Before walking into Suicide Squad, you need to know that Harley Quinn is not just part of the movie, she is the movie. If you hadn’t heard, Harley is the Joker’s gal pal with a wicked laugh all her own. She’s wild, crazy, and extravagantly melodramatic. Also, logic waved bye-bye to her a long time ago, and there’s not a whole lot going on upstairs. Kind of like this movie. But in both cases, it’s a damn captivating spectacle to behold.
Indeed, for the third film within the DC Extended Universe, David Ayer has blessedly stepped away from the dour, turgid aesthetic that drowned Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v Superman underneath six feet of dirt. Instead, he has cranked the visual nuttiness and inebriated atmosphere of his past action movies up to their max settings, making a film every bit as dazzling as its onscreen neon-tinted fireworks. It also fades just as quickly from thought into the darkness, but while in the theater you’re definitely going to want to cackle along.
Playing as something akin to a feature-length third act set-piece, Suicide Squad swiftly introduces us to its world of maniacs and malevolence. The eponymous name of a secret government task force started in the wake of Superman’s death (one of the long-lasting “gifts” from BvS), the squad is assembled during an extended, multi-montage sequence by Viola Davis’ icy bureaucrat queen, Amanda Waller. She intros the transcendently awful idea of getting supervillains to work on behalf of the U.S. government to some Pentagon big wigs in a D.C. restaurant. Between mouthfuls of extra red meat and blood-hued wine, Waller and the generals examine each of the ominous super criminals that they are planning to coerce into doing their dirty work. Thus enters a multitude of flashbacks that are each scored by no less than two pop songs. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and uber-hitman Deadshot (Will Smith) have separate origins that end with capture by a cameoing Ben Affleck, who in a few minutes of mute screen time is more Batman-like here than three hours of that fascist crap in March.
Another member of note is Jay Hernandez as El Diablo, a surprisingly tender crook from the LA scene that can burn the whole place down, yet has vowed to never use his fire powers again; there is also Enchantress, a 6,000-year-old witch/demon that has burrowed its way into a Dr. June Moone’s body (Cara Delevingne), which is made all the more preposterous due to the fact that when she isn’t trying to cast spells on the living, June is romancing Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman), a big damn American hero. (Apparently, Davis’ Waller arranged that romance by simply putting the two together, because in this film she is for all intents and purposes God, though she mostly plays the devil).
There are some other cool side characters too, including Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s scaly Killer Croc (he’s half-crocodile) and Karen Fukuhara’s ninja assassin Katana, but they’re all mostly archetypes in the end, and this is still summing up the first 10 minutes. Long story short, that’s a lot of cannon fodder, and after a few more minutes a surprise big bad is revealed, Waller points them in the direction of said cannon with boy scout Flagg leading the charge. Huzzah!
There is a lot going on in Suicide Squad. It’s kind of inevitable with this many characters. For that reason, the first half of the film feels particularly disjointed as exposition on top of exposition is heavily applied. We meet each of these characters in prison, then in their past lives, and then again as Waller is convincing them to join her cause. For the record, putting a mini-grenade into each’s neck and threatening to pull the trigger is fairly persuasive.
But the only two of major note are unsurprisingly Smith and Robbie. It has been a long time since Will Smith has been in a particularly good blockbuster. So, it is easy to forget just how immediately likable his eternally youthful charisma can be. Yet with Deadshot, Smith finally has found another onscreen protagonist who he can imbue with infinite charm and affability, even as he is taking $2 million paydays for murdering prosecutors’ witnesses. There is also a kid thrown in that he wants to take care of because her mother is a flake, but honestly the appeal is simply from the star proving he can even make merciless mercenaries out to be real dolls.
Still, this is Margot Robbie’s show and she devours just about every inch of the spotlight as Harley Quinn. Harley is the yin to the Joker’s murderous yang, and is as equally deranged as her beloved “Mistah J,.” But she is also a lot more playfully oblivious about her crimes. To her, life is a game, and outside of the Joker everyone else can go fish (quite literally if they’re standing by the river when she pulls the trigger).
Robbie captures that childlike sense of mischief that goes hand-in-hand with her madness. While there have been complaints from fans about the decrease of jester costumes and the increase of pigtails and tattoos, Robbie dons everything children of Batman: The Animated Series could want, even that extra-thick Brooklyn accent.
However, as you might have noticed, I have left out mentioning Jared Leto’s Joker, who Ayer also gave a pimp-licious makeover complete with metal grills, some particularly ugly tattoos, and the kind of wardrobe that would make Tony Montana blush. Nevertheless, everything Leto does in the role is on-point at delivering a Clown Prince of Crime that slithers around his supporting cast like a snake, or even a shark, eyeing all as if they’re a subspecies at the bottom of the food chain. It’s a fascinating choice, but it still comes up short next to Heath Ledger’s unforgettable turn in The Dark Knight, even if it might one day stand tall on its own.
For now, unfortunately, the film inexplicably wastes Joker as little more than an extraneous subplot that has absolutely no bearing on the main story. Additionally, the screenplay’s actual depiction of the Joker makes about as much sense as the hideous tattoos on his skin, dumbing down a character whose last big screen appearance marked one of cinema’s greatest depictions of evil into nothing more than an extra-flashy thug at the club. Eventually, Leto’s intriguing take on the villain will be given its due, and hopefully it will be after Mistah J stops by a tattoo laser-removal.
Similarly, the film’s major weakness is that as pleasingly bombastic as Ayer’s direction tends to be, his script leaves a lot to be desired, with the villainous anti-heroes being haphazardly thrown together and sent to stop a big bad threatening the world with a climax that’s right out of the original Ghostbusters, minus any marshmallows. Also, the movie is not so much derived of acts or character arcs as it is of the erratic sensation that this whole superhero vehicle is lurching off the road and hurdling toward the tree line after midnight. Luckily, there is a definite charm to this unfussy and obviously entertaining headlong dive into Crazy Town.
Suicide Squad is quite bonkers (even if it is not as clever as this year’s Deadpool), and it’s easily the most visually ambitious and viscerally kinetic superhero experience of 2016, putting it tonally miles away from anything Marvel Studios would ever touch. A refreshing step up for the DCEU after Batman v Superman’s instantly legendary failures, this is wacky blockbuster filmmaking that celebrates style over substance and convinces us we should too.
Sure, it’s got enough holes to drive multiple clown cars through and makes about as much sense as any other story featuring moldy Babylonian gods being dropped on Central Park West. But hey, that’s just Harley being Harley. And in the case of Suicide Squad, that’s still pretty fabulous.
For more analysis and speculation on how the film sets up the DC Movie Universe, listen to our Beyond the Review podcast: