Review: Suicide Squad Is Almost So Bad It’s Good… But It’s Mostly Bad
1 out of 5 stars.
Unless you’ve been away from the internet all week, you already know that Suicide Squad has been getting lackluster reviews across the board, and mine will be no exception. But here’s the surprising part: you might still actually enjoy this movie. Well… only if you go with the intent of mocking it. That counts as “enjoyment,” though, right?
Now, Suicide Squad is a steaming hunk of disorganized, colorful trash slathered in embossed fonts and spray paint. It’s so disappointing that it’s kind of impressive; there’s a wealth of missed opportunities, whiffed almost-jokes, and half-baked ideas on display here. But, in terms of dumpster fire standards, Suicide Squad might just be a contender for the rare “so bad it’s good” category. Strap in, and let me tell you about its many, many silly problems.
Every character in the titular squad gets introduced with a profile page that looks like a MySpace throwback, complete with black background, neon colors, a too-loud soundtrack, and wacky fonts. There’s so much text in this movie, and so many pop songs. Suicide Squad wants you to remember the stuff you like, which is fonts, obviously, but also “Sympathy for the Devil.”
Remember those fun trailers for Suicide Squad? The “Bohemian Rhapsody” trailer, for example, is a beautifully-edited masterpiece that earned plenty of well-deserved compliments at the time. One of the follow-up trailers, featuring the song “You Don’t Own Me,” was enough to inspire one of our contributors to write a piece about the feminist history of that song. The good news: “You Don’t Own Me” does appear in the movie, along with all those other pop songs that showed up in the trailers. The bad news? The movie Suicide Squad has precisely as much depth and nuance and character development as those trailers, except that it somehow lasts for two hours and ten minutes.
Much like the trailers, Suicide Squad mixes its soundtrack up to eleven in the hopes that your love of the pop songs on display will overpower your realization that very little is actually happening, and that what little does happen, doesn’t make much sense. The soundtrack, by the way, sounds a lot like the mix CDs that I made for myself in high school; as a kid who grew up shopping at Hot Topic and posturing about how “edgy” I was, I could totally tell that I was being catered to here. There really needed to be something deeper underneath all of those neon fonts and pop-rock classics, but much like me back in high school, Suicide Squad just doesn’t stand for anything.
Ensemble superhero action comedies are difficult to do. Sometimes, we end up with fun, turn-your-brain-off romps like Guardians of the Galaxy or the first Avengers movie. But sometimes, we get an overstuffed mishmash like X-Men: Apocalypse and, now, Suicide Squad.
Suicide Squad has a lot in common with fellow summer clunker X-Men: Apocalypse, but none of the good parts. Both movies revolve around a thinly developed villain from ancient times. In X-Men, that’s Oscar Isaac’s Apocalypse, who once got worshipped as a god in ancient Egypt, then gets revived hundreds of years later, and starts accruing followers and trying to take over the world for reasons that aren’t ever made clear. Get ready to see all of that again!
In Suicide Squad, the villain is Cara Delevingne’s Enchantress, an ancient witch/goddess/super-powered lady from an unspecified South American culture. The ancient witch has taken possession of an innocent human woman: an archeologist named Dr. June Moone, who, coincidentally, looks just like the witch-goddess, but whatever (why pay two women when you could just pay one?). Before the events of the movie start, the U.S. Government enlists Dr. Moone/Enchantress to use her witchy powers for good, even though it’s obvious from the get-go that Dr. Moone has no control over what Enchantress does once she transforms; they’re basically two separate people in one body.
Amanda Waller (played by Viola Davis) works for the government and she’s behind the recruitment of Enchantress. Waller has an unexplained fascination with “metahumans” like the witch and others; in the comic books, Waller’s motivations make sense, since although she lacks superpowers herself, she’s a master manipulator who finds bureaucratic ways to control people who do have superpowers. In Suicide Squad, none of that is shown, so Waller’s recruitment of Enchantress just seems like a bad idea, and the foundation of the Squad also seems like a bad idea, and it never gets justified.
Waller claims to have the same dubious motivation as Batman in Batman v Superman; she’s scared of the potential power of heroes like Superman, and believes that power should be kept in check. So, Waller creates a team of metahumans to fight against a threat that doesn’t exist, and in so doing, she creates the threat herself: it’s Enchantress. Even though Enchantress is the very first metahuman who gets enlisted to serve the government, she’s also the first to betray them, which she does almost immediately. She resurrects her equally ancient and equally god-like brother Incubus, and then she starts brainwashing the citizens of the fictional Midway City.
Waller believed she could control Enchantress because she has the witch’s heart in a briefcase, and poking the heart seems to torture the witch, but it doesn’t remove Enchantress’ free will or anything. Also, it’s not clear why Waller doesn’t just destroy the witch’s heart entirely as soon as Enchantress betrays them. (BIG STUPID SPOILER, but if Waller had just done that, then ALL of the events of the movie wouldn’t need to happen, because it turns out that the way you kill the witch is by crushing her heart. You don’t even need a Suicide Squad to do that when you’ve already got the aforementioned heart in a briefcase! No one even points this out, because this movie is SILLY!)
Anywho, Waller convinces the government to let her create a metahuman squad to fight back against the problem that she created by trying to enlist Enchantress’ power in the first place (and the problem that she could solve herself by destroying the witch’s heart … sigh). Enchantress seems to be a metaphor for nuclear weapons, or something, and a smarter movie could have found a way to make that analogy work, but this is Suicide Squad, so nothing is smart. Enchantress also serves as a heavy-handed Madonna/Whore situation, since Dr. June Moone is an innocent, buttoned-up lady with glasses and a tight hair bun, whereas Enchantress is a dangerous, world-dominating witch with her hair down, no glasses, and a sexy bikini. By the way, she brainwashes her newly possessed soldiers by kissing them. Kiss-brainwashing. Unchecked female sexuality is terrifying, folks! Terrifying enough to destroy the world! I guess!
Did I mention that Enchantress has a pining boyfriend who’s trying to control her/save her? Yeah. It’s Colonel Rick Flag, a piece of cardboard who works for the U.S. military and got assigned to keep an eye on June Moone/Enchantress but ended up falling in love with her instead. Even though Flag clearly has no idea how to run an operation or be professional while on the job at all, he also gets assigned to run this Suicide Squad project. But he doesn’t tell anybody that they’re going to be fighting against an ancient super-powered witch goddess who is brainwash-kissing citizens to turn them into mindless goo robots who follow her bidding. This allows the Squad to get angry at Flag later for not telling them enough information. But that plot point doesn’t matter, because nothing matters. Cue the music!
There’s very little talking in this movie, overall. It’s almost entirely soundtrack and explosions, almost like half of the plot got cut out. What’s left over isn’t necessarily confusing, but it does feel skeletal and simplistic, almost like a lot of ideas had to get left on the table because they didn’t end up working in post.
But it’s not all bad. Viola Davis, Will Smith, and Margot Robbie seem to know exactly what movie they’re in: a high camp, light-hearted goofball romp of an action comedy. When any one of the three of them is on screen, particularly when talking to one another, the movie almost feels fun enough to watch. The plot may be bare-bones, but it moves quickly and it’s loud and sparkly, so at least it’s not boring, and it’s easy to follow, which puts it a leg up on Batman v Superman.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is a rough go. Since Suicide Squad is meant to be an ensemble comedy, it really needs a killer ensemble, and it just doesn’t have one. At all.
The majority of the Squad comes across as a collection of cringe-worthy stereotypes who are paper-thin characters at best and racist and/or sexist at worst. There’s a misogynistic Australian guy on the Squad whose name I forget because he’s so incredibly boring and irrelevant to the plot. There’s Killer Croc, who has so many filters and echo effects layered over his voice that it’s almost impossible to tell what he’s saying, but that’s fine, because he also doesn’t get do anything plot-relevant (why not just give Croc an unfiltered voice? That could have been funny and unexpected). There’s Katana, the Japanese ninja woman, who technically works for the government but ends up part of the Squad for reasons that aren’t explained. There’s a Native American guy whose name I also forget because he’s only in the movie for a few minutes before getting killed off; in his brief time on screen, pretty much all he does is punch an unnamed female character in the face because “she had a mouth.” (The men in the theatre at my showing laughed at this. Cool!!!) There’s a Hispanic guy possessed by a fire demon named “El Diablo” who abuses his wife and then kills her and their two small children in a fiery blaze (this is played for tragedy, not comedy, because it’s okay to punch women as long as you don’t kill them). There’s Deadshot, an uninvolved-but-totally-trying black father who’s a killer for hire; he really wants to be there for his daughter, but he can’t manage to find a job besides “killing people and being on the run from the law,” so I guess that’s why he’s having trouble getting custody. If you think that stereotype is tired, it looks like solid gold next to the depiction of Killer Croc a.k.a. Waylon Jones (played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who lives in the sewers and doesn’t appear to have committed any crime at all besides “looking scary.” There’s Harley Quinn, who’s shown to be in an emotionally abusive relationship with the Joker, and then also gets punched in the face by Batman (again, men laughed at this); Batman then has to give her mouth-to-mouth to resuscitate her afterwards. (There was also a deleted scene featuring the Joker punching Harley Quinn, too.) Cool backstories all around, right???
What’s really depressing about this lineup is that it’s significantly more diverse than any of the other action ensemble superhero movies that I listed up top. The cast is dominated by people of color, but most of the male characters (the majority of which are men of color) are depicted as violent and abusive towards women; they’re also universally depicted as “angry” and “scary.” Meanwhile, the female characters don’t get off easy either. Enchantress, Katana, and Harley Quinn are all repeatedly referred to as “hot and crazy” by the dudes around them, and that sentiment is played for laughs. For example, Katana’s husband is trapped inside of her sword, and even though magic literally exists in this universe, she’s mocked as “crazy” for talking to him.
Suicide Squad does occasionally trip and fall into having progressive ideas, now and then, but I’m pretty convinced that all of these moments are accidental. The movie manages to pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test, for example, in the brief scene when Harley Quinn meets Katana and asks her, “What perfume is that? ‘Stench of Death’?” That’s a pretty funny accident, since I don’t think any of the other ensemble movies on my list manage to pass that test. Meanwhile, the movie does revolve around Harley Quinn breaking away from her clearly abusive relationship with the Joker, but there’s so little dialogue and actual narrative available to support this storyline, so it’s really hard to even make a case for or against it.
The movie seems to be very unsure about what sort of political stance to take with regard to its larger implications about the prison system, the U.S. Government, gun violence, terrorism, organized crime, men abusing women, whether abusers can be redeemed, how women in abusive relationships might go about escaping them before they get hurt to the point of death … the list goes on. These are all topics that Suicide Squad gets forced to navigate, but in every case, it does so poorly.
For example, Deadshot is a contract killer; in one scene, Colonel Flag tells him angrily, “I’m a soldier. You’re a contract killer who accepts credit cards.” The implication is that Flag’s job is “honorable” and Deadshot’s isn’t. But what’s the difference between them, really, other than who signs their checks? Is working for the U.S. Government really any different from working for other random rich dudes, as Deadshot does? Plus, clearly, Deadshot is willing to work for the government if they offer him the right price, so why is Flag acting so high and mighty? Amanda Waller brings this up at one point earlier in the movie when she mentions that the U.S. government has worked with the Mafia before, such as during World War II — but again, the larger implications never get elaborated upon. A stronger movie would tease this argument out and really make us think about it, but this is Suicide Squad, so that doesn’t happen.
Later in the movie, Deadshot tells the rest of the Squad that he never kills women and children. In response, El Diablo tells the group that he does – or, at least, that he killed his own wife and children. He believes that because of this, he cannot be forgiven or redeemed. Deadshot looks actively uncomfortable about his peer’s confession; it’s clear that there are differences between the crimes that each of them have committed. The scene tries to tie this up with a weird bow by letting the characters say, well, we’re all evil, we’ve all done bad stuff! – but clearly, some of these crimes are more irredeemable than others, and El Diablo knows it. Once again, in a better movie, this could be a compelling and disturbing debate – and it would definitely help if the characters had any chemistry together at all, or seemed like they might actually be friends, as opposed to just a mega-awkward group of prisoners who literally do not know each other and have no reason to work together. It’s hard to understand why these characters would care about each other, or really why any of the events of the movie are even happening in the first place.
I’ve clearly been putting it off, but … we need to talk about Jared Leto’s Joker.
I really feel for the editors behind this movie. For the whole creative team. For the rest of the actors. There must have been some tough conversations. There must have been a moment when they turned to one another and said, “Is it too late to replace this guy?” And, I suppose, the conclusion must have been that it was indeed too late, and they would have to find some way to save the movie, in spite of the fact that Jared Leto’s Joker is in it.
I don’t like to hate things. I mean, I realize that’s the rep that The Mary Sue gets, sometimes? But actually, when I go to a movie, even something that’s been poorly reviewed like Suicide Squad, I go in with the desire to be wrong. I always want to enjoy things. And if Jared Leto’s Joker had blown me away, I would admit it to you. I would tell you, that in spite of all the bizarre and horrible behavior he exhibited on set, that this somehow resulted in a great performance. I would even tell you if I thought that he was mediocre. I wanted him to at least be mediocre. I don’t enjoy watching an actor face-plant.
Jared Leto’s Joker is shockingly sad to watch. It felt to me as though he has no hold on the character at all, as though he honestly doesn’t know what type of Joker to be. At every moment that Leto appeared on screen, I was painfully aware of the artifice, constantly reminded, “This is Jared Leto trying to be the Joker,” not, “This is the Joker.”
Leto delivers lines with a stilted emphasis, as though he’s trying to think of an interesting way to say them but can’t think of how to go about it. He barely smiles or laughs at all. When he does laugh, it sounds hollow and forced, not entirely dissimilar to Tidus’ notorious laugh in Final Fantasy X. He doesn’t command any sort of intimidating power or charismatic presence; it makes no sense at all that he would have followers doing his bidding or respecting him, as opposed to outright ignoring him. He seems dinky and unlikable, unimpressive and forgettable. This explains why Leto has been saying that a lot of his scenes have been cut from the movie. I’m sure the creative team used the best takes they had, but if these were the best takes … I’d hate to see what ended up on the cutting room floor.
This depressing, sad performance also explains why Leto might have felt the need to do so many over-the-top, attention-seeking actions while he was on set. Perhaps he felt, deep down, that his command on the character didn’t work and that it would not be remembered unless he tried to do something to make up for it. I would almost feel sorry for him, except for the part where he most likely made his cast mates feel uncomfortable, and ended up turning out a performance that’s uncomfortable and sad to watch and didn’t even make it into most of the movie.
Leto’s complete lack of charisma creates huge problems for the movie’s narrative, since it’s clear that some earlier draft of the movie’s script must have relied upon the Joker far more heavily. Even when Harley gets introduced early on in the movie, the voiceover from Amanda Waller shows us the changes that I predict to have been made after the fact. We’re told that the Joker and Harley Quinn are the “Clown King and Queen of Crime,” but then hastily, Waller adds that the Queen is the one who’s really respected – she’s “braver,” and so on. As far as changes to canon go, I didn’t hate this–but every DC fan knows that the Joker is supposed to be the one in charge, not Harley Quinn. I just don’t think Jared Leto’s version could command enough of a presence that Suicide Squad thought we would buy it. Margot Robbie, on the other hand, is doing her best with very little–so I think Suicide Squad thought that we’d buy that she would be the more respected half of the pair.
But this creates problems yet again, since Harley and Mr. J’s love story is another plot point upon which Harley’s entire backstory and motivations in the movie hinge. We have to believe that the Joker has the ability to charm his psychiatrist, Dr. Harleen Quinzel, into deciding to become Harley Quinn … but Margot Robbie and Jared Leto have so little chemistry together that it’s impossible to believe or understand that this transformation could ever happen. Every time they have to talk to one another in the movie, Margot Robbie transforms from a compelling actress into an emotionless automaton; she looks actively uncomfortable to be on screen with Leto, as opposed to madly in love.
The good news is that Suicide Squad doesn’t use the New 52 back-story for Harley Quinn, or at least, not in the way that it’s written in the comics where the Joker pushes Dr. Quinzel into toxic sludge and transforms her into Harley Quinn against her will. In Suicide Squad, Harleen makes the decision to be with the Joker on her own, much like she does in her very first iteration during the DC animated series. It’s not entirely clear why toxic sludge is necessary, then, since she already is in love with the Joker pre-sludge, and it’s never made clear how said sludge actually affects her or the Joker, if at all … but I assume all of that got cut out, if it ever existed, since every interaction that Leto and Robbie have is so miserably free of chemistry that the creative team behind this movie might well have axed it all. It’s almost impossible to tell why these two are together in the first place, let alone why any woman would give up her entire life to be with this guy.
So, what’s the saving grace of this movie, then? What makes this movie bearable? What allows this movie to be “so bad it’s good” instead of straight-up “bad”?
The answer has been, and always will be, Will Smith. This is a movie that badly needed a charisma power-house, and Smith delivers. His character development is zilch; he has no cool lines; it shouldn’t work at all. And yet, it does. Will Smith is such a talent that he manages to be electric on screen anyway, delivering lines that aren’t funny with a killer cadence that makes them funny, and breathing life into a role that is boring as hell. Just as I believe that Jared Leto’s Joker was originally intended to be the lifeblood of this movie before getting diced up and cut out, so too do I theorize that Will Smith’s Deadshot was probably intended to be a side character, but because of his talents, he became the lead character. This entire movie is actually about Deadshot, and that’s completely fine.
During its best moments, Suicide Squad is a movie about Amanda Waller, Deadshot, and Harley Quinn. It’s just a shame that all those other characters had to be there, too. Will Smith and Margot Robbie have already been in one less-than-successful action movie before together, and even though they didn’t have much chemistry in Focus, working on that must have given them some time to build something, because the glimmers of the supportive, genuine friendship that we see growing between Harley and Deadshot helps keep this movie rolling along in the direction that it needs to go. Plus, Will Smith’s chemistry with Viola Davis takes it all over the top; during those scenes, I felt like I might actually be watching a good movie.
If only the rest of the cast were able to keep up, then maybe – just maybe – Suicide Squad could have been a fun watch. Instead, the rest of the characters are relegated to hyper-violent caricatures. The “El Diablo” actor is working his butt off, but his character is so over-the-top evil that it’s impossible to root for him; he says he’s irredeemable, and as a viewer I can’t help but agree, but aren’t we still supposed to like him? Because that’s not gonna happen. Meanwhile, Croc and Katana don’t get enough lines or plot points to ever rise above the gross stereotypes they’ve been relegated to playing. Jared Leto’s Joker is, well, I already told you about that mess. Meanwhile, Arkham is stacked with so many obnoxious prison guards, the most notable of whom seems to be a sexual predator gunning for Harley, and all of whom are so universally, terrifyingly unlikable that it’s difficult to get through the scenes in which any of them appear.
There are only three people in this movie who manage to come off as likable here, and they’re doing the best they can, but you’re going to have to sit through a lot of garbage in order to enjoy Will Smith, Viola Davis, and Margot Robbie. So, I mean, I don’t recommend this movie. I really CAN’T recommend this movie. But I also think it might be worth watching simply by virtue of being such a bizarre footnote in DC’s canon – especially Jared Leto’s truly embarrassing take on the Joker. I guess someone had to reset the bar after Heath Ledger, and Leto has certainly done that.
If you go in with the knowledge that it will be horrible, you might actually be able to enjoy it without feeling too disappointed. Go with a group of friends; sit in the back, and get ready to whisper “what in the HELL?” at every other scene. Or just give it a few weeks; there’s no way this will last in the cinemas for very long, so it’ll be a marked-down DVD soon enough, I’m sure. I can at least promise that it will hold your attention. You know, like a trainwreck. A very sparkly trainwreck decked out in mega-edgy fonts.
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