Note: This review is spoiler-free, but it does contain a major spoiler from the ending of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. You have been warned.
When it comes to comics that center around bad guys defeating even worse guys (and gals), Suicide Squad is one of the most lasting and recognizable of the lot.
It wasn’t the first book to be about villains, of course (though this movie is the first comic book film to have a main cast of villains as characters). But it was one of the first that was actually successful. And that’s probably because Suicide Squad essentially defined the idea of reluctant heroism found in the vilest of our society.
That’s tricky territory, because it presents a philosophical debate that modern society is mostly split on: Are people inherently bad, or are they tainted by an inherently bad world?
Fortunately, Suicide Squad doesn’t dwell on these questions for easy dramatic fodder (at least, not as much as it could have). Instead, it takes a note from some of Marvel’s recent films by emphasizing character over spectacle, at least with some of its titular bad guys.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the set up of Suicide Squad from the comics — of which the 80s run is still the best — the idea is simple. A shady black ops leader named Amanda Waller (played by Viola Davis) wants to assemble her own team of metahumans, like Superman, and unhinged specialists, like Batman, in the wake of Superman’s death from the end of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.
The team is codenamed “Task Force X,” but as one of their recruits points out early on in the film, they’re really a “suicide squad” in the sense that they’re not expected to live through the mission that takes up the majority of the film. And that’s because most members of Task Force X are dangerous villains, accompanied by a Colonel and “good” metahuman to reign them in.
As noted earlier, the structure of Suicide Squad is brazenly different from typical superhero and comic book films. It’s focused and constrained to one major location, a familiar technique if you’re caught up with director David Ayer’s other work.
And the decision to limit Suicide Squad to one mission ends up being one of the film’s greatest strengths, because by the end credits, the viewer is left feeling as if they’ve gone through a significant ordeal with these characters, even if the movie doesn’t always stick the landing with some of its big moments.
There’s as much good as there is bad with Suicide Squad, in the sense that Ayer and his team succeeded at getting this movie right where it really counts — notably with standout characters like Deadshot (played by Will Smith). The problem is that like previous entries in the DC comics cinematic universe, Suicide Squad just doesn’t sweat the details enough.
These details include basic plot mapping (the opening scenes, for example, are a glaring mess), action set pieces (especially toward the end), and the film’s worst offense: its script. Though Suicide Squad has its moments of surprising and smile-inducing dialogue, a great deal of it comes off as hastily tacked on in order to elicit a reaction, usually humor.
For that reason, Suicide Squad practically forces the viewer to accept it in a very specific way. That is, it’s painted and executed as a guilty pleasure movie, and you get the sense that the movie has no aspirations for self-importance or melodrama. Which makes it an easy film to get lost in and just enjoy, without having to “turn your brain off,” for the most part.
One of the reasons the movie swings more toward guilty pleasure has a lot to do with the care Warner Bros. has put into better fleshing out its world of DC characters, and a good number of them are paraded beautifully. As revealed in the early trailers, Batman (reprised by Ben Affleck) has a small presence in this film, and it plays out about as well as his best moments from Batman v Superman, without any of the confusing quirks added to the character.
And it goes without saying that Suicide Squad is brimming with loving references to other DC stories, reminiscent of how shows like Arrow and The Flash insert subtle asides for eagle-eyed viewers. Put simply, this is the first DC comics movie that does a good job of establishing a coherent personality for this world of heroes and villains, while also integrating it in a more graceful way than we’ve seen in the past.
The only weak link worth mentioning is certainly the Joker (played by Jared Leto), who is balanced with the other characters in this film in a gratifying way so as not to steal the spotlight. This ends up being for the best, though, because this is easily one of the most uninteresting depictions of the Joker of all time, not just in the movies.
Granted, the movie works hard to dress Leto up as the Joker, and sparse dialogue certainly sounds like something Joker might say. But upon close inspection, this version of the Joker does virtually nothing reminiscent of what’s fundamental to the character. There’s nothing he truly does that sets him apart from a flamboyant crime boss/pimp who wants to find his girlfriend.
Yes, he wears funny costumes. Yes, he looks weird and kills people. But there is far more to the Joker than “oh by the way” scenes of him laying on a floor surrounded by knives. And that’s because his only true motivation in this film is to get Harley Quinn back. There’s no chaos, comedic insanity, or diabolical planning to anything he does or wants to do in the film. He simply acts like he is crazy, rather than truly showing it, and it’s one of the film’s biggest disappointments.
Thankfully, Joker is not the crux of Suicide Squad. Far from it. So it’s easy to overlook the shortcomings of his character in lieu of this film as its own standalone story. It’s not easy, though, to overlook the fact that too many characters in Suicide Squad have poorly fleshed out character ideologies that make sense of their own payoffs toward the end. They do it in spades for Deadshot and Diablo, but that’s about it.
Lastly, the soundtrack does little to enhance or even complement the story, instead only reminding viewers that Guardians of the Galaxy did a much better job integrating a playlist with the rhythm of its plot (as proven by the film sharing one of the same songs from Guardians). In Suicide Squad, it really just feels like the music was added out of obligation, not because it was essential to the scene it was put in.
And better thought (and edits) put into the scenes is all it would have really taken to make Suicide Squad a better movie than what we’ve gotten, which is a guilty pleasure that only looks good by comparison to the in-universe movies its attached to.
- There’s a mid-credits stinger and…well, it’s not that relevant or surprising, honestly.
- I’m not a fan of most David Ayer movies, so Suicide Squad sort of defied the odds in my case. According to all the evidence, I should have hated this movie.
- The chemistry of the cast is one of the film’s biggest strengths, as emblemed by the fact that a lot of them got “SKWAD” tattoos for the movie.
- It’s not saying much, but this is my favorite live-action depiction of the Suicide Squad. That’s what full Will Smith can do for a film.
- A standalone Harley Quinn movie featuring other DC femme fatales has been announced by Warner Bros., but it’s likely that the success of Suicide Squad will still determine whether or not that actually happens.
- For once, Cara Delevingne wasn’t one of the worst characters in a movie.
I’m Jon and thanks for reading this. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. Or just say hey on Twitter! @JonNegroni