WASHINGTON, August 23, 2016 – As noted in our last installment, after stumbling in the way they brought their superhero franchises to the silver screen, DC/Warners and Marvel/Disney are currently locked in a kind of Mortal Kombat for movie supremacy, with Marvel/Disney currently in the lead.
As for DC and Warner Brothers, after their gloomy, edgy and highly successful Christopher Nolan “Dark Knight” film trilogy (2005-2012), they made the perhaps questionable decision to launch a new continuity for their most famous characters that would eventually include many more characters in DC’s superhero pantheon.
The first two installments in this strategy, “Man of Steel” (2013) and “Batman v. Superman” (2016) made some strides in this direction, although the latter was poorly received by the critics, many of whom decried the severe darkness of the film and, to an extent, its predecessor as well. Enter this summer’s “Suicide Squad,” an offbeat film focusing not on superheroes but super-villains. Read also:
The marketing rollout for the “Suicide Squad” promised something quite different than what audiences got with either “Man of Steel” or “Batman vs Superman.” Where both those films were serious, or, perhaps over-serious affairs “Suicide Squad” was supposed come across as an irreverent, if still violent movie that didn’t take itself too seriously.
“Suicide Squad” was supposed to be fun while also showing that DC films could lighten things up in their universe, perhaps in a way similar to this year’s earlier Marvel release, their surprise, R-rated hit, “Deadpool.” Another plus for DC and Warner Brother’s “Suicide Squad” strategy: A certain, vocal segment of eager DC fans really wanted to like “Suicide Squad” and were fully prepared to endorse it.
As the third film in a multi-picture franchise that started with “Man of Steel,” “Suicide Squad” was definitely an interesting and rather oddball choice for the studio.
The “Suicide Squad” comic book series holds an interesting place in the DC hierarchy, having won critical acclaim while never figuring as a major player in the grand scheme of the DC continuity. One of the comic book’s characters, Amanda Waller (played by Viola Davis in the film), was already well-known to DC Comics fans, while nearly every other character was potentially expendable by virtue of existing as DC B-list villains.
The current film, now in wide theatrical release, was based on the most highly regard run of the “Suicide Squad” comic books, which dated from 1987 to 1992 featuring stories primarily written by John Ostrander.
Though a seemingly strange choice for a post-“Batman v. Superman” release—occurring so early in the current DC superhero-film rehab game, the adaptation of “Suicide Squad” for a film was highly anticipated by fans of the comic.
The problem is that the adaptation of “Suicide Squad” to film had to run the gauntlet of what, by now, seemed to be the habitually chaotic DC/Warner writing, development and filming cycle. The Hollywood Reporter recently wrote about how director David Ayer was given a mere six weeks to complete the script, enabling Warner Brothers to stick to the release date they arbitrarily planned in advance.
Worse, once the footage was actually shot, Warners ordered not one but two edits of the film, one by Ayer and the other by the company that put together the film’s successful trailers. Making matters still worse, instead of choosing one of the two cuts for worldwide release, WB reportedly decided to mash the two together into what wound up as the final product.
From a business standpoint alone, that’s an utterly baffling way to treat any film, especially one given the decent budget and high expectations accorded to “Suicide Squad.” But in the wake of the negative reviews for “Batman v. Superman,” the studio appears to have gotten nervous about handing over to any single creative individual the sole decision-making power over a presumably tent pole movie. Hence, the bizarre decision by the studio to smash together the (presumably) best of both editing worlds. The resulting final product ended up looking like some focus group-driven idea gone incredibly wrong.
The disjointed story telling and editing process that created the “Suicide Squad” film now on screen can be discerned within the first 10 minutes of the film. The movie opens inside a prison where Deadshot (Will Smith) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) locked up and abused by stereotypically vicious prison guards.
For a movie offering anti-heroes as offbeat “heroes,” it’s soon clear that this pair will be the focal point or central intelligence throughout much of the film. The only problem is, the film decides to repeat its “introduction” of these characters not one but two more times.
Amanda Waller gets the next introduction, as she explains the “Suicide Squad” concept – the designation of “Task Force X” – to government officials. Her explanation takes several minutes of screen time as she voiceovers—aided by relatively extensive flashback sequences— the importance of on Deadshot, Harley Quinn, Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), and Diablo (Jay Hernandez) to her proposed “Dirty Dozen”-style team. In the process, this sequence is also intended to tie the movie to the larger DC film universe, giving cameos to Batman (Ben Affleck) and the Flash (Ezra Miller).
Waller helps convince the officials to support her plan by secretly subjecting them to the suggestions of the Enchantress (Cara Delevingne). Would that we could do likewise at our next deadly-dull departmental meeting.
After more Waller investigations and even more disjointed flashback scenes, we’ve spent fully 15 minutes of the film rehashing most of the background information a total of three times. It’s only after the third repetitive background trip that we have some notion of the characters, their various criminal backgrounds, and why they might have been chosen for a mission, even though we haven’t been given much info as to why this movie exists in the first place.
It’s as if we’ve seen three different intros from three separate movies, all strung together for some unknown purpose. Each time a “Suicide Squad” character is introduced in a new and different way, it’s like getting visual whiplash. Yet none of these intros really tell us what the purpose of the film might be or even why a given villain is actually in it. If the viewer has survived the looping narrative at this point, it’s likely he or she will buy into the rest of the film. If not, that viewer is in for a long and boring ride indeed.
Moving on, the film doesn’t really follow the anarchist vibe set by this opening salvo: compelling evidence of that editorial mashup we noted above. At this point, it feels like “Suicide Squad” has been running in place, precisely because the film’s first 15 minutes were spent looking for a narrative that hasn’t yet arrived.
When the plot “Suicide Squad” does finally get moving, we find ourselves trapped again, this time in a shell game where we attempt to make sense of anything that’s happening on the screen, let alone why. Given that the original reason for putting these disparate characters together for a mission is tenuous at best, the rationale becomes murkier as the film advances, to the point where it’s hard to figure out why the characters are doing anything at all. That’s because within the context of this film, the characters have no agency.
The Squad consists of characters forced by higher powers to fight a war they have no real feeling for one way or the other. It’s a stock idea and we’ve seen plots like this before. This one follows many of the tropes audiences would be familiar, but the film never get its characters to the points where any of this makes sense. Incidents in the movie don’t happen because they’re supposed to happen. Things just happen because something has to happen.
As for that plot… it seems as if the Suicide Squad is being deployed to thwart the plan of the evil Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) – previously another of Amanda Waller’s intended recruits — to destroy the world, not exactly an original idea for a super villain.
The squad is to be led by Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), a stalwart Army Special Forces officer who reports to Amanda Waller but doesn’t much like her. Flag, in turn, is aided by Katana, a martial arts expert who’s also not a super villain. And oh, yes, the Enchantress is actually inhabiting the body of Flag’s girlfriend, Dr. June Moone, which complicates matters further.
The problem with the plot, however, is that it’s only part of the plot. The squad is also meant to provide Amanda Waller with some help in a mysterious cover up—something neither the squad nor Flag are aware of. And oh, yes, in the midst of it all, none other than The Joker (Jared Leto) materializes and, mid-plot, decides to rescue his girlfriend—who happens to be Harley Quinn—from the Suicide Squad. Getting confused yet?
The problem with how Suicide Squad is plotted is that this whole unwieldy film, bad edits and all, feels like a first draft that’s not ready for prime time. There’s no rhyme or reason to why things are happening – and especially in the order in which they’re happening. For the most part, the film feels like a large scale brainstorming session.
The characters suffer from this haphazard plotting, because character development comes almost as an afterthought as do equally confusing side issues such as Deadshot’s desire to get out of the Squad to care for his daughter, something that confuses his character arc in this film and offers yet another muddled digression.
Killer Croc and Diablo are given similar arcs to Deadshot and suffer a similar fates. Then there are characters like Slipknot (Adam Beach) and Katana, both introduced as if they needed to fulfill some contractual obligation.
While included in the film’s initial character mugshots, Slipknot doesn’t actually show up until the end of the first act, where he emerges to punch a woman and deliver a line before promptly getting his head blown up at the end of the next scene.
Katana is even more frustrating. She first shows up when she jumps on the plane taking the Squad to their first mission, at which point we get a character introduction that feels tacked on. Allegedly important to Flag, she’s relegated to background noise for most of the film.
Read also: Suicide Squad: Imperfect, but worth watching
Finally, there’s Harley Quinn, who was the backbone of the marketing push made for the movie. Harley comes into the movie carrying a lot of baggage. She emerged as the Joker’s girlfriend in “Batman: the Animated Series,” and then slowly, almost casually evolved into a character entirely separate from him. When “Suicide Squad” gives us our first glimpse of Harley in prison after she’s been abandoned by the Joker, Margot Robbie gets a fresh opportunity to relaunch the character.
Unfortunately, that gets gummed up by the unnecessary appearance of the Joker, making Harley appear once again to be a mere appendage to Batman’s ultimate nemesis. But the Joker’s glorified cameo actually serves no real purpose in this film. If his screen minutes had been edited out in the theatrical release, neither the plot nor the audience would have missed him. Instead, the bulk of Harley’s character arc is derailed by putting her in the service of a token character (in this film) who gets a mere 10 minutes of total screen time.
Ditto the additional cameos for Batman and the Flash, whose appearances, like the trifling introduction of Wonder Woman in “Batman v. Superman” seem more like mini-trailers for another upcoming film.
Audiences have been coming to the theater in surprisingly large numbers to see “Suicide Squad” since this film’s release. For the most part, they’re ready to like and root for these characters or in some cases despise them. Happily, many in this cast turn in winning performances.
Will Smith gives Deadshot the cool calm of an assassin, yet is humanized by the warmth he shows toward his daughter. Margot Robbie is gleefully insane as Harley, and she leans into every crazy whim with gusto. Jay Hernandez mind melds with Diablo’s tragic backstory. The athletic Karen Fukuhara seamlessly inhabits her character Katana in an almost hypnotic manner even though she has little to do. Cara Delevingne borders on the tragic as she painfully transitions between Dr. June Moone and Enchantress, longing for release. And it’s hard to imagine a better person than Viola Davis to portray the coldly efficient and pragmatic Amanda Waller, the woman who puts our (anti-) heroes’ lives at risk, presumably for the safety of her country but maybe not.
The real problem is that this fine cast gets little opportunity to involve their finely-etched characters in a real, coherent story. Without it, they have little opportunity to grow and develop. Instead, the cast and crew for this film was effectively thwarted when Warner Bros decided to stick to a deadline they’d created before even knowing what kind of film they wanted. Then, they forced the director, cast and crew to crank out a haphazard and incoherent mess.
The result: “Suicide Squad” is not the breakout film it should have been. That’s Hollywood.