So far, the guiding principle of the burgeoning DC Extended Universe seems to be reacting to negative criticism. Not in the way the series fans react, which has gone so far as to include a petition to end Rotten Tomatoes. No, the films themselves appear tailored to address the aspects most criticised in their last film: Batman v Superman’s plot took pains to address the level of civilian death in Man of Steel and now David Ayer’s supervillain ensemble piece Suicide Squad is tasked with overturning the severe lack of fun in Batman v Superman.
Unfortunately, in straining to capture that sense of fun, Ayer’s film completely loses any handle it ever might have had on its narrative. The revelation that the film may well have been re-cut by a trailer company comes as no surprise; it beggars belief that a blockbuster of this scale, with so much money on the line, could be so haphazardly put together. The first third of the movie is almost entirely introductions and exposition, as shady government suit Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) puts together a team of super-powered ne’er-do-wells as a special taskforce should the world be faced with a Superman-level threat.
We’re introduced to two of the characters twice, for no apparent reason other than they’re the biggest stars: Deadshot (Will Smith), an expert marksman and high-level hitman; and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), a fellow inmate with a penchant for toying with the guards. Making up the rest of the team are El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) and Slipknot (Adam Beach), but he doesn’t even get an intro so don’t get too attached.
Throughout this protracted and muddled opening, the film is scored with the most obvious and tiresome pop tracks, as if the film’s soundtrack is stuck on a classic rock station. What better way to manufacture fun than a mixtape soundtrack; it worked for Guardians of the Galaxy, right? Only the songs in that film were well chosen and were integrated into the plot. This is wall-to-wall, overbearing and completely grating. By the time Eminem’s Without Me comes on (unironically) it’s clear things aren’t going to get any better.
The film’s basic plot is as flawed as its soundtrack: Waller puts together this team of unpredictable, uncontrollable individuals to join Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) on a mission to rescue a very important person from a part of the city that’s been taken over by a supernatural being. But why? Why does Waller enlist a team of psychos when barely any of them actually have any special abilities? Sure, human-crocodile Killer Croc could be useful and fire-god Diablo is massively powerful but what can the rest do that Flag’s team can’t already? There’s no sense of what any of these people can really offer, meaning the whole film rests on a shaky premise that undermines everything else that goes on.
On the fringes of all of this is Jared Leto’s heavily tattooed, metal-grilled gangsta version of The Joker. He’s trying to rescue Harley and she is pining for him throughout, only as we see earlier in the film, she was brainwashed and tortured until she became his compliant love slave. Despite that, the film plays their romance like something we should be rooting for, ignoring – or worse, not realising – that this is an abusive and toxic relationship where one party doesn’t seem to have full control of her faculties.
Despite its more problematic elements – which, let’s be clear, includes a fundamental lack of a logical narrative – Suicide Squad is at least occasionally entertaining. Much of that has to do with the cast, particularly Smith and Robbie who bring charisma and charm to characters that are otherwise very problematic. Viola Davis’s steely, morally ambiguous turn as Waller is also one of the film’s highlights, with Davis delivering a turn that’s far better than it ever needed to be. Elsewhere, watch out for Jai Courtney showing signs of life and Joel Kinnaman giving a nicely conflicted turn as one of few characters with believable personal stakes.
Ultimately Suicide Squad gets caught in the middle ground of being beholden to the dark, gritty world that DC are trying to build – a world that David Ayer should’ve been a perfect match for – and a lighter, more overtly ‘fun’ tone that, dare I say it, hews closer to the output of their arch-enemies Marvel. That dichotomy just leads to a confused and muddled film that’s tonally uncertain and lacking in a coherent vision. The DCEU is still young and granted, this isn’t as crushingly dull as Batman v Superman was but at some point they need to stop coming into a film trying to make amends for the last one and show some confidence, own their vision and commit to the world they’re creating.