Suicide Squad is a superhero film with an identity crisis. A confused, disorganized effort from top-to-bottom, it’s passionate, ferocious and punchy in its convictions, but it’s also misguided, unfocused and compromised after months of rewrites, reshoots, studio demands and wavering fan expectations. Its target audience is constantly made unclear, as it’s too violent, sexualized and mature in its themes for anyone under 13 but also too simplistic, flashy and unsophisticated for older audiences. Complicated by a muddled plot and lacking a firm story structure, it’s a dour, dreary disappointment, and that simply should not be the case. Suicide Squad wants desperately to be this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, but it’s ultimately this year’s Fantastic Four. Oh, how it hurts me to say that.
Before I continue, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I’m a DC fan. I loved Man of Steel. I liked Batman v Superman. In fact, I truly love superhero movies in general. I gave X-Men: Apocalypse a good review, and I’ll defend The Dark Knight Rises, Iron Man 2 and Superman Returns at a moment’s notice. Hell, if I’ve had a few drinks, I’ll discuss the merits of X-Men: The Last Stand, Dick Tracy and maybe even Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (or maybe not). I went into Suicide Squad with a completely open mind. I go into any movie with an open mind, of course, but I especially wanted writer-director David Ayer to knock it out of the park with this one. Because DC truly deserves a real hit, but their latest adaptation sadly never comes together. My heart was filled with love, but I came home with a broken one. While it’s assertive, determined and rather feisty in its execution, it’s also clunky, insipid and sour, which I never wanted to admit. Ill-tempered and uninviting, it’s a darkened, chaotic jumble of a film, and it didn’t need to be.
In a world where Superman can kill and monsters can roam free, the government needs to think outside the box. Non-human attacks happen regularly. Peril is never a stranger to the average civilian, and humanity needs leverage if they want to survive “the next Superman.” Enter Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), a strict, no-nonsense authority figure with agency and a plan. Rather than turn to heroes, it’s time to turn to villains. Locked up deep in maximum security prison in the heart of Louisiana are some of the world’s most ruthless, most lethal and most insane criminals, including Deadshot (Will Smith), a perfect assassin, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), a beautiful bombshell more demented than her criminal mastermind boyfriend, The Joker (Jared Leto), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a hybrid human-crocodile that lives up to his name, Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a hairless, face-tatted fire-dweller failing to live a peaceful life, and Captain Boomerang, a petty Aussie thief with an unquenched thirst for beer.
Reluctantly rallied together through military leader Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman), and assisted through his right-hand swordwoman Katana (Karen Fukuhara), they’re assembled into Task Force X, which is later unceremoniously nicknamed the titular Suicide Squad — a gang of ragtag loners compiled under the threat of death to take down Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), a 6,000-year-old witch spirit that possessed the spirit of Flagg’s flame, Dr. June Moore, and is set to ensue world domination alongside her equally wicked brother Incubus (Alain Chanoine). Along the way, The Clown Prince of Crime follows their tracks, doing whatever it takes to be reunited with Quinn, his own true love. Sometimes it’s good to be bad. Well, unless you’re Ayer’s latest film.
To put it plain and simply, Suicide Squad is a pure mess. It’s coherent only in the broadest sense; it is littered with plot holes, and feels as though whole chunks of film are currently left stranded on the cutting room floor. The editing is frantic and aggravating, only rarely settling down before jumping all around the damn place at the flip of a dime. Character motivations are minuscule to non-existent, with flashbacks often abruptly interrupting the narrative and ultimately providing us details that are either incomplete or entered far too late in the story. And it’s tonally all over the map, which makes the eternal bleakness of Batman v Superman admirable in its consistency. Never lighthearted enough to stay consistently fun, while also not serious or approachable enough to make its down-and-dirty grittiness and scumminess acceptable or simply agreeable, it’s stuck between DC’s old “no joke” philosophy and their recent bubbly, fun-loving change of heart. The film also lacks any semblance of subtlety — from The Joker’s “Damaged” forehead tattoo to obvious music cues like Rick James’ “Superfreak” and Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead,” to literally name a mere couple.
But for all its faults, and there are many, Suicide Squad is also brash and confident in ways most blockbusters simply aren’t today. Underneath its tough exterior and macho masculinity, there’s a sweetness in the team’s oddball camaraderie and a beating heart at the center of their antics — if one that can’t quite produce enough blood amidst the carnage to sustain its life. There’s unquestionably a better film here, and that’s without getting into some of its legitimately great performances. It’s genuinely frustrating to see Ayer’s film squander its very apparent potential at seemingly every turn.
Leto’s performance had people talking long before the film hit theaters, and the eccentric, method acting Oscar-winner does a fine-enough job. His work will earn more comparisons to Jim Carrey’s Riddler in Batman Forever than Heath Ledger’s immortal work, but he’s always a striking, menacing persistence — despite roughly 20-25 minutes of screen time. But it’s Robbie’s take on Harley Quinn that leaves the deepest impression. If the film’s existence is justified in at least one way, it’s through the Australian’s pitch-perfect performance as the eternally slap-happy temptress. While perhaps over-sexualized and fetishized, and with a backstory that’s morally questionable, to say the least, Robbie nevertheless makes the captivating, sexy and tortured character all her own, and it’s exciting to know a spin-off is in her near future. She deserves it 100 percent, and I can’t wait to see her again.
Providing Suicide Squad‘s most surprising performance, however, is Courtney. Finally stripped away from the stiff and dull lead roles that strangled Terminator Genisys and A Good Day to Die Hard, Courtney’s supporting turn is loose, silly, entertaining and funny in ways the actor has never, ever been prior. He has a promising career ahead of him if he can move away from the stilted action bores that tarnished his name. And it proves that, like Sam Worthington, he’s much better with his real Australian accent left intact. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Smith provides a quieter, more introspective performance that’s far removed from the louder, goofier characters that made him a household name. His deadpan comedy delivery is just as effective as his broader wise-cracking, however. His character’s relationship with his gifted teenage daughter Zoe (Shailyn Pierre-Dixon) is rooted and deeply-felt, and it’s one of the film’s most consistently successful aspects.
Additionally, Davis is appropriately stern and menacing in her limited role, proving once again that she can do no wrong. It would be a thankless role in lesser hands, and Davis makes it astoundingly well-realized. Similarly, Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s is underused but quick to earn a laugh, whenever you’re not left admiring his incredible CG creation. And Hernandez’s character gets one of the biggest arcs in the film, but his performance ranges from mildly moving to mediocre. Everyone else, however, fails to register. Kinnanman is forgettable and rather bland, but not more so than Scott Eastwood, who is utterly unremarkable in every sense of the word in his pointless character. Delevingne is miscast and wasted as the lead villain. Also wasted is Ike Barinholtz, who can never get a firm grasp on what he’s supposed to do as his kinda-comedic goateed prison guard. And Common makes a bizarre one-scene cameo that adds next-to-nothing to the rest of the film, other than to wonder why they put his Monster T in there in the first place.
This is merely scratching the surface for Suicide Squad, a tentpole feature that switches between endearingly weird and uncomfortably alienating at breakneck speed. Ayer’s massively underwhelming hundred-million blockbuster, seemingly fueled by the power of Hot Topic, Redbull and Faygo, continuously finds means to fit the filmmaker’s running themes on family, friendship and teamwork inside, but his newest effort is discouragingly more Sabotage than Fury. It’s also perpetually irritated by the confines of its PG-13 rating, to the point where it tries as hard as it can to work around it without the efficiency and craftsmanship of Christopher Nolan’s masterful The Dark Knight. Sloppy and scattershot in ways many moviegoers have feared from the get-go, it represents another worrisome addition to the ongoing DC cinematic universe, which will hopefully be uplifted by next year’s promising Wonder Woman. I wanted nothing but the best for Ayer and his batch of baddies, but this one is ultimately more bad than badass.