With Suicide Squad, writer/director David Ayer has accomplished little beyond kicking the can that is the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) down the road another ten months, leaving us all to hope that maybe, just maybe, Wonder Woman will be the first good DCEU film. Between a crowded cast of thin characters, a banal and cookie-cutter plot, and a confused jumble of non-themes and stylistic choices, the film is bereft of quality in almost every sense. Though some top-level performances generate intriguing characters, they are utterly squandered by the surrounding issues and ultimately leave Suicide Squad with a very scattered, up-and-down feel. While it may not be as unintelligible or frenzied as Batman v. Superman, Ayer’s film possesses the greater flaw: a bland story.
The basic plot of Suicide Squad is fairly straightforward: there’s a bunch of bad guys (and girls) in prison, and government official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) wants to leverage their skills for secret missions. As interesting as this could have been, Ayer misses the mark consistently by taking this basic kernel and fouling it up. First, he fleshes this idea out with a retreaded plot which essentially boils down to “Big Bad makes Doomsday Machine”. Second, by inserting multiple subplots, flashbacks, and vignettes into the actual narrative, he manages to confuse the audience while simultaneously botching the pacing of the film. And finally, there are particular plot devices that strain the suspension of disbelief far beyond a reasonable breaking point. Taken together, there is no conclusion except that the entire story and its structure is an unmitigated disaster.
Our “Big Bad” in Suicide Squad is actually one of the first metahumans that Waller takes advantage of: Enchantress (AKA Dr. June Moone, played by Cara Delevingne). Dr. Moone discovered the spirit of Enchantress in some South American jungle and was possessed by the spirit. Fortunately (a cynic might say, “conveniently”), Waller found Enchantress’ “heart” in the same burial chamber, and can use it to control the spirit when it inhabits Dr. Moone. But, as magical tricksters tend to do, Enchantress manages to escape and wreak havoc, which in the limited imagination of Ayer and company means she is going to team up with her brother (also found by Waller) and build a doomsday machine by dancing rhythmically as trash twists around a bright light. The siblings sport a bevy of hand-wavy powers, most notably the ability to change people into CGI monsters with blank characteristics in order to cut down on production costs.
So, our “Squad” is assembled to rescue a VIP from near ground zero of the Enchantress dance party, and is quite a congregation. There is Deadshot (Will Smith), an assassin who loves his preteen daughter and also shooting firearms. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is in love with the Joker (Jared Leto) and completely unhinged in a funny and scary way. Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) is an assassin who likes drinking tall boys and throwing, you guessed it, boomerangs. Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is a burly fellow with crocodile skin. El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) is your standard pyrokinetic, but in the body of a Mexican gang leader. Rick Flag leads this group at the behest of Waller, and his bodyguard is Katana, a deadly warrior with a sword that steals her victims’ souls and also happens to contain the spirit of her murdered husband. The Joker makes short appearances, but his subplot is more distracting than anything else, and contributes a great deal of confusion to the resulting plot.
The introduction of these characters is inconsistent. Sometimes there are vignettes about how they were captured by Batman, the only moments of screentime for The Dark Knight, and occasionally their introduction is accompanied by neon-light title cards that disappear too quickly and essentially just jar the audience with a fourth wall break for no reason. The whole thing is so disjointed that the film accomplishes a task that I didn’t think was conceptually possible: about 20-30 minutes into the film, we are in the second act, and they basically skipped over any real first act! We get this jumble of introductions, some displays of ability from the Squad members, and exposition and then BAM, the city is in danger. As should be obvious to the math enthusiasts out there, this leaves about 1 hr and 40 minutes for the film to meander through its bland plot, and the result is a pacing to the film that is mismanaged beyond rational thought.
Finally, specific plot elements in Suicide Squad evoke much rolling of the eyes. Most crucially, Waller and company understand that it is important to control the Squad members, and the methods of “control” of the squad require an immense suspension of disbelief. Essentially, each member gets a bomb implant in their neck, and the squad leader Rick Flag and Waller can blow the bomb using an app in the smartphone (which Harley quips about in one of the funnier moments). Not only is this lazy and unimaginative, but there negative storytelling consequences to such a system. By conceding to the audience that these characters have no stake in the battle as it plays out, you remove their motivation and make it very hard for us to care about them beyond a surface level.
The Enchantress’ heart is another similar method of control, but is far stupider. When Waller is displeased with Enchantress, she stabs the heart with a pen or whatever and it makes the Enchantress acquiesce to her demands. It isn’t even clear exactly how that works or why Enchantress needs her heart. Does it increase her powers? Because we don’t actually even see that playing out. This is the issue with setting a magic-user as your main villain: if you do not explicitly identify the nature and scope of her powers, you leave a lot of the audience guessing, and it detracts from what you are trying to do from a narrative standpoint.
As may be clear already, most of the characters in the film are under-developed, misused, and uninspiring. But, there are a few bright spots, most notably Harley Quinn and Deadshot, both of whom inject the film with most of its pathos and levity. Harley manages to be quite funny throughout the film, and it is clear that Robbie embraces the lunacy of the character. It is quite fun to watch, and I particularly enjoyed how she remains affable in the face of monstrosities. Deadshot is the other home run, as he has a full-fledged backstory, solid motivations, and – get this – and honest-to-God character arc! In a DCEU film, that is quite an accomplishment. Honorable mentions can go to El Diablo and Captain Boomerang for various aspects of their characters, but after that it is a pretty steep cliff. Waller and Rick flag are annoying in their simplicity, but there isn’t exactly anything “wrong” with them beyond that.
The more ancillary characters are pretty “meh”, and sometimes much worse. Slipknot is the definition of disposable and Killer Croc is reduced to generic strongman here, which is pretty stupid. Katana lacks any dimension, which is harmed by her inability to communicate with the rest of the squad (she only ever speaks Japanese). So, she’s basically a chick with a sword, and little else. Jared Leto’s Joker deserves a post all to itself, but it is quite poor, and probably the worst cinematic joker we’ve ever seen. Additional points are docked because his place in the story feels completely tacked-on and utterly disposable.
Finally, the disappointment with the villains Enchantress and her brother Incubus – what a wasted opportunity! About 15 minutes into the movie, I just wanted to watch a standalone June Moone / Enchantress film set around exploration of a deep jungle, a mental / spiritual struggle between Moone and the spirit of the Enchantress, and just a general bit of world building in an exotic landscape. Half an hour later when it was clear she was just generic bad guy who wants to make a doomsday weapon, I was already bored with her character design and motivations. Perhaps no character in Suicide Squad was more squandered than Enchantress, which is a shame given how excited I was about her back story.
In case you don’t know how movies work, if your plot and characters are bland and uninteresting, you probably don’t have much to say thematically with your film. This is indubitably the case with Suicide Squad, which is one of the most thematically bereft films I have seen in recent memory. There are small indications that they were trying to showcase the power of redemption and the true meaning of goodness and heroism here, but that is all lost in fan service and standard action flick wheel-spinning. It is pretty clear that the powers that be just threw a large group of characters together with an elementary plot and hoped that it wouldn’t suck. Well, it did. It did suck.
Lastly, I find it baffling that the stylistic visuals of this film were so off-putting. The on-screen neon title cards, dossiers, and other introductory methods are pretty stupid, mostly just distract and remind of a much better comic book film (Deadpool). The visuals of the Enchantress machine are Transformers-levels of incomprehensible, and both Enchantress and Incubus look very stupid at certain points in their evolution. Their faceless henchmen look like putty, are disposable, and feel like the battle droids from the Prequels given how little they contribute to the stakes of the story. At one point they just stop being in the movie for absolutely no reason. And, to close out the shitshow of stylistic choices, rock songs are placed forward in the sound mixing so often that Ayer should have taken half of the money he spent clearing rock anthems from four decades ago and spent it on a better script.
To sum it all up, why was Suicide Squad such a resounding failure? More than anything else, it is due to a lack of clarity in almost all aspects of the film. There were too many characters logjamming up the narrative, and as a result most of them are provided only scant dimensionality. In addition, there is way too much hand-waving with the powers and the plot points, and utter blandness in the actual story and its themes. In a particularly depressing failure, the villains and their specific scheme fails to make Suicide Squad special in any way at all, which is a real shame. Finally, many of the stylistic choices made by Ayer fall flat on their faces, and wind up looking cheap and silly. For a film which generated so much hype after its initial trailer, very little was delivered upon. Though it looks poised to break the August opening weekend box office record, Suicide Squad is yet another reminder that the standard super hero formula can veer horribly astray just as easily as it can succeed.
Thanks for sticking it out through my longform trip to the complain store focused on David Ayer’s Suicide Squad. Were you one of the many who saw the film this weekend, and how did you feel about it? What was your most favorite part and your least favorite? Do you feel happy and/or confident about a sequel, even if it is directed by David Ayer again? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section, and there’s no reason to mince your words if you think I am a pretentious asshole who should just take his Comic Book pill and shut up. Also, be sure to check out my companion piece where I describe my version of Suicide Squad where I improve upon the story and flesh out how to do this kind of film better (at least, in my opinion). As always, I appreciate your readership and would absolutely love you forever if you took a few moments to share this piece on the medias so that your movie buff buddies can learn all the ways that I am wrong.