There will be hundreds of think pieces written in the coming weeks about Suicide Squad. Heck, there are already hundreds of them written about it, and whether the villain-centric, star-studded flick is what Warner Bros. needs to set their DCU on the right course. This comes following a pair of underperforming efforts in Man of Steel and this year's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, both hyped to the moon and both with an entire utility belt's worth of problems. Personally I found them both to be enjoyable enough for many of the reasons people hated them (They're too grim! Nobody smiles!), but I understand the stakes that are riding on Suicide Squad to change the negative perception.
However, Suicide Squad is hardly a home run swing from the bat of sexy psychopath Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), and certainly it doesn't live up to the high standards of irreverence set by Deadpool and Guardians of the Galaxy, the two films it will be compared to most, justifiably in some cases and not so much in others. What it gets right is in letting the bad guys, which is pretty much everybody in this sordid soup of hidden agendas and homicidal tendencies, be bad guys. That the plot is a patchwork quilt of clichés and the narrative sloppier than Killer Croc (Adewale Akkinuoye-Agbage) at meal time doesn't detract from how entertaining it is to watch this particular group of psychopaths do dirt. Would it work for EVERY collection of baddies? Maybe not, but this Suicide Squad is a badass bunch that kick the crap out of The Dirty Dozen any day.
The common misconception I've heard from fellow critic friends and colleagues who have seen it has to do with the characters themselves. Most of them aren't inherently evil; they're bad. There is a difference, and Suicide Squad walks that fine line throughout. Evil is someone like the Joker, who is played by Jared Leto in the role nobody could have been expected to excel in. After Heath Ledger, Leto is like Pete Myers trying to play shooting guard for the Bulls after Michael Jordan retired. That said, Leto did the right thing and made his Joker different; slightly more gangster and smooth, certifiably insane but persuasive. Joker is the wildest of wild cards, and while he's not a big part of the narrative he's not insignificant, and when he arrives chaos always follows.
But that's getting a little bit ahead. Writer/director David Ayer, known for gritty and violent films about cops gone bad, relishes in the chance to follow fictional heels with superpowers. The premise is simple, ripped right from the pages of John Ostrander's (who gets a clever nod so keep an eye out) comic book: the Suicide Squad is a group of villains held in the maximum security Belle Reve facility, and forced to be expendable assets in dangerous missions for the government. So these guys aren't recruited into anything; they are forced, arm-twisted into it by the devious Amanda "The Wall" Waller (Viola Davis), who wants to set up a force that can take on the next metahuman threat. Even the folks at the Pentagon are wooed by her sell job, positing the question if Superman were a terrorist rather than a hero?
With the aid of a certain dark, knightly Gotham City resident and a crimson speedster, Waller assembles a collection of baddies who could put up a fight: the crackshot sniper Deadshot (Will Smith), the deranged Harley Quinn, the fiery reformed gangbanger Diablo (Jay Hernandez, unrecognizable), the thuggish and monstrous Killer Croc, drunken Aussie scoundrel Boomerang (Jai Courtney), and more. When one of Waller's other prisoners, mystically-powered Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), breaks free and begins causing havoc, she assigns stern field leader Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) to take the team into a battle they aren't meant to survive.
Surviving is what these people do, though, and each has their own reason for even agreeing to be part of Waller's plan. While this isn't a story of redemption, thankfully, we do see Deadshot's motivation revolves around the love of his young daughter, and the desire that she not see him as just a cold-blooded killer. It would be too sweet of an origin for Deadshot if it wasn't for Smith, who brings some swagger to this familiar motive. The real joy is in every scene featuring Harley Quinn, and it's pretty scary how easily Robbie slips into such an unhinged character. She's so bonkers she makes the gaggle of creeps around her seem positively normal by comparison. She also has a reason for doing what she's doing, and of course it all boils down to her twisted love for Mr. J, the Joker. Nearly all of the portrayals are spot-on with their comic book counterparts but Robbie's Harley Quinn is absolutely perfect. You can see why they're already eager to spin her off into a solo movie. She sends the tone into bat-crap gonzo territory, which occasionally is at odds with some of the grimier elements, the latter being Ayer's specialty. He also seems to have a soft spot for Diablo, a character most won't know beforehand but will undoubtedly be looking to learn more on afterwards. Unfortunately, as a former gang member resentful of his murderous, hot-tempered (literally) past he's far more interesting on screen than he ever was in the comics.
The trick is in making us want to root for these guys without dulling the edge that makes them villains. It's a tough tightrope to walk, and some will complain that the film constantly needs to reinforce to us that these people are the bad guys by having characters blurt it out on occasion. "Remember, we're the bad guys", Deadshot reminds his crew after a tough act of heroism. Again, these people aren't evil, they're bad, and trying to maintain a sense of identity while forced to do things they would never do under normal circumstances. By contrast, the Joker has no such concerns because his identity is whatever the Hell he wants it to be in the moment.
The mission itself is pretty bland and predictable, made worse by possibly the least interesting antagonist in modern comic book movie history. It's not that Delevingne is bad as Enchantress, it's just that she isn't given anything to do but gyrate while strange forces swirl overhead. That her scheme to destroy the world sounds and definitely looks like that same World Engine thing we saw in Man of Steel doesn't help. We're just never given any reason to draw any kind of emotional connection, and whatever stakes there should be are totally non-existent. The romance Enchantress' human alter ego shares with a member of the team is unexplored to such a degree it might as well not even be there, and certainly has no impact on the finale in which the team battles ugly CGI things that look like old grapes.
Suicide Squad is likely to inspire the same schizophrenia in audiences as afflicts its ragtag team of super-powered wackos. It's a film that finds strengths in a dark sense of humor, and there are plenty of jokes to be found, yet other times the comedy seems ill-timed and forced. The rebellious spirit is part of what endears us to the team, and yet other times it doesn't come across naturally. As someone who has been more of a fan of the DCU than most, I didn't think it needed a massive overhaul. Which is good because Suicide Squad isn't a game-changer by any means. With a wild array of colorful characters, many of whom can easily split off into their own movies or into others (Boomerang HAS to show up in The Flash), it's a solid building block for the future of a cinematic universe many thought (hoped?) should be locked away like the Joker in Arkham Asylum.
Rating: 3 out of 5