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Suicide Squad

August 5, 2016
Suicide Squad

I really wanted to like Suicide Squad. Or, if not like, at least find it entertaining. The trailers and marketing have pushed it as the fun, edgy side of DC comics’ answer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and a director-driven tonal shift from Batman v Superman‘s dour “grit”.

Except, if you’re allowing directors to put their own stamp on the material, then why would you hire David Ayer — the man who wrote Training Day, and wrote and directed End of Watch and Fury — to deliver a fun PG-13 installment? This is the director I’d pick if I thought the first two seasons of Daredevil weren’t brutal enough.

There’s a fundamental conflict between the only style Ayer has ever worked in — which makes Zack Snyder’s take on Superman look downright chipper — and the style it seems like Warner Brothers actually wanted. All that talk about “director-driven” installments setting DC movies apart from Marvel be damned. And it might be this conflict that explains how Suicide Squad turned out so, well, nothing.

I mean it: there simply is no movie here. There are movie stars, and set-pieces, and loads of special effects, but there’s no movie. There are no characters, no story; nothing at all but a giant, squelching pile of teenage testosterone desperate to tell mom that comic books are so worth reading.

The nominal idea is that no-nonsense badassaucrat Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has an idea for how to defend our national interests now that Superman is gone, in case the next version of Superman hates us. Just take all the supervillains we’ve captured — “super” is very loosely interpreted here — and make them work for us, by means of a bombs implanted in their necks to ensure obedience.

In practice, this really means super-sniper Deadshot (Will Smith) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), fetish-pinup moll to the nu-gangster Joker (Jared Leto). They’re the only ones who really get any development, which is not much. There’s also Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a Latino gangbanger with domestic violence issues and a guilt complex; Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agnaje), a lizardlike bruiser; and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), a glorified thief.

Boomer is actually a great example of the structural problems at play here. We start off the movie with a giant info-dump that tells us bare-bones notes about each of this motley crew. For his part, Boomer “doesn’t work well with others”. This sets up two obvious plot points: tricking someone else into verifying that the bombs are indeed real — Slipknot (Adam Beach) is on-hand as an expendable bit of First Nations cannon-fodder to take this fall right out of the gate — and the climactic Han Solo departure-and-return. He’s not so much a character as a walking bit of exposition.

The opening info-dump also introduces the team’s handler, Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman). Waller controls him because she controls the ancient central-American deity known as the Enchantress — currently possessing archaeologist June Moon (Cara Delevigne) so the producers don’t have to cast another Latinx star — and Flag is in love with Moon because the story needs him to be.

But no sooner have we been introduced to all the players — no, wait, most of them, because they still have to bring in Katana (Karen Fukuhara) with even less explanation — than the Enchantress breaks loose and starts wreaking havoc. That’s right, the one supervillain not in prison is the one who escapes; imagine my shock.

Meanwhile, the Joker is coming to bust Harley out of prison because they, like Flag and Moon, are conveniently in love. At least we get a few completely nonsensical scenes showing Harley and Joker being in love, but there is no real understanding of why. What happened to turn a psychiatrist at Arkham into the starry-eyed slave of her inmate patient? And before people rush in with an explanation from the comics, understand that it’s the movie’s job to tell us. Saying that the audience has to know the story already to follow the plot is exactly what’s wrong with this whole mess. Even more than X-Men: Apocalypse, this is a comic-book adaptation for die-hard fans only.

Even without the spectacular mistake of hiring Ayer to make this movie, the concept demands much more than any one movie can deliver. I maintain that the central flaw in Green Lantern was the attempt to build an entire mythology in one go. Here we’ve got at least three mythologies to build and a half-dozen storylines to scatter around. Any one of these characters might be able to support a whole movie on their own — with another one thrown in to actually give the Smith-Robbie chemistry a chance to work — before bringing them all together as a team.

But in writing Suicide Squad, Ayer has assumed that we don’t actually need to understand any character motivations or relationships. We just need to accept what he tells us. If he says two characters are in love, well so they are, and the why has nothing to do with it. It’s a teenage boy’s mentality that sees only ends.

And that teenage-boy mindset is all over the place, from the women who all expose at least their midriffs for the camera to leer at — with the notable exception of Waller, who’s barely coded as gendered at all — to the reductive stereotypes of Japanese, Latinx, and even Australian backgrounds. I don’t even know where to begin pointing out the careless problems here; the movie is seemingly composed of little else. It’s like a little boy’s id exploded on the screen.

So I regret to say that Suicide Squad will not pull the DC cinematic universe out of its Zack Snyder-induced nosedive. I wanted there to be some competition to keep Marvel on its toes, but right now they’re winning this in a walk.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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