A few years ago, when the craze for superhero films was at its zenith and audiences hadn’t yet begun to feel the fatigue that now plagues the genre, it would have been inconceivable that the same studio behind Nolan’s masterful Dark Knight Trilogy could fumble the launch of a new series so badly. Yet the films of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) have struggled against consistently bad criticism. In its rush to bring its universe to the big screen, Warner Bros/DC seem to have forgotten why these characters are perennially popular.
Suicide Squad represented a chance for redemption. It is a film about the bad guys, the sort of criminals who aren’t bound to the same moral standards as Batman or Superman. Its trailers promised mayhem and comedy, all set against a classic rock soundtrack. It is also the first film in the DCEU not directed by Zack Snyder, whose dark aesthetic and humorless tone set an unfortunate precedent for the series. What could possibly go wrong?
A lot, as it turns out.
Minor spoilers ahead!
The plot is quite simple, allowing the film to focus on its characters. After the events of Batman v Superman, the US government authorises the creation of a team of criminals to be used as disposable soldiers in high-risk combat missions. When one of the potential recruits, Enchantress, turns against everyone and begins to take over Midway City, the Suicide Squad must be deployed to stop her.
I went into this film with admittedly low expectations, which indicates just how much damage DC have done to their own brand. Yet any film would surely be an improvement over BvS. And Suicide Squad is certainly more enjoyable. It is more focused, more coherent. It might not be about the DC heavyweights of Batman or Superman, but director David Ayer clearly understands his characters better than Zack Snyder understood Superman. Unfortunately, it is still mired in problems. It may be the best film in the DCEU so far, but that means very little in terms of quality cinema.
Strong characters and good performances manage to rescue this film from being a complete disaster. Ayers had a tough challenge – the characters are supposed to be criminals, yet the audience needs to sympathise with them in order to connect to the film. As a result, they are not constructed as monstrous villains, but victims of bad circumstances or poor choices. Will Smith is surprisingly strong as Deadshot, eliciting the right amount of sympathy without betraying the character’s criminal background. Margot Robbie brings an appropriate amount of crazy to Harley Quinn, yet her performance is tinged with sad desperation. We feel for her, the victim of a poisonous relationship. Jared Leto’s depiction of the Joker was always going to raise inevitable comparisons to both Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson, but Leto manages to infuse his performance with his own manic psychopathy. And let’s not forget that distinctive laugh. Jay Hernandez is genuinely enjoyable as Diablo, and his character arc is certainly the most interesting to watch (although it is hindered by a terrible structure). The chemistry between these characters is palpable (certainly much more realistic than the “your mother is also named Martha?” cringe moment that forged friendship between Batman and Superman).
Ayers tries to match Zack Snyder’s darkened tone, but a film about morally ambiguous criminals is begging to be lightened by comedy. The trailer for the film certainly promised a lot of fun. Yet when the humour did appear, it was disjointed and jarring, almost as if it had been inserted as an afterthought. (Apparently this may have actually been the case.) It leaves the film feeling uneven in tone, as if Ayers was trying to make one product, but the studio was demanding another. The same could be said for the film’s aesthetic: the neon colours that were flashed around during the advertising for Suicide Squad appear primarily at the beginning, as characters are introduced, but are lost as the movie becomes progressively grittier and self-absorbed.
The soundtrack reflects this unevenness. It contains an excellent selection of songs from the 70s and 80s. The best tunes are reserved for the introduction of the squad at the beginning – the songs are tailored for each character. But the vast majority of the film sticks to a generic superhero-movie score, retreating to the comfort of a darker, more Snyderesque tone (yes, it’s a word now, dammit). The music becomes something of a signalling device: if we here an upbeat rock classic, we know there’s comedy on the way, but if it’s the usual score, we know that we’re supposed to be taking things seriously. It’s like a leitmotif gone wrong.
The first thirty minutes of the film is almost solid exposition, as it tries simultaneously to provide background for the main characters and locate the film within the wider DCEU. We are treated to a fast-paced roll call of the villains, which ends up being the comedic highlight of the entire film. Yet the characters are introduced with such speed that we feel like we should somehow already be familiar with them; DC certainly relies on our pop culture knowledge to help establish their backgrounds. This is particularly true for the Joker. The reason for assembling such a team is mentioned flippantly (in a horrendously obvious voiceover), almost rushing to get it out of the way so that we can focus on the action. The introduction also anchors the film firmly within the DCEU. Batman appears in a few flashbacks, almost solely for the purpose of signalling that Suicide Squad belongs to a larger franchise.
In many ways, it was the plot that was the most alien element in this film. The mission to prevent Enchantress from taking over the world felt like it was better suited to DC heavyweights like Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman. In fact, there’s no clear reason why Batman or Wonder Woman weren’t involved at the end. The Suicide Squad deserved a mission that was much more morally ambiguous, one that reflected their dynamic, a mission that could only be achieved by their unique combination of amorality, depravity, and madness. Something that could only be solved by the bad guys. The fight against Enchantress was a fight against pure evil. It was clear cut. It necessitated heroes, so Suicide Squad became heroes. It betrayed the very nature of their group. I would’ve preferred a mission which would threaten to pull the group apart and set them against each other.
I am already tired of the DCEU films each culminating in a world-ending, apocalyptic threat. The Suicide Squad didn’t need to save the world; they needed a mission that reflected their moral ambiguity. That’s what made Deadpool so enjoyable – his simple story of revenge was suited to his character. It’s also what made Civil War so great – the true threat was friends turning against each other. Suicide Squad missed the opportunity to have a truly unique mission.
There are a few moments in the film that left me scratching my head. The most awkward one was the complete lack of introduction to Slipknot, who suddenly appears alongside the rest of the squad as they begin their mission. His presence is utterly confusing. He’s conspicuous due to his lack of background. Who is this guy? Why is he here? But that’s okay – he’s killed off less than ten minutes later. His whole purpose in the film is to demonstrate that the danger is real. It was laughable. Even one or two minutes of introduction to his character would’ve made his death seem significant and shocking. But no. He’s basically just a beefed-up extra.
Suicide Squad demonstrates that the team at Warner Bros/DC still have a long way to go before their films are hitting the right notes. The studio seems uncertain what they want from their films – are they supposed to grim and gritty, or lighter in tone? Does a shared universe mean that the same tone must prevail over each component of that universe? The whole mess reinforces my belief that the studio doesn’t understand what audiences want from superhero films. Yes, we want plenty of action. But we also want to see these characters be themselves. We want to see them being true to their origins. Superman must save the world. Batman must unleash justice on the criminals of Gotham. And the criminals in the Suicide Squad have to save the day by doing bad things. They’re not heroes. Somehow, by the end of the film, that simple fact had been forgotten.