Suicide Squad (David Ayer, 2016)
After I saw the trailer for Suicide Squad the week before it came out, all the sudden I wanted to see the first superhero movie I’d wanted to see since Iron Man 2. It looked like ridiculous amounts of fun, starred Margot Robbie, who was so good in Z for Zachariah, and while I haven’t been a huge fan of the David Ayer directorial efforts I’ve seen, as a writer, man, he’s out of this world sometimes (two words: Training Day). And then the reviews started coming in, and they were terrible. But a friend wanted to see it and couldn’t find anyone to go with, and it was five bucks a ticket (and the theater in which we saw it, where I’d never been before, was loads of fun), so I figured why not? My ex-wife’s assessment of the film, which she’d seen the week before I did: “you get to see a lot of Harley Quinn’s ass.” What’s not to like? So we went, and while Suicide Squad is, on the David Ayer scale, far more End of Watch than Training Day, I thought it did its job, and even though I understand, and agree with, most of those critical reviews, I thought it did that job pretty well regardless.
SPOILER ALERT: The plot synopsis, like the film, contain major spoilers for at least one previous film set in the DC universe. Proceed with caution or skip the next paragraph.
Plot: Amanda Waller (The Help’s Viola Davis) is a high-ranking government official who wants to put together a team of meta-humans (we’re too cool for the term “supervillains” these days, I guess) in the wake of Superman’s death in order to combat meta-human crime. (In the words of one character, “What if the next Superman is a terrorist?”) For some reason that’s never specified, she decides this team should be comprised of the universe’s most notorious criminals. There’s Harley Quinn (Robbie), girlfriend of The Joker (Requiem for a Dream’s Jared Leto) and even more off the deep end than he is. Deadshot (Will Smith), the world’s greatest hit man, who’s never missed a shot. Boomerang (Insurgent’s Jai Courtney), a notorious Aussie bank robber whose facial hair makes it obvious he’s based on Chopper Read. Diablo (Quarantine’s Jay Hernandez), a pyrokinetic gang-banger. Killer Croc (Trumbo’s Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), half-man, half-animal, all pissed off. Slipknot (Windtalkers’ Adam Beach), a hand-to-hand fighter with a rope fetish. June Moone (Paper Towns’ Cara Delvingne), an archaeologist possessed by an ancient spirit named The Enchantress. Waller has war hero Rick Flag (Run All Night’s Joel Kinnaman), Moone’s boyfriend, wrapped around her finger and has tabbed him for the leader of the group. Things start off rocky, and once they get their first assignment, they get a whole lot rockier…but saying anything about that would constitute spoilers for this movie, and we already have a few of those for another one.
So I’ve read a lot of those negative reviews since the movie came out. And while I was watching it, I noticed that pretty much every criticism I have seen about the movie is valid. I’m not going to be comprehensive at all here, but a quick review of them includes: (a) the characters, including some of the mains, are cardboard cutouts; (b) there’s no point during the movie at which one buys a sense of camaraderie forming within the team; (c) there’s a seemingly ridiculous plot hole surrounding a massive coincidence in the film (that I think might not actually be a flaw, more on that later; (d) the movie is unnecessarily violent. All of these things are true. Yes, a couple of rewrites could have fixed these problems, as well as the one I’ll get into below. And if you’re going to give such short shrift to Croc and Slipknot, come on, why not just write them out of the script altogether and get some more backstory time for the others? (Though granted, the backstory we do get on Harley Quinn is so stilted and unbelievable that maybe it was for the better.)
Something far more problematic to me that I haven’t seen anyone cover yet, and I am more than willing to put forth that I may be being overly affected by Simon Hardy Butler’s recent Curnblog article on mental illness in the movies, even if I don’t agree with everything he wrote (like Butler, I, too, have struggled with mental illness for much of my life, but I have less of a problem with it when it’s played for broad comedy, for some reason, as in The Dream Team, which I thought his shots against were overdone. I love that movie specifically for its portrayals of mental illness, which strike me as being quite sympathetic). But the portrayal of mental illness in this movie, especially in Harley Quinn, really rubbed me the wrong way. Part of it is because she’s portrayed from both sides of the equation: as a doctor and as a patient. The Joker has always been as close to a textbook psychopath as one could find in the media, and the character has been refined, actor by actor who’s portrayed it. Jared Leto has created the most chilling Joker yet, because he’s the only one who’s embraced the slick, public-facing side of the psychopath as well as the violent side. If you’re looking for That Single Reason(TM) to see a movie, you can stop reading now, because Leto is it. Harley Quinn, on the other hand, feels far less like a textbook anything (and let’s note in passing here that while we see very little of Batman in this movie, Affleck seems to be doing the textbook-sociopath thing that Christian Bale refined so well to perfection, making him a worthy opponent for the Joker); her character seems built far less on any sort of model, save in one scene, than it is on broad stereotypes of crazy people. (That one scene, the events surrounding which I can’t reveal without major spoilers, is as perfect a depiction of rapid-cycling manic depression as I have ever seen in a film.) The Joker didn’t lose his knowledge when he went into that acid bath. Why would Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman? As an example, there’s a scene a little more than halfway into the film where Quinn and Deadshot are having a conversation in a stairwell. She asks him if he’s ever been in love. He replies in the negative, because Deadshot is a really bad liar. There is not a single person in that theater, even if you hadn’t seen his backstory, who wouldn’t have known he was lying through his teeth (and I say this as someone whose ability to read people’s body language is nearly nonexistent). She turns around, gives him that gorgeous grin, and says in a kind of Marilyn Monroe voice, “textbook sociopath!”, then turns back and continues bounding up the stairs. The whole thing plays out so shallow and so false that I cringed.
These last two paragraphs really make it seem like I should be giving this movie a much lower rating,
don’t they? Well, like I said at the beginning, I didn’t really care too much about any of this stuff, save the mental illness thing. In the same way Alien vs. Predator was horribly problematic but is still as entertaining a stupid creature feature as I’ve seen so far this century, Suicide Squad is a Shit-Blows-Up movie that’s so far removed from the zip code where people like Michael Bay are making movies that everything going there probably has to come by Panda Delivery. From first frame to last, this movie was played to be lighthearted and fun just as much as something like The Raid: Redemption was played to be deadly serious. And it’s the lighthearted tone, which is probably what contributes to those unnecessary-violence perceptions (this movie is no more violent than something like The Raid, really), makes this a much better time than a lot of movies in its particular genre. It doesn’t hurt that you’ve got a pretty fearsome cast lined up there, and a lot of them (the sole exception I can think of is Robbie, though I have been assured that some recent Will Smith movies are far better than I had been led to believe) bring their A games to the table for the first time in years. I mean, Hernandez and Beach haven’t done anything worthwhile that I’ve seen since the movies I mentioned in the synopsis (and Beach was damn well the only good thing about Windtalkers), but man, they peel paint off the walls with their performances here. Viola Davis’ nasty streak is outrageously shocking if the only thing of hers you’re familiar with is The Help; this woman has a range as wide as the Kalahari. Will Smith doesn’t play bad guys often, and to be fair he kind of comes off more as a misunderstood good guy (and there are a couple of scenes he has—Hernandez, interestingly, is his foil in each of them—that really drive this point home enough that it was obviously intentional), but he’s having a ball in this role, and he rocks it. So yeah, I really ended up enjoying this one a lot more than I expected to. And I think if you go into it without expectations, you might as well. *** ½
(Oh, yeah. Going back to that MAJOR SPOILER ALERT thing: the plot hole. How did Amanda Waller manage to plan everything so that there was a major Earth-threatening crisis just so she could test the Suicide Squad? I mean, there was no way she could have known there was going to be a massive event that was going to threaten the entire world…
…unless she planned the entire thing with The Enchantress (who would have had to have been in on it; otherwise Waller wouldn’t have been able to take into account the existence of The Enchantress’ brother. While is it never explicitly stated whether June is aware of what The Enchantress does when she’s released, there’s nothing in the script to undermine the idea that she doesn’t.)