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DCEU 3: Suicide Squad
We're two movies deep into our tour of the DC Extended UniverseStarted as DC Comics' answer to the MCU, the early films in the franchise stumbled out of the gates, often mired in grim-dark storytelling and the rushed need to get this franchise started. Eventually, though, the films began to even out, becoming better as they went along. Still, this franchise has a long way to go before it's true completion for Marvel's universe., and things are not looking up so far. Both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice had their moments, but neither were really able to rise above, to become great movies despite a number of flaws. However, in comparison to the third film in the DCEU, Suicide Squad, both of those movies were worthy of preservation by the Library of Congress. Suicide Squad is just a bad movie.
Obviously, picking on Suicide Squad is easy, like shooting fish in a barrel. Hell, I already took one stab at it already when I did a side-by-side comparison of the film along with the later, DC Animated film Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay. The movie easily lends itself to the kinds of screed that rant and rail about every awful moment of the awful movie. It's like it was designed to be torn apart. It wasn't -- DC was desperate for this film to be a hit (after everyone seemed to hate Batman v Superman), but in their desperation they managed to craft an even worse film out of the mess.
In Suicide Squad, we're introduced to the titular team -- Floyd Lawton / Deadshot (Will Smith), Harleen Quinzel / Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), George "Digger" Harkness / Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Chato Santana / El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and Waylon Jones / Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) -- in bits and pieces. Each is a criminal arrested (usually by Batman) up after doing very bad things (usually some form of mass murder or another). All are sent to Belle Reve Special Security Barracks to spend the rest of their days. That is until Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) and her military flunky, Colonel Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman), come a-callin'. It seems the criminals are needed for a special assignment: Task Force X, aka the Suicide Squad. If they do their mission they'll knock time off their sentences. Also, there are bombs in all their necks, so it get try to run or get out of line, their heads go boom.
Waller needs this team when a supernatural threat, the Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), rises up and starts laying waste to Midway City (traditionally the home of Hawkman and Hawkgirl, although neither of them show up in this movie). It's up to the Squad to get into the city and track down a special target (not the Enchantress, as she's being handled by a different assault team). But then things go sideways and the only people left to save the city (and the world) is a bunch of criminals with nothing better to do.
Before we get into what's terrible about this movie (and believe me, we'll be here a while), I do want to highlight the things that actually work: Will Smith and Margot Robbie. Say what you will about most of the rest of the cast and characters, but Smith and Robbie are in it. Sure, Smith's Deadshot is the exact character you expect from Will Smith playing Deadshot -- he's full of African American swagger, style, and attitude, almost to the point of being a stereotypical depiction of an African American gangster. While it does verge almost on being offensive, at least he's a fully realized character, and Will Smith totally makes it work within the confines of the movie.
Robbie doesn't get it much better from the movie, dolled up by the costumers in Hot Topic stripper wear for most of the run-time. That said, she takes her crazy blond bombshell character and plays it for all its worth. It's no wonder her Harley Quinn has a number of potential projects lined up as she's one of the best things in the movie. She owns her character, and that's not nothing.
And, really, I don't mind any of the moments in the film where it's just the Squad hanging out, bantering while they chill. There's a sequence about two-thirds of the way in where all the criminals are in a bar, just having a drink, and the film finally clicks together. If the movie could have been more of these movies, just the characters shooting the breeze in between a few short moments of action, that could have been a Suicide Squad worth watching.
Instead, what we get is a tangled mess of a movie. I don't know if any cut of the movie could have redeemed the film, but from all reports there was certainly enough footage filmed to make something better than the final product. Due to re-shoots and constant tinkering, there were reportedly three different cuts of the film, which does help to explain why the final product is such a mess. This is a chimera movie, put together from all the bits the studio had, all to try and "redeem" a product that, for whatever reason, wasn't working.
From the outset the film clearly doesn't know exactly the story it wants to tell. The main characters are each introduced, given time to show their back-story and let us get to know them. They they get title cards that introduced them again, and, in some cases, further introductory scenes to let us know once again who these people are. Over and over the film feels the need to beat it into our heads who these characters are as if we've somehow forgotten from the last time we saw them.
Why is this necessary? Well, at least in part it's because cinema audiences hadn't seen any of these characters before. The only character to show up in Suicide Squad is Batman, and he only makes three cameo appearances. All of these villains, many considered the worst of the worst, are new to the viewing public. Because we didn't get to see movies that introduced these characters ahead of time, the film feels the need to belabor the point, on and on, so we get the message about who they are and what they can do. Many of the scenes do work on their own, but we certainly don't need them ad nauseum.
Of course, that does get us back to one of the big issues with the early films in the DCEU: they're all just so very rushed. When we discussed Batman v Superman, I made the point that we really needed one of two The Batman films before the big crossover fight movie happened. This movie would have benefited from that approach as well since a number of these villains, many of whom are classic Batman villains, could have been introduced them for use here. It would have felt organic, to be sure, and then the movie wouldn't have had to take the entire first act setting them up. Instead, if could have let us enjoy a few interactions between the characters before the action began, letting us learn more about them in a group setting.
Giving the DCEU more time to grow organically would have also helped with a couple of the big bads in this film: Joker and Amanda Waller. Of the two, Joker really doesn't need much introduction, but this film indelibly ties him to Harley Quinn. So much of the film is spent setting her up that Joker (Jared Leto) becomes her full-time co-star. There are a lot of scenes that deal with her back-story that don't, in any way, relate to the rest of the story on screen. If a Batman film could have handled a bunch of this story, most of this material could have been cut from Suicide Squad, greatly shortening the run time and making the movie much more fleet in the process.
But then, there's also the simple fact that the Joker is terrible in this movie. For whatever reason, Joker is re-imagined here as some thuggy gangster, a street-level crime boss who just so happens to have also been in a horrible chemical accident. He has more in line with the Jack Nicholson Joker (from Batman '89) -- a mob boss turned smiling criminal -- than he does with the actual, comic-appropriate Joker. And he's just so annoying -- Leto really could have toned his performance down five notches and he still would have been verging on playing it to broad. It's terrible.
Amanda Waller isn't served much better by the movie simply because we know nothing about her. She's one of the antagonists of the film, a force that gets to move her criminal pieces around the board, but we know nothing about her outside of the fact that she's a high-level government agent and she's really in love with the idea of sending criminals out into the field on suicide missions. That's her whole plot line, and the fact that it then basically blows up in her face in the first act of the movie (because Enchantress was another one of her agents, and she went rogue) proves that Waller shouldn't be in charge of anything. This should be her movie, she should be one of the leads, but we're given no reason to understand why she's a power-player at all.
From that perspective, it makes so much sense why the Squad is brought in for the mission their on. With Enchantress creating a world-ending event in Midway, it would seem like this is a job for Batman, or Wonder Woman, or Super- oh, right, he's dead. Still, there are a number of superheroes that should step up to take out Enchantress. Instead, they all stay home (despite the fact that Ben Affleck's Batman was already contracted to be in this film) and the Squad eventually has to step up to handle matters.
Let's be clear: the Enchantress is not the kind of mission the Suicide Squad should handle. They're a covert team, one populated most by un-powered mortals. A world-ending event is the last thing they should be trusted with. They should be sent in, on their own and not with a military escort like the film depicts (clearly misunderstanding how this setup works). They go in, assassinate a target, or save a small crew of people, or maybe steal some valuable item. That's their job. Enchantress is way outside their league, and even the characters in the movie know this. And yet they still are expected to finish the job in the last act.
The right way for this movie to have been handled (as DCEU film #7, or maybe even #10, in a perfect universe) would have been for the Squad to get called in to Midway City to handle a task. While they're on the mission, Enchantress breaks free and causes a bunch of chaos that complicates their mission due to all the carnage. Despite this, the team should never once engage with Enchantress; instead, Batman and Wonder Woman would be seen every few scenes, working in the background, doing one task or another to take down the Enchantress. They are incidental to the main plot of this movie, we just see them working away while our Squad does other things. In the end, the Suicide Squad finished their task despite what's going on with Enchantress, and then head home in secret while the heroes finally defeat the villain.
Hell, in this scenario we don't even need to see the big Justice League v Enchantress fight until the credits roll. Even then it's just done as a news report, on a TV, in the lounge the Squad is hanging out it while they have a beer. None of them notice the report because it's incidental to their lives. That's what this movie should have been.
The best analogy I have for this is the third season episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "The Zeppo". In that episode, an Apocalypse is coming and the whole team has to band together, except Xander isn't allowed to join because he has no powers and no way to help. Instead, he goes off on his own adventure that night as he tries to pick up a girl and then, somehow, gets mixed up with a pack of zombies and a bomb at the school. We see glimpses of the apocalypse in the background, but the episode is focused on Xander and not the end of the world. That's what should have happened here: the Suicide Squad is "The Zeppo", and the movie should have treated them as such.
I mean, I could just keep going about all the things the movie gets wrong. There's the questionable, neon-highlighted graphic design choices intercut into the drab and grainy live action filming as if the designers didn't know what kind of movie they were producing art for. There's the Spencer's Gifts-level costuming decisions with everyone dressed in cheap, poorly made clothing. Of course, there's the beyond-lazy musical cues that sound like the movie was scored by a kid with a Spotify account. Nothing in the movie really works, and the beats that do come together only serve to highlight how good the movie could have been with an entirely different production crew in charge. There is no way to save this movie without scrapping just about everything and starting over again.
Yes, there is a grain of a good movie somewhere in Suicide Squad. It's not much of one, mind you, and nowhere near enough to redeem this film. As released, this movie is just plain bad from every angle -- DC would have been better off just shelving this movie and pretending it didn't exist. Sadly, they put it out in theaters, and it only helped to drag the DCEU further into the mud. The series would need a major reinvention following Suicide Squad and, in a way, one was steadily coming...