Suicide Squad is the most frustrating movie I’ve seen in 2016.
For the first 25 minutes or so, there’s a better than average chance you might like Suicide Squad, written and directed by David Ayer (Fury, End of Watch). The film opens with Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller pleading her case to a bureaucrat that, after the death of Superman (the film picks up after Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), extreme measures need to be taken to ensure the safety of the fictional citizens who live in the DC Extended Universe. This extreme measure involves the use of criminals as a motley team of heroes. Everything about this premise, as a movie, sounds fun.
We are then treated to a series of scenes, using flashy graphics, to introduce us to this future team. First up is Deadshot (Will Smith), who is so good with firearms he never misses a shot. After this you’ll probably think, That seems like a pretty “grounded in the real world” talent, I can buy that. When we meet Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), a thief who is good with a boomerang, you’ll think, Okay, that seems like an esoteric talent, but, fine. When we meet the Joker’s girlfriend, Harley Quinn, you will most likely think, Margot Robbie seems to be having the time of her life, this will be fun.
Sure, when we meet Jay Hernenadez’s El Diablo, it’s a bigger stretch because he has the ability to shoot flames from his body. But, hey, this is a superhero movie. And, yes, Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) looks like a human crocodile. But, still, this all works. Every single one of these villains is self-explanatory. And they are all going to be led by a no-nonsense special ops soldier named Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman) whose job is to keep everyone in line. At this point, right now, we’ve got the makeup of a pretty good movie.
Which leads directly in to Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller explaining to a room of government officials, “Oh, and our last member is June Moone. She’s possessed by a 6,000-year-old supernatural witch spirit called Enchantress. But don’t worry; I have her heart in this briefcase, which allows us to control the witch. Look, she’s going to be great. Trust me.” That’s when I started to have that nervous, “Uh oh,” in my head. You know, that feeling when you just know a movie is about to go off the rails.
It was about 20 minutes later I leaned over to a colleague sitting next to me and asked, “Does any of this make sense? I don’t know what’s happening?” And he replied, “None. No sense whatsoever.”
I am going to try my best to explain what happened around that mid-movie moment the best I can. (Please bear with me, there’s a point to all of this.) One night, June Moone (Cara Delevingne) turns into Enchantress and teleports to Midway City. She finds a stranger in a train station bathroom and turns him into her brother. (At no point is it ever mentioned that she has this ability.) In almost the next scene, Rick Flagg and June Moone (they are in love, by the way) are both in Midway City on a mission to destroy Enchantress’ brother with a bomb. Moone becomes Enchantress and double crosses Rick. Amanda Waller starts stabbing Enchantress’ heart, but it doesn’t kill her because Enchantress’ supernatural brother has the power to fix all that. Then, in the very next scene, Rick is back in Louisiana training the Suicide Squad like nothing just happened.
It’s the most baffling thing. Enchantress and her brother then spend the rest of the movie dancing around a train station, building some sort of portal (it’s unclear if the portal does anything except spin in the sky) and turning citizens of Midway City into blob monsters with an end goal of taking over the world. (At least I think that’s the goal; it’s a little unclear because they never really get far from the Midway City train station.) And that becomes the Suicide Squad’s first mission: To rescue an unnamed important person from Enchantress, whom most of them never even got a chance to meet even though she was briefly a team member. (Which all sets up an ending that is remarkably similar to 1984’s Ghostbusters, but not in a particularly good way.)
Okay, I mention all that because it is unbelievable to me not one person involved with this movie at any point said, “You know, we have a pretty good thing going here, but maybe our villain is all a bit much? Does our villain have to be a supernatural dancing witch? How about a Russian terrorist instead? Or, hey, you all realize Joker is in this movie with not a lot to do, right? What if he was the villain? Doesn’t it make more sense for the Joker to be the villain than a dancing CGI witch?”
(I realize Enchantress was a member of Suicide Squad in the comic books. And I realize she often jeopardized missions because she is evil and can’t be controlled. This is one of those things that either needed to be fleshed out over the course of multiple movies or not tried at all. In this movie, it really comes across as, “Hey, here’s this character. And I know this sounds risky, but we can trust her … oops!”)
Oh, yeah… Joker. It now makes sense why Jared Leto spearheaded so many shenanigans on set. If you had as much downtime as he did not being in this movie, you might start sending used condoms to cast members, too. (No, you for sure wouldn’t.) But, yes, if you’ve seen the majority of the publicity material for Suicide Squad, you’ve seen clips from pretty much every scene Joker has in this movie. We meet Joker in flashbacks as we’re introduced to Harley Quinn, then he pops us a couple of times during the movie trying to reunite with Harley. That’s… pretty much it. Again, it’s baffling to me that Joker is in this movie, has so little to do, and is not the villain. It’s hard to even judge Leto as Joker because there’s not quite enough to go on. How is Leto’s Joker as a villain? I have no clue, because in this movie he’s just some dude who wants his girlfriend back.
What’s ultimately frustrating about Suicide Squad is that the cast is terrific. Will Smith is dynamite and feels a lot like the old Will Smith we used to love watching in movies. Again, Margot Robbie is having the time of her life. And here’s a movie that gave Jai Courtney something to do other than be “movie star prototype.” (I’ve always felt Jai Courtney gets a bad rap. I think the problem is no one has ever known what to do with him. Here, he’s really good as Captain Boomerang.)
This is a cast that seems to work well together. That’s not easy to do! Couple that with interesting characters and a concept of a group of “bad guy” teaming up to fight a worse “bad guy,” and there’s really no reason for this not to work. But the story is bad. It’s confusing, poorly edited and just way too over the top and contrived. My goodness, Suicide Squad could have benefited from just a simple, straightforward story. All the ingredients are there, yet our meal is burnt.
(The now infamous reshoots are an obvious issue. Suicide Squad was kind of caught in the middle of the old “no fun” DC and the new “we are now fun” DC. This was a movie filmed under the guise of “no fun,” with reshoots that added “fun.” What we get out of this is kind of what anyone would expect: A movie with a tone that’s kind of all over the place. Oh, and don’t even get me started on the pop music. There’s a way to do it, like Guardians of the Galaxy — and there’s a way to make your movie sound like some sort of old compilation rock CD they used to sell on late night infomercials.)
This is one of the first movies I can remember watching in which I did not like the movie, but I’d look forward to a sequel. Again, these are fun characters. And it’s really hard for characters like this to still “work” in such a misguided story. But they do work, they just need to be in something more focused — something that doesn’t spend a lot of time focused on a dancing CGI witch and her army of blob monsters. (Seriously, the Joker was in this movie with nothing to do! How is that possible?!)
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.