly simple in terms of story structure. Waller puts the team together just in case. One of the original members of the team is an ancient witch spirit named the Enchantress who has taken up residence in the body of archaeologist June Moon (Cara Delevingne), but the Enchantress has no interest in being controlled by anyone. She finds a way to slip free from Amanda Waller”s grasp, and that means Waller has to activate the rest of the team to effect a rescue of a mysterious asset from deep inside Midway City, where the Enchantress and her ancient spirit brother Incubus (Alain Chanoine) have begun to transform the world.

Oh, yes. Brace yourself. There is indeed a glowing doodad.

I”ve written repeatedly now about how worn out I am by this particular trope, and it seems to be getting even worse in blockbuster movies these days. You know what I”m talking about. The bad guys have a thingy. Doesn”t matter what it does. It glows. It sends up lights into the sky. It opens a portal or it sends out a signal or it changes something. But primarily, it glows. And the heroes have to either turn it off or they have to close it or they have to break it or they have to remove some essential piece, and in order to do that, they have to get to the rooftop. Or the basement. Or the moving car. Or the ancient landmark. It is incredibly familiar, and there”s a mechanical reason for that. It”s a very easy way to scatter the cast, giving them all tasks to accomplish, and then ultimately bringing them together again in the same place where the bad guys are making sure the doodad works. Are you in any way worried that the heroes in these movies aren”t going to accomplish these goals? Sure, the main characters in Suicide Squad are the “bad guys,” but they are the heroes in this particular template, and when you”re making something that is ostensibly designed to subvert the form, then you lapse into formula for the entire third act, it feels a lot less subversive.

So, yeah, I sat through a lot of the third act looking at it as a mechanical necessity. Oh, look, Incubus and Enchantress turn people into weird zombie creatures made of ash that die in a way that is safely PG-13 and that allows the movie to “kill” a lot of enemies without becoming too graphic for the audience that Warner Bros. is hoping to build for their DC Films. Oh, look, everyone gets their character epiphanies at the exact moment they”re supposed to in order to keep the movie rolling forward. It”s basically a checklist example of how these films are supposed to work these days.

But that doesn”t really do justice to the full experience of Suicide Squad, and there is enough that is weird and beautiful and vividly absurd that I am willing to shrug off the familiar and the formula. There”s that ferocious Margot Robbie performance, for one thing, and yes, Jared Leto”s work as The Joker is exciting and interesting. Set aside all the ridiculous stories you heard about how crazy he was on the set, though. They”ve spent the last year building up the hype around this performance, and based on everything they said, it sounds like he should show up covered in freshly-peeled human skin wearing a necklace made of faces. That is absolutely not what they did, though. Instead, it”s a human-looking take on The Joker that leans heavily on a fairly classic interpretation of his behavior. He is driven by one single thing in this film: he wants his girlfriend back, and he doesn”t care who he has to kill to make that happen. He hurts Harley repeatedly, and when things get tough, he takes care of himself first and foremost, and in doing so, he reveals just how incapable The Joker is of anything even slightly resembling love. He doesn”t love Harley. He needs her, though, because she is the perfect frame for the picture that he presents to the world. He needs her because he can”t imagine anyone else having her or keeping her from him, and because no one is allowed to tell him no. He is pure impulse, and seedy, and gross, and Leto seems to be delighted to be playing him. Will he make you forget every other Joker we”ve ever seen on film? Nope. And no one ever will. The Joker is one of those roles now that we”ll see dozens of actors take a shot at, and we”ll see dozens of interpretations, and most of them will fall roughly into line with what we expect, and they”ll be just fine. But when you”ve got Mark Hamill”s hundreds of hours of playing the part or Heath Ledger”s iconic eccentric take or Jack Nicholson”s giant hambone movie star energy or Cesar Romero”s cultured rot, you”ve got so many things that you”re already carrying into any new experience with a new actor playing the part. You can”t erase those. You can only build on them and add to them and try to find new colors in the writing and the performing, and Leto certainly accomplishes that.

Viola Davis lays down an interesting foundation here, and if Amanda Waller”s going to continue to show up in the DC universe in other films, it”ll be interesting to see how they use her. She is not DC's Nick Fury. She”s morally corrupted right away, and her decisions here don”t make her a hero. They don”t make her an authority that anyone should respect. Fear? Absolutely. But respect? No. No way. Will Smith is very good playing a guy who is, at heart, fairly rotten. He wants to be better than he is for the sake of his daughter, but he”s not, not really. Shailyn Pierre-Dixon plays his daughter Zoe, and Will Smith is always good onscreen when he”s got a kid to play off of. When you see them together, you understand why Deadshot is starting to regret his choices. He is who he is, though, and even at the end of the film, he”s not a hero now. That”s important, and it”s part of what I like about what Ayer did. One character has a real transformative experience, but he”s not out to redeem everyone.

The film”s got a rotten elegance thanks to the cinematography by Roman Vasyanov, who also did strong work for Ayer on Fury, his WWII film, and Steven Price does really strong work as a composer here, on par with the things he”s done like Gravity or Attack The Block or The World”s End. There”s a pretty ferocious sense of energy to the film”s first 2/3, and the weirder it gets, the better it is. When it starts to falter into something more conventional, it”s disappointing, but there are some strong choices near the end of the movie that suggest that this larger DC universe could be coming into focus.

There”s one giant misstep that I feel may have been handled better in an earlier cut, and it”s a spoiler, but one that ultimately means nothing. Adam Beach is in all of the key art for the film, and they”ve made sure to have Slipknot present in much of the advertising. Almost as soon as the team hits the street, Slipknot tries to make an escape, and Flag sets off the explosive charge, killing Slipknot instantly. All told, Adam Beach is onscreen for less than eight minutes, and while I like the idea of killing one of the members of the team immediately for effect, they screwed it up by cutting any introduction they shot for him. Everyone else gets a full sequence establishing who they are and what they can do, but not Slipknot. As a result, his death is a non-issue. He”s an extra, instead of being a shocking surprise, and I wonder if that was an edit that happened during post-production or if that was always the way it was designed.

Whatever the case, when Suicide Squad gets it right, I like it a lot, and it gets it right often enough that I like a lot of it. It won”t deliver the decisive knockout blow that ends the DC/Marvel rivalry that the most impassioned fans seem to want, but nothing will. What it does is make a case for how much fun this universe can be when the characters are embraced fully and when a filmmaker seems excited by the opportunities afforded by those characters. Lots of superhero films struggle to make us like their heroes even half as much as we end up liking the villains here, and that alone is a pretty canny trick, one that I suspect audiences will enjoy quite a bit.

Suicide Squad is in theaters everywhere this Friday.