A lot stuff sure happens in Suicide Squad. There are around a dozen important characters, and most of them get their own flashbacks. There are gun battles, helicopter crashes, fistfights, and an apocalyptic clash between two demi-gods. Director David Ayer includes appearances from Batman and the Joker, yet the film focuses on a group of bad guys who are coerced into doing good. All this stuff sounds promising, but the movie is lacking one crucial element: coherence. This scattershot film is lazy, unfocused, and weirdly slow. There is no real conflict until more than half the film is over. What’s worse yet is how it fails its basic ambition: bad guys are the focus, and yet Ayer shies away from any genuinely bad behavior. Absent any perverse thrill, it seems Suicide Squad suffers from too much post-production interference.
A simple, lazy framing device introduces the titular squad. Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) is a hardened government functionary, and she is peddling her latest idea: she wants to use incarcerated “meta-humans” for covert operations. She figures she can control them, and throw them under the bus if they fail. She explains their powers, one by one, and their skills appear on the screen like they’re trading cards. The most important members are Deadshot (Will Smith), a deadly accurate assassin, and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), a psychotic woman who is the main squeeze for the Joker (Jared Leto). At first, Waller does not have a specific need for her team. But then Waller loses control of Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), an evil immortal witch who lives inside the body of a hapless scientist. Enchantress has a brother, I guess, so she liberates his soul and finds a vessel for it. Together they take over a city, leaving the squad as the only option left.
Ayer also wrote the screenplay, and it unfolds like a hastily reassembled collage from another, better film. This is never clearer than during the overabundant flashbacks. Each one humanizes the Squad, hinting that they may have a heart of gold, which undoes their “bad guy” reputations. We learn about Deadshot’s estranged daughter, for example, while Diablo (Jay Hernandez) revisits the same traumatic family episode no less than three times. The exposition is haphazard, even confusing, as if Ayer does not know what is essential to his premise. Suicide Squad may have the bad guys is its heroes, but it still needs antagonists, and Ayer takes his time to supply one. Enchantress’ plan for world domination an afterthought, so there is no sense of urgency as Waller assembles her team. Instead, we are left with unanswered questions, like how a major city was evacuated so quickly. Ayer’s exposition hinges on fan service, not storytelling, so his film stumbles accordingly.
Exposition issues notwithstanding, the aesthetics and attitude strive for antisocial rebellion, and almost always miss the mark. You know that episode of The Simpsons where the creators of Itchy and Scratchy make Poochie, a cartoon with “attitude”? Suicide Squad is like that, except repeated eight times over. None of the characters rise above tough platitudes, and Ayer’s idea of a good costumes/make-up is to make everyone look hung over.
Still, the most egregious offense is the mishandling of the Joker. Jared Leto can be a magnetic actor, except his character has all the menace of a posturing teen asking for cigarettes outside the local Wawa. The Joker only appears in a handful of scenes, which at first seems like a good idea: his psychotic nature could have cast a pall over all the action. Instead, his scenes are strange and discursive, as if he and Harley Quinn are part of a separate film altogether. Leto’s performance is shockingly off the mark, yet Ayer spares him a major indignity. During the climax, Diablo and others declare the squad is the only family they have left. Suicide Squad does not earn such announcements, and so the forced camaraderie earns nothing more than unintentional laughter. Smith, Robbie, and Davis bring their unique charms, but they’re lost in a greenish-brown cloud of violence.
Ayer is no stranger to urban action. End of Watch is a terrific buddy copy flick, while his script for Training Day ushered in a new kind of gritty realism. Unfortunately, the action is Suicide Squad is muddled and loud. Most of the scenes are at night, with dizzying edits, so we cannot quite make out the battle lines. There are a lot of gun fights in this movie, since Enchantress conveniently conjures black, faceless automatons for the squad to aim their pistols, rifles, and boomerangs. The mix of guerrilla tactics and otherworldly fantasy sequences never quite jibes into a plausible whole: Harley Quinn’s baseball bat hardly seems effectual when supernatural beings shoot magic bullets at each other. By the time the squad asks what they’re even trying to accomplish, I was way ahead of them.
Suicide Squad is the DC version of Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel’s hit about socially maladjusted nuts who ultimately saving the day. Both films even use the song “Spirit in the Sky” and other classic rock tunes to smooth over the clumsy world-building. Suicide Squad also borrows from Escape from New York, Ghostbusters, and many others. What could have saved Suicide Squad is if it took a more unlikely inspiration from the 80s: The Breakfast Club. There is an interesting scene where everyone takes a break from the action to hang in a bar. They discuss their feelings, sort of, in an open way that we do not often see in comic book adaptations (it’s the comic book equivalent of a John Hughes moment). Maybe Ayer could have framed the film around that sequence, with the action found in flashbacks and the climax. If I was a studio executive, that would have been my note among the many, many others he failed to incorporate. Suicide Squad is too dull to be ambitious, and too broad for noble failure.