Suicide Squad (2016)
A controversial film closed out this year’s relatively lackluster Summer blockbuster season, Suicide Squad. The picture continues Warner Brothers’ and DC Entertainment’s concerning trend of divisive comic book movies (graphic cinema). Critics quickly, loudly and unabashedly panned the film as soon as the review embargo was lifted. Also, numerous “fans” were condemning the film with only seeing minutes of footage from the marketing campaign. Many wondered if this would hurt the film’s projected strong opening weekend….clearly it did not. Even with the steep decline in its second week, as every entertainment news outlet made 100% sure that everyone was made aware of, the film has surpassed a $600 million international box office gross and was number one at the box office three weeks in a row – definitely nothing to sneeze at for a film with several relatively unknown characters and having villains as protagonists. Does financial success equate to a picture being good? Absolutely not! Case and point: The Twilight Saga film series. Yet, it is worth noting that there are reasons for it being relatively successful and that audiences are still going and supporting the feature, despite the seemingly unwavering critical backlash.
The Suicide Squad, also known as Task Force X, originated in DC Comics’ The Brave and the Bold #25 (Robert Kanigher and Ross Andru) in 1959, but it wasn’t until writer John Ostrander reintroduced the comic in 1987 that the concept finally took hold (despite an almost 10 year publishing gap from the 90s to the 2000s). The revived Suicide Squad had the U.S. government employing and/or manipulating super villains to handle various covert missions that were considered suicide runs. Over the years, the members of the team have changed due to various reasons ranging from characters dying in the stories or a change in the creative team on the title. David Ayer, writer and director of the titular film, referenced Ostrander’s run, as well as the The New 52’s (2011 relaunch of DC Comics’ books) iteration of the squad that included Harley Quinn.
The film opens with a woman known as Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) meeting with military officials about reviving her Task Force X program, where she would use metahuman or highly-skilled criminals to protect America and its interests against otherworldly/superhuman threats, in the wake of Superman’s death. When one of Waller’s assets goes off the reservation, causes havoc in Midway City and, of course, threatens the world, she calls in her unlikely team…The premise is very much in-line with the source material.
As true to its origins and solid as the premise sounds, the actual plot of the film and its execution falls short in some aspects. The primary antagonists are Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), a woman (Dr. June Moone) who becomes possessed by an ancient deity and another pawn of Amanda Waller’s, and her brother, Incubus. “The Witch”, as Waller so affectionately calls her, yearns to free herself from under the bureaucrat’s thumb. Enchantress tells her brother that times have changed and that humanity now worships machines, so she decides to build a “machine” to exact her revenge in some skewed form of poetic justice. What is the “machine”? Why exact revenge on all of mankind and not just those who oppressed her? How does she know how to create the “machine”? All these questions and more are never addressed. It’s almost as if someone said, “It’s magic, so that explains everything. Don’t overthink it!” or “Comics had this type of villain before, so why shouldn’t it work in this movie?” Dr. June Moone had some interesting scenes, but not enough to really develop empathy for her dealing with her dark alternate persona. Even if the comics had generic villains as this, audiences today expect a level of depth from their bad guys onscreen. They want to see a conscious effort to stay away from the generic, moustache-twirling stereotypes and, honestly, isn’t that what Suicide Squad is about: portraying super villains in a different light and giving them proper intricacy? It’s sad to see that tenant poorly applied or rather seemingly ignored on the focal adversary of the film. Some will argue that the ultimate foe is Amanda Waller and that is a valid argument, but that still doesn’t excuse the mishandling of Enchantress. There are other issues with the magical character and how she interacts with the other members of the team in the third act that can basically be summed up to the choice to forego fresh storytelling in favor of typical genre conventions. Again, the central conflict and/or antagonist(s) are the weakest part of a DC Extended Universe (DCEU) film and ultimately hurt the picture overall(see Batman V Superman).
Another possible key plot hole is why Task Force X is sent to Midway City in the first place. It seems on the surface that they were sent to stop whatever caused the devastation in the city and as much is said by the military chairman who authorizes the squad to be sent in. When Waller gives her assignment to the Suicide Squad, she says it’s an extraction mission of a key person. Now, is this her undermining the military for her own ends and safety or is it just another plot hole? I choose to believe the former, but even if that truly is the case, it’s not made clear.
As for the characters, the actors, for the most part, nailed the performances. There was much controversy over Jared Leto portraying the Joker and Margot Robbie as his maniacal counterpart, Harley Quinn, and understandably so. The Joker is in the film maybe 10 minutes, which was a smart choice. This isn’t his or Batman’s film, the focus should not be on them. Now, having them interact with the members of the squad is important because it allows the film to organically connect to the DCEU and actually expand it in ways the Batman v Superman couldn’t quite pull-off well. Leto’s Joker was met with much disdain over his gaudy appearance, which included: numerous tattoos, a grill and ‘gangster-esque’ outfit. As loud as his appearance is, the performance presents a very reserved, sly Joker. It’s this dichotomy that makes him fascinating when he’s onscreen and, honestly, all the physical attributes people were complaining about don’t matter because Jared transfixes viewers with his facial expressions, mannerisms and voice. Margot Robbie delivers another absorbing performance as the first live-action Harley. She nails her line deliveries as she calls the Joker by his pet names and even utilizes her background as a psychiatrist in a couple scenes.
Now, my biggest concern was Will Smith as Floyd Lawton aka Deadshot. Smith tends to turn in performances where he isn’t really acting, but is just being himself as the character he’s supposed to be portraying. Looking at films such as Bad Boys, Independence Day or Wild Wild West, it’s easy to see similarities in his performances. Showing that charm and spitting out one-liners did help him achieve star status and I do enjoy him when he does do that, at times, but that’s not who Lawton is and not what this film called for. Also, sharing the screen with a large ensemble cast is new territory for him. He does ‘Will Smith’ some scenes, but there are several where he is dead-on Deadshot. When he shuts down Enchantress’ minions in the street, Smith closes in with precision and showcases how deadly the skilled assassin is and when he dons the mask…forget about it! It’s the character come to life. The surprise performance is Jay Hernandez as Chato Santana aka El Diablo. There has been some controversy as to finally having a Latin character in a tentpole film like this and having him be a gangbanger. As a Latino, I’ll say that characterization is a gross oversimplification of the character in the film and an insult to Hernandez’s work. The film introduces him clearly as a man in repentance for his past crimes and no longer wishing to tap into his abilities. Right then and there, the stereotype is broken! As film the progresses, he actually has a true character arc, which was a welcome surprise, but it makes sense in the overall mechanics of the plot and structure of the movie. The true standout performance, though, belongs to Viola Davis who brilliantly embodied Amanda Waller . The minute she was cast, I knew that she would be perfect for the role and Davis did not disappoint. Now, the character is nowhere near as flamboyant or colorful as say Killer Croc or Joker, but she is intense. Viola exudes the commanding, methodical and ruthless persona that Waller is known for. Through her various incarnations over the years, including: the various DC animated series, the comics or Arrow; these qualities are never lost in translation and Suicide Squad is no exception. Also, Waller-centric stories tend to follow a specific format where she hatches a dangerous plan that she believes is the right or just course of action, but it, of course, backfires on her and the true heroes have to come in clean up her mess. Either Ayer did his homework or just understood Amanda Waller and knew how to use her in the narrative appropriately. Regardless, it was impressive and surprising.
The downside to having so many talented actors bring these larger than life characters to the big screen extremely well is that there is a time limit on the film. Unfortunately, the big name actors, with the exception of Jay Hernandez, are given the most screen time. Characters like Katana (Karen Fukuhara), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and the comedic charm of the film, Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), just aren’t given the attention they deserve. That imbalance becomes painfully evident when there are such amazing scenes as Katana speaking to her husband’s soul, which is trapped within her sword, Soultaker. It was a throwaway moment, but it spoke volumes of the character. It didn’t have to be in the final cut, but it is and I thank Ayer for doing that. Moments like that are pitch-perfect and show why this movie works on some level. Sadly, it is a fleeting scene and there only a few other beats or lines throughout that shine a light on the character. Killer Croc had interesting bits early on in the picture that hinted at possible character depth, but he ends up being reduced to a stereotype. Similar cases happen to the other “secondary” characters. The scene that was most egregious about showing the disproportionate attention to the characters was when Enchantress shows the squad visions of their idealized lives. Deadshot’s, Harley’s, Rick Flagg’s and El Diablo’s are shown, but Capt. Boomerang’s and Katana’s weren’t…and they were in the same room as the rest of the team.
There are so many scenes throughout Suicide Squad that make any self-respecting DC Comics fan tear up with joy. Aside from the aforementioned scenes with Katana and Deadshot, the prologue introducing the squad members and how they arrived at the military containment facility known as Belle Reeve is full of comic pages brought to perfect cinematic life. Batman confronting Floyd Lawton and saying “I don’t want do this in front of your daughter”, Harley playing possum then trying to stab Batman voraciously as he draws near, or a certain speedster capturing Boomerang – all of this DC movie magic was within the first 10 minutes of the film! Also, laden throughout the picture are plenty of easter eggs that aren’t just tongue-in-cheek, but serve a purpose to the plot. Most are, as they say, “deep-cuts” that show that this was a labor of love, even if it ended going through the studio machine. Recent articles have said that the DCEU films are directed at the hardcore fans who can catch all the nuances and references, whereas Marvel Studios makes theirs for all to digest and enjoy. Suicide Squad specifically makes it a point to introduce all of the characters to the uninitiated audience, so that argument is moot. The explanation is more that the fans want to see these characters that they know and love, so they go and support it, even if it isn’t the strongest movie.
For the most part, the soundtrack is used well, where the lyrics or tone of the song accompany what’s unfolding in the images. Yet, there are some scenes where it overpowers the content on screen rather than compliment it. Now, Steven Price’s score is wonderful. His score has shades of Danny Elfman with a touch of Henry Jackman. Suicide Squad seems to have the same issue, but nowhere to the extent, that Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby had. The score perfectly suited the tone and nature of the picture, but the soundtrack seemed very incongruent a times. Squad’s song choices were a bit off-kilter, but perhaps that was the point – the characters are unorthodox so why shouldn’t the form match the content. The editing and cinematography was predominantly textbook (it’s a beautiful picture), with the exception of some of the Harley flashbacks and Enchantress dream scenes, so maybe the off-kilter theory doesn’t have much basis to stand on. This is all just speculation at this point, but for this movie to merit this kind of thought…it does warrant a certain level of notice.
Now as critical and harsh as all this may sound at times, I honestly did really enjoy the movie. It’s a step in the right direction for the DCEU, even if it’s just a baby step. Some will absolutely disregard the film on these criticisms alone, but those are only a few aspects of the whole, which so many seem forget. Take the good with the bad, as they say. It will be very difficult for some to leave their preconceived or even misguided notions/opinions of the film at the door, it took me years to be able to that, but graphic cinema is, at its most basic core, pure escapism. Sure, the movies can serve as allegories and have subtext at times that are worth discussing/analyzing, but their primary purpose, and their source medium’s as well, is entertainment. We live in the Golden Age of the Geek, why waste one’s time and breath being negative? I encourage moviegoers to just enjoy the experience of a comic book movie. It can be an extremely liberating and rewarding experience, if people just open themselves to it. Go check out Suicide Squad and formulate an informed opinion about the picture