Stuck in Backstory, ‘Suicide Squad’ Meanders Toward Aimlessness
About two-thirds of the way through Warner Bros. Pictures’ Suicide Squad, Deadshot (Will Smith) turns to Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and asks of the mindless mayhem, “When does this end?” It’s a question that audiences will be asking, too.
The sheer plotlessness is then interrupted, so the characters can hit the bar—a stiff drink also assuredly on audiences’ minds—and wonder just why they are evil anyway. The question is never answered because the question isn’t deserved, so little does the movie explore thematics or character development. It’s all action and backstory.
How Did We Get Here?
In a Marvel Comics cinematic world, every one of these characters would have already been introduced in another film, paving the way for a successful ensemble act à la The Avengers. But this is DC, which is trying to do in three years what Marvel did in eight. Thus, the first third of Suicide Squad passes in flashback.
The villains are already incarcerated. Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) introduces them while explaining to some governmental officials her plan to create a team of metahumans. The team would save America should a rogue Superman-type attack. When Waller names a character, the camera lingers on him or her while some text appears, listing alias, favorite weapons, trivia: kind of like a baseball card for supervillains. Because the movie has a lot of ground to cover in just over two hours, the text disappears from the screen too quickly to read it all, and the camera moves into flashback.
Even with flashback, good luck understanding any of this without an encyclopedic knowledge of the DC canon. Waller explains Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is the Joker’s psychologist manipulated into his girlfriend, but who is the Joker? He may be one of the most iconic supervillains of all time, but some 11-year-old kid sneaking into this movie would have been three when the Joker last graced the silver screen. He’s not going to know. The question of “Who is the Joker?” takes on meta-implications when one considers how little time Jared Leto gets to flesh out the role. Leto plays him closer to Heath Ledger than Jack Nicholson, but he garners little screen time. His take was growing on me until he seemingly dies mid-movie while attempting to rescue Quinn.
Robbie lends much to Quinn, however. Every second she is on-screen is a delight, whether she’s bashing goons with a baseball bat or cackling while free-falling in a shot-down helicopter. She seamlessly swaps her native Australian accent for a Brooklyn one, and fans will appreciate how she calls the Joker “Puddin’” and “Mr. J.” Of course, she dresses scantily because, even in 2016, it’s not enough to empower a female character … she has to be sexy, too. Her original jester costume appears for only a second during a montage that nods to a famous painting by comic book artist Alex Ross.
Will Smith, for his part, plays Will Smith, but it’s a role he was born to play, and it’s still, 20 years after the first (good) Independence Day, a fun one, like when he calmly negotiates more money out of his employer for an assassination. (“This is the ‘exterminator’ you called for your ‘rat problem,’” he deadpans over the phone.) His role as a parent arguably makes him the most complex character, but the scenes with his young daughter are so fleeting, it’s hard to care.
A Squad in Search of a Story
Waller assembles her team of Quinn, Deadshot, Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Toeing the line is Colonel Flag and Katana (Karen Fukuhara), the latter a swordswoman.
Another of the baddies, Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), is an archaeologist possessed by a witch. She forgets her heart in a cave, presumably the same cave where the studio executives left their brains. Waller pin-pricks the heart like a voodoo doll, coercing Enchantress to be part of this team. Enchantress nonetheless defects, frees her wizard brother, who then shares some of his power, so the pinpricks no longer work. Together, they begin to create a weapon to blow up Earth. None of this is explained as the movie is still introducing characters around the 45-minute mark. One of them is named Slipknot (Adam Beach), whose powers, alas, have nothing to do with creating heavy metal music like the band of the same name. Instead, he ties knots? Or shoots ropes? Whatever, he dies when he tries to escape as Waller has implanted rice-sized explosives into the baddies’ heads should they try to do just that. Thus must the Suicide Squad save the world.
What else? Ben Affleck reprises his role of Batman in some of the most lackluster superhero battles ever choreographed. The Flash appears for, well, a flash. I saw the film in 3D, but aside from a few tendrils projected at me, it lent nothing. The soundtrack, which runs the gamut of Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” fails to buoy the scenes. David Ayer, who wrote 2001’s Training Day, wrote and directed Suicide Squad.
Fans will remember that Harley Quinn made her first appearance not in the comic books but in Batman: The Animated Series, the much lauded ‘90s cartoon pioneered by animator Bruce Timm. Quinn should have been a disaster. Why would the Joker need/want a girlfriend? He’s a psychopath. Yet it worked because Timm and the series’ writers knew something about pacing, a quality which Suicide Squad lacks. We observe the clown couple’s relationship over the course of multiple episodes. We laugh at them and with them, at times even pitying Quinn for her poor taste in boyfriends. Batman: The Animated Series spun-off The New Batman Adventures, Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, and Justice League, among other series and movies. All great, and all worth visiting or revisiting, especially as just one episode of any one of these series is greater than the whole of this cinematic boondoggle.
Photos: Courtesy of Warner Brothers Entertainment and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment.
Christopher Maggio is a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor and loves comic books.