Suicide Squad: Movie Review

I was entranced by the trailers for Suicide Squad. I loved the way they looked, I loved the colors, I loved the music, I loved the attitude. I knew absolutely nothing about the comics and most of the characters aside from Joker and Harlequin. On hearing about the film I was meh, on seeing the trailers I was excited.

Then came the early reviews, nearly all bad. They especially roasted the storytelling and plot of the film as both following a tired formula and being sloppy about it. I decided that whatever promises the trailers had made, they were not being kept so I’d give it a miss. Then, folks in my social media feeds started to speak out about how they either loved or hated the film. Both sides sounded convincing and that meant I was at least intrigued to find out where I’d come down on it.

In case you didn’t know: Suicide squad is a film set in the DC superhero universe. The central premise is that the government sanctions the creation of a covert special forces team composed of convict super villains to fight dire supernatural threats. They are culled from maximum security prisons and each has a tiny remote bomb implanted in their neck to ensure their cooperation. The promise of the film is a kind of mission impossible with bad guys on both sides and a whole lot of mayhem in between.

Spoiler safe review

Ultimately, I was entertained by the film. It is clear to me that if you can forgive its many flaws, there is a lot to like. However, if you focus on its flaws there are enough to make the whole experience pretty sour.

What really works well are the characters and actors. Acting talent, costumes, and the script writing all conspire to create some vivid and interesting characters. Villains are almost always curious creatures because they break social norms yet must live in the same world as everyone else. Trying to understand their motivations is always an interesting puzzle. Putting them in such a strange situation as being forced to do public service highlights their nature and lets us explore their world. The movie opens with Amanda Waller trying to raise funding to create the team of super villains by profiling the perspective members which we see in a series of character vignettes. Each does a great job establishing the villains and the world they inhabit. Indeed, any time the movie is focused on exploring each character, it does well for itself.

Will Smith plays Deadshot, a mercenary assassin who never misses his target and his natural charisma shines through in the role giving the character some dimensionality while being a believable bad ass. Margot Robbi puts in a great performance as Harly Quin, a true femme fatal of a character making very desperate character themes come together believably. Viola Davis plays the ruthless government agent Amanda Waller pitch perfect, a woman you can both hate and respect in equal measure. Jarad Leto as the Joker struck a lot of controversy with fans. I thought he did a great job forging out a very specific version of the character that worked well for the film. Finally, I’ll give props to Jay Hernandez who perfectly embodies the movie’s best character by far, Diablo. He doesn’t stand out initially but his character arc is far and away the best told in the movie and Hernandez hits every note pitch perfect.

The movie fails when the team gets their first assignment and the plot starts to roll out. Typically these types of movies work best when you have a mission impossible like formula. The cast of wild characters must each use their talents to overcome a challenge no normal band of do-gooders could handle. Unfortunately the challenge they end up facing is nothing of the kind and the way they face it is straightforward and dull. Each does get to use their individual talents, but if feels more like a wrote demonstration with a punching bag than a situation where only their unique abilities or attitudes could have overcome the challenge. Despite the movie’s title, you never feel like any of them are in any real danger nor especially qualified to face what danger there is.

To an extent the character interactions do pay off in the middle of the film. There is some dissension among the criminals, some tension between them and their employers, and there are resolutions mostly in keeping with the characters. Unfortunately, the stakes of these interactions often feel hollow. Because the overarching threat they face feels so distant and disconnected, the consequences of their squabbles and resolutions feel immaterial. Playground squabbles rather than serious drama.

Ultimately I think the excellent character work and art design win out over the weak writing and lazy plot work. The movie is kind of a hot mess but it has some very memorable characters and moments that you will likely remember the movie for. If you just don’t think about the movies flaws, about how amazing it could be with different choices, then Its easy to see how some can love it. If the flaws and missed opportunities dig at you and you focus on them, then it’s easy to see how someone can hate the film despite its better moments.

Spoiler rich critique

 

What I was hoping to see in this movie was a beautiful film filled with exotic mayhem performed by weird characters pitted against impossible odds. For my money, it failed to deliver on the exotic mayhem and impossible odds fronts.

Most of the problems stem from the threat posed by their enemies. The Sorceress was well established as an incredibly powerful foe but she is sidelined for most of the conflict “casting her spell”. Her brother (whoever he is) has a great visual look, and a really cool looking tentacle power, but ultimately we know so little about him, and he does so little in the film, he doesn’t have any real substance. When his showdown comes he doesn’t really do much other than take a few swipes at the heroes and do some arm wrestling with Diablo before he gets blown up by a mine.  The death machine they are building looks cool, but all it ends up doing is shooting lightning bolts at distant military targets. Sure it looks cool, but it’s not functionally interesting or threatening to the heroes.

Worst of all are the faceless minions of the enemy. We are told they are somehow near impossible to kill but our heroes demolish them like they were made of crate paper. Enemies you can simply shoot or who can be beaten to death with a baseball bat are not any real threat to the “worst of the worst”. Without any tension or creativity, the repeated fights with these mooks are just plain dull. The characters are never in any real danger and they are not pressed to use their powers creatively. The heroes demonstrate their powers on them more than use them out of necessity. It just comes across as lazy script writing.

I was similarly frustrated by the lack of intelligence in the use of character powers and the threats posed. A good example would be the explosive devices implanted in their necks. It’s a good ploy for getting the Villians under control. Yet the threat seems to be that they can be set off using a cell phone app. So, all you need to do is lose cell coverage, jam the cell signal, destroy the phone, etc.. and you are home free. With a group that includes a person that never misses a shot and has lightning fast reflexes they want me to believe a guy pressing a button on a cell phone is a viable threat?  I can think of so many ways to sell it as a real threat, one the group could not overcome easily but it seems it was a detail they just didn’t care about. I think I focused on it because it was the only credible threat to any of the characters for most of the film. When flag smashes his cell phone to “set them free” they destroyed any sense there might be more to it than “an app for that.”

Adding to the peril problem, pretty much none of the heroes of the film were so much as bruised by the conflict they were in. Slipknot was killed to demonstrate the threat of the “killer app” and Diablo was martyred to take out the Sorceress’s brother and that’s it. Everyone else emerges from the “suicide mission” pretty much unscathed. Nor did they even feel particularly challenged. Deadshot’s great moment was shooting a large bomb tossed into the air, not exactly a suspenseful moment for a character who never misses a shot. Killer crock had to do some swimming. Captain boomerang had to throw his boomerang a few times. Only Diablo and Harley ever really got into trouble, Diablo because his struggle was clearly moral and because he unveiled his “true power” at a dramatic and awe inspiring moment. Harley because she has no super powers and has to use her wits and pluck to overcome challenges.

Then there is the whole muddle of the attack plan. Sorceress is attacking the city and the government decides to let Waller use the Suicide Squad to stop it. So, they are gathered up (while the city is being destroyed) and then tasked with rescuing someone… while the city is being destroyed and which is not what the government tasked them for. And of course, it turns out they are rescuing Waller, because… she is safe in her command center and somehow needs help there when she can clearly talk to the squad and seems in no real danger? And then they are to get in a chopper like the one that got shot down as they came into the city? And she is captured after she is rescued? And then, finally after rescuing someone who is in no established peril only to have her captured they go after the folks destroying the city and eventually the world. It just makes no good sense, at least not with the way it was established. This is supposed to be a super elite group headed by devious minds to tackle huge problems and they are wasting their time with this nonsense. It really undermines the pacing and feel of the film.

Then there is the team itself. Deadshot, great. Harley, lots of fun. Diablo, wow, amazing character. Killer Croc, ok, kind of wasted but a scary guy. And then… Captain Boomerang, a guy who throws boomerangs, and this guy is how we stop an evil superman?  And slipknot who we know next to nothing about except he has “soon to die” practically written on his chest. He can climb things! How are these people going to take out superman exactly? The sorceress, ya, there is a character that is scary. Diablo, sure. Crock, ok. Deadshot, clearly a threat. But the rest make no sense in the context of how the group is sold. It just felt like another dumb moment of dialog not matching the action and lazy work all around with the less exciting characters.

Finally, I think this film makes a classic Hollywood mistake you find in weaker science fiction pieces. There were many beautiful and cool FX shots in the movie, especially the design for Sorcerress, her machine, and her brother. And the director does his best to show them to you, let you ogle at them in scenes that seem to have little other purpose but to see the cool stuff. What the marvel folks have figured out, and most really good action directors understand is that in an action picture you should always have some story relevant moment happening while the cool visuals are on display. Stopping the action and plot to look at the eye candy ruins the pacing in nearly any picture.

Where this movie shines for me were Diablo’s character ark and the story of Harley and the Joker. Diablo has a real conflict happening, an inner conflict between who he is and who he wants to be. The film both sells his dilemma and that he is an awesome force to be reckoned with. There is real tension in what he could do and what fate awaits him in the arc of the story, and unlike any other character his actions and his role in the story has consequences. Both his actions and inactions created tension and anticipation and delivered on both accounts. Joker and Harley’s story was great because they kept you guessing. Were they in love, why were they in love, how would the Joker impact the mission, what would happen to Harley, all were open questions that invited the audience to wonder at. As the movie revealed their story you had questions answered, and more posted. Their mix of love and malice was intriguing and kept my interest.

All said, this movie was fun and interesting but frustratingly flawed in areas where had more work been done, it could have been drop dead brilliant. I find it’s those lost opportunities that can be so galling when you have high hopes for a film but tend to be forgivable when your expectations are low.

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