Midlife Crisis Crossover calls David Ayer’s Suicide Squad the best DC Comics film since The Dark Knight!
To be candid, that’s not too much of a compliment if you reconsider the competition. I suppose it’s a close race with The Losers, but I think of that more as a DC/Vertigo movie even though the original Losers were an old-time DC property. Suicide Squad has quite a few flaws in need of fixing — or, quite possibly, unfixing if you believe the press — but the overall studio-approved package contains a lot of well-crafted elements, some inspired performances, and a pretty faithful approximation of the 1980s Squad of my teenage years.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Academy Award Winner Viola Davis IS Amanda Waller, a tough-as-sledgehammers black-ops coordinator just barely operating under the auspices of the American government, as previously seen on Arrow and Justice League Unlimited. In a world where citizens are depressed and hate life because Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice just happened, Waller proposes the creation of Task Force X, a super-team that takes direct orders from her, as opposed to relying on the superheroes we know and love who’ve never cared much for military chain of command or bureaucracy in general. Waller reasons if the heroes won’t toe the line, then the answer is to coerce super-villains to work for them instead. Call it a military super-draft. If the inmates succeed at their assignments, they receive sentence reductions and/or bonus prison amenities; if they fail, instant execution. Waller’s not one for mannerly diplomatic negotiations or demerit slips.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Waller’s super-villain team-up includes:
* Will Smith as Deadshot, the Fresh Prince of Ballistics. An uncanny marksman who treats human life like safari quarry, with one exception: the 11-year-old daughter who knows Dad’s a bad man but loves him anyway. In the comics, this occasional Batman villain was a charter member of the ’80s Suicide Squad and one of the best things about the series, though Smith’s version is a lot more talkative.
* Margot Robbie (Wolf of Wall Street) as Harley Quinn, DC’s answer to Deadpool. She’s pretty much what you remember from Batman: the Animated Series except with a skimpy costume retooled for a mostly male audience, and a surprising amount of team spirit when the chips are down. She breathes more life into the movie than any of her teammates or even her beloved Puddin’.
* Jai Courtney, who usually ruins everything with his musclebound leading-mannequin act, is weaselly Australian bank robber Captain Boomerang, who had a long history of antagonizing the Flash before he and Deadshot became permanent Squad fixtures. This version carries more knives than boomerangs for some reason, but his wide-eyed antics are the most fun Courtney has ever been allowed in front of a camera. Either Ayer coached him really hard, or this is the real Courtney when studio execs aren’t trying to mold him into America’s Next Top Dolph Lundgren. But I’m disappointed that not once does Waller ever call him “Boomerbutt” like in the comics.
* Joel Kinnaman (the one good reason ever to watch AMC’s The Killing) is Rick Flag, the non-super no-nonsense team leader in charge of this motley crew, much like the comics, except here he’s saddled with an additional relationship because someone decided he needed feelings. That’s not the Rick Flag I know.
* Jay Hernandez (Syfy’s The Expanse) as the pyrokinetic El Diablo, which here is Spanish for “the Hispanic one”. He’s the most tragic and remorseful member of the team, whose dark past makes him a conscientious objector until circumstances force his hand and everyone has to remind him he’s in a super-hero film and is therefore subject to certain baseline expectations such as clobbering and invoking special effects. I wanted to see more of him because I brake for storylines about sinners seeking redemption.
* Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (slightly less malevolent in Oz) (and no, I don’t know how it’s pronounced) is buried under ninety pounds of fancy shoe leather as classic Batman villain Killer Croc, and crammed into maybe six minutes of screen time and given twenty-five words of dialogue, tops. He’s the mandatory Strong Guy and he’s slightly more intelligible than Bane was in The Dark Knight Rises.
* First-time movie actress Karen Fukuhara is Katana, who’s a hero and not a villain. In comics she was a member of Batman’s misfit super-team the Outsiders; here she’s Rick Flag’s executive assistant and has fewer lines and scenes than Killer Croc. Honestly, she could’ve been easily replaced with another armed, nameless soldier and the plot would’ve gone on as is. Her soul-catcher sword plays a part in the final battle, but could’ve been replaced easily with Boomerbutt’s knives. This is wrong.
* Adam Beach (Windtalkers), possibly the first Native American actor to have a speaking role in a major-company super-hero film, is a forgettable loser villain named Slipknot who fought Firestorm once or twice. His power is ropes. Here he’s mostly Super Zip-Line Man. Continuity buffs may recall he tagged along on the original Squad’s first mission, for all the good it did anyone.
Elsewhere in the film, there’s that darn Academy Award Winner Jared Leto as Extreme Method Joker. He looks funky and achieves creepiness once or twice, but he’s neither a Squad member nor the film’s Big Bad. Forty hours of makeup, months of driving his castmates up a wall, weeks of filming, and his part was trimmed back in the final cut to a handful of scenes and reduced from Overwhelming Madman to Doting White-Knight Boyfriend, which seems the opposite of every other Joker ever.
David Harbour (the Stranger Things police chief) is the government official who has to talk to Waller the most. Academy Award Winner Common pops in as the Tattooed Man for all of a single scene. Famous son Scott Eastwood is a military minion with more lines than Katana. News reports and IMDb confirm the tie-in cameo from a Justice League cast member who needs to rethink their impractical costume.
As for Paper Towns‘ Cara Delevingne…we’ll come back to her.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Much of Suicide Squad is a murky yet frenetic style exercise starring bullets and bats and blades and Bats. In its better moments, this battle of Bad Guys vs. Worse Guys poses intriguing questions about reform, recidivism, and what happens when bad people try to do good, with varying levels of “bad” at play. Deadshot has a soft spot for fatherhood, but keeps on killing anyway because it’s what he does and it pays the bills. Harley is a good-girl-gone-bad, manipulated by male mind games into an anarchic, immoral free spirit. Boomerang is just a thug, lacking Deadshot’s soft spot and finesse, only lifting a finger when it saves his own life. El Diablo is the only member truly sorry for his crimes, now trying to exercise self-control to the point of shamed repression.
Waller forces them all into doing her bidding for humanity’s sake (and a selfish objective here and there) under threat of remote-detonating explosives planted inside them, but past a certain point Our Villains find a chance to escape, abandon the mission, and potentially let millions suffer…but then hold a group discussion about whether or not they should. A moody pep talk in an abandoned bar is a weird place for soul-searching, but the answers are revealing.
Nitpicking? That same bar scene happens only because the characters mutually agree to pull the movie’s emergency brake and grind everything to a halt for ten minutes of chitchat, despite everything going on outside. Out of context it’s a well-played emotional showcase for the principals involved; in context, the entire city should’ve exploded while they were talking.
Other scenes show evidence of ADR to dub in lines as added jokes, exposition, hole-patching, or general elimination of any quiet spaces. More irritating on a sound level: that tired K-Tel soundtrack has GOT to go. The first hour is saturated with your parents’ favorite FM-radio songs and all but begs for an eventual Suicide Squad Midnight Sing-Along re-release for the over-40 set. Any movie that uses “Bohemian Rhapsody” invokes Wayne’s World memories and jolts me right out, and I’d be grateful if the copyright holders of “Spirit in the Sky” and “Sympathy for the Devil” would consider saying “no” to the next sixty Hollywood productions that ask to license them. Next time, Hollywood, might I suggest John Wesley Harding’s “The Devil in Me”? Maybe some Social Distortion, or some previously unused Leonard Cohen? Lotta songs out there about bad people rethinking their actions if you actually look around.
Suicide Squad hums along like a well-oiled engine when it keeps the action street-level and the focus on the team chemistry, but eventually the money-men dictated that it switch gears into family-friendly summer-action-blockbuster mode and show Our Villains staving off the End of the World even though they’re better equipped to take on militias and terrorists than to take down eldritch demon mages from beyond. Enter the film’s true Big Bad — Cara Delevingne as basically Zuul. She and her brother, an extra-tall fire sorcerer mummy, are sporting frequently fake-looking Power Rangers villain armor, downconverting entire neighborhoods into X-Men: Apocalypse debris, replicating hundreds of magic demon soldiers so that Our Villains can use their mad murdering skills on monsters instead of on fellow humans because PG-13, and generating the kind of space-laser light-show finale that’s probably mandatory for 3-D showings. At one point she performs a sort of mid-battle jump to avoid taking damage, and I thought to myself in Venkman’s voice. “Nimble little minx, isn’t she?” And the movie lost my attention for another minute or two.
There’s also one or two bits of the ending that ring as too happy and contrived and contrary to the overall tone, like bones tossed to focus groups who insisted they get something heartwarming in exchange for their two hours spent.
So what’s to like? As conceived by co-creators John Ostrander and Luke McDonnell, the ’80s Suicide Squad series was The Dirty Dozen for comics in an era before antiheroes became commonplace and overdone. The give-and-take between well-known rogues, the grim-‘n’-gritty showdowns in which both sides were likely to have permanent casualties, the surprise characters added to the mix from time to time, the frequent angst over the heavy costs of doing good — it was a daring, unpredictable departure from standard super-heroics.
When David Ayer and gang are allowed that same latitude — to do their own thing, to shatter the corporate tentpole mold in a hail of gunfire and collateral damage — this rendition hits the same targets with a subversive verve. The big batch of character intros weighs down the first hour and seems a bit out-of-order and repetitive, but adds to the overall Big Picture if you step back and let it sink in while the team speeds ahead and leaves you contemplating their dust.
Smith, Robbie, and Hernandez are the Serious Drama VIPs, with Robbie double-majoring in buoyant comic relief as counterbalance to this occasionally too-macho boys’ club. But everyone takes a back seat to Viola Davis, who isn’t remotely repeating the same taskmaster she plays on How to Get Away With Murder. Her version of Amanda Waller lives out that TV title for real, ruling over this literally killer ensemble with a strict hand, sometimes shocking them and the audience in demonstrating how far she’ll go to protect her country and save her own neck, and not always in that order.
If you buy into the extensive setup and find it in you to root for these evil characters before they get down to business, it’s easier later to forgive the second hour’s major-studio clichés of video-game monster shootout leading to big flashy finale made of explosions. If this were the year’s only super-hero film and we weren’t seeing so many Armageddons in a row, theirs might feel more serviceable and less repetitive. The climax is its weakest link, but the actors do everything they can to compensate with the talents and tools at hand. After the letdowns of the last several DC films, Suicide Squad‘s overall average is closer to an A-game performance than they’ve come in a long time.
If it helps, I would also tentatively dub this the Greatest Jai Courtney Film of All Time.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there is indeed a scene during the Suicide Squad end credits — after the main-cast highlights but before the fine print, which also includes a lengthy shout-out to the various comics creators whose ideas fed into this film, with the afore-mentioned Ostrander and McDonnell receiving top billing of that section. (Ostrander also receives a shout-out within the movie; if McDonnell received a similar nod, I missed it.)
About that end-credits scene: for those who fled the theater prematurely and really want to know without seeing it a second time…
[insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship]
…Amanda Waller meets Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne for dinner and thanks him for pulling some strings that will prevent her from being called out and prosecuted for her various losses and lapses over the preceding two hours. In exchange she gives him a binder that’s like the first edition of Who’s Who in the DC Universe, containing dossiers on the characters we’ve just met as well as the heroes from other DC films past and future.
They’re nonetheless testy with each other. Waller hints that she’s aware of his nighttime activities and mocks his comparatively goody-goody crimefighting methods. (“You value friends. I value leverage.”) Wayne responds in kind that he knows what she did last summer and leaves her with a word of advice about her precious, extralegal Task Force X: “Shut it down or we’ll take it down.”
So if the DC Cinematic Universe doesn’t crash and burn under the artless demands of tone-deaf WB figureheads, someday we might be in for a wild, crowded crossover event. Fingers crossed.