Suicide Squad: What Went Wrong (and What it Got Right)

We pay a return visit to last year's Suicide Squad, to see how the passage of time and a rewatch has affected the experience...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

The following contains copious spoilers for Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice.

Batman v Superman should’ve been simple. A lean, 100-minute exploration of how two of the biggest heroes in comics could wind up in a pitched battle against each other – and which of them might win.

Yet while we found things to like in Zack Snyder’s superhero movie – Ben Affleck’s weathered Bruce Wayne, Jeremy Irons’ tech-savvy Alfred – it also felt overwhelmingly like an exercise in over-egging the pudding. Like a game of Jenga, Batman v Superman‘s narrative piled plot thread on top of plot thread (introductions for The Flash, Aquaman, and the rest of the Justice League, Lex Luthor’s creation of Doomsday, to name a few) that the movie wound up clocking in at a wearying 150 minutes. (The Ultimate Edition on disc pushes the running time up to the three-hour mark.)

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Still, we thought, director David Ayer’s Suicide Squad should at least deliver a straightforward narrative. It is, after all, a comic book twist on the Dirty Dozen: a bunch of villains are pulled together and sent on a mission that will probably mean curtains for at least some of them. In some respects, this is what Suicide Squad delivered: a group of hastily-assembled bad guys, some super-powered, others just good at stuff like shooting or throwing things, and a deadly mission to complete. But whether it was down to studio interference or a compressed production schedule or both, the movie wound up being as over-wrought and muddled as Batman v Superman – or at least, that’s how we felt when Suicide Squad came out last August.

This led us to the following questions: how does Suicide Squad hold up almost a year on? How well does it withstand a repeat viewing? Did it really deserve that dismal 25 percent aggregate score on Rotten Tomatoes? With these in mind, we dragged our copy of the movie off the shelf, made a cup of tea and settled down for a re-watch.

First, the good stuff

A year on, and Suicide Squads highlights shine out more brightly than ever. Viola Davis may have something of a one-note character as government officer Amanda Waller, but she’s superb in the role: unblinking, formidable, ruthlessly charismatic. When you consider that her first scene in the movie involves a big slab of exposition – explaining who all the bad guys are and why she wants to set up Task Force X – it becomes apparent just how effective she is.

In fairness, just about all the main players are well cast. Will Smith’s good value as hangdog assassin, Deadshot; Margot Robbie gets just the right balance of craziness and vulnerability as Harley Quinn; Jay Hernandez is so good as the flame-throwing El Diablo that I wish the movie had more time for him. Likewise Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s Killer Croc, who’s largely reduced to a grunting cameo, and Jai Courtney’s boomerang, who’s given notably few opportunities to throw his weapon of choice about.

In isolated shots, Ayer and cinematographer Roman Vasyanov ably conjure up the film’s grungy aesthetic, which is at once heightened and down-at-heel. Harley Quinn in her cell, seemingly in a permanent ecstatic swoon; Deadshot in isolation, throwing punches. The problem, particularly in Suicide Squad‘s first half, is that none of these shots bear much relation to each other; you could show the film’s early scenes in pretty much any order and the meaning wouldn’t change. Which brings us to our next point…

Good heavens, the editing

On his YouTube channel, filmmaker Dan Olson provides a breakdown of Suicide Squad‘s imprecise and downright incoherent editing choices. If you haven’t seen it, the video explains this aspect of the movie better and in more detail than we could possibly muster here. All the same, there’s one thing that springs to mind after a re-watch: just how long and tedious Suicide Squad‘s opening half feels the second time around.

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Suicide Squad has a large ensemble cast to introduce – a task the film bafflingly carries out multiple times. After Waller’s introduction, we’re then treated to a series of vignettes, each showing the future members of the squad in Belle Reve prison. Then we’re taken back and shown another series of discrete sequences, which relate the characters’ histories in flashback.

When done correctly, jumping around in time can make for a thoroughly absorbing story. Think back to Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, for example: its approach is entirely non-linear, with the perspective shifting from before a heist, to its aftermath and back, gradually painting in the details of its characters and how they intersect. In Suicide Squad, it soon becomes evident that its long patchwork of vignettes puts the brakes on the narrative rather than furthers it: we learn the odd detail about the characters’ history – how Harley Quinn was twisted into being by the Joker, say – but the overarching plot remains glaringly static.

The reliance on montages and flashbacks also makes the film alarmingly predictable. A quick question: how many of you guessed which member of the Suicide Squad was most likely to die first? If you figured out that it was Slipknot (Adam Beach), because he’s one of the few characters to not get a grand introduction, then you get a cookie. A pretend cookie.

Around the time of the Suicide Squads release, there were widely-shared news stories about reshoots and heavy re-edits, and the finished film certainly provides evidence of this: the constant, jarring edits, the nagglingly insistent jukebox soundtrack, the muddled storytelling – especially around the time when we learn about June Moone (Cara Delevingne) and her involvement in the siege on Midway City. The Suicide Squad extended cut at least clarifies a few character details, but it can’t fix what is fundamentally bent out of shape: the plot.

What’s the story?

In brief, the plot goes like this: Amanda Waller forms Task Force X from a random selection of borderline-psychotic criminals. The odd one out in the group is Dr June Moone, an archaeologist who’s possessed by the spirit of an evil witch. Waller thinks she can control the spirit, called Enchantress, since she keeps the ghoul’s throbbing heart in a box.

Predictably, Waller’s wrong: Enchantress slips her leash, takes over Midway City, uses her powers to create an army of zombie-like soldiers with heads like giant blackberries, and revives her brother, Incubus, to help her create some kind of glowing machine to destroy the world. In response, Waller enlists the rest of Task Force X (or, you know, the Suicide Squad) to head into Midway and rescue an unnamed – presumably important – hostage from the Enchantress’ clutches.

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What’s baffling is why writer-director David Ayer chose to introduce a supernatural element into what might otherwise be a superhero-infused action-war movie. Ayer’s style as a filmmaker, from End Of Watch to his World War II tank movie Fury, is earthy and physical; with the exception of El Diablo, most of the Suicide Squad’s members are ordinary mortals with extraordinary abilities: marksmanship, climbing, that kind of thing.

We can’t help wondering why, given that the Joker’s written into Suicide Squad anyway, the Clown Prince of Crime wasn’t made the central villain instead of Enchantress. It isn’t difficult to imagine an alternate version of the same story where the Joker takes over Midway City, places his masked goons on every street corner and threatens to, say, launch a deadly weapon. In essence, we’re talking The Rock, but with Jared Leto’s Joker instead of Ed Harris.

Indeed, Ayer himself recently admitted, via Twitter, that he wishes he’d taken such a route.

“Wish I had a time machine,” Ayer wrote. “I’d make Joker the main villain and engineer a more grounded story.”

At any rate, the Squad wind up in the middle of Midway, battling through blackberry zombies to the building where the top-secret hostage is being kept – and then it emerges that said hostage is actually Amanda Waller, whose base of operations happened to be in the midst of the city and Enchantress’ demonic light show. When the extraction goes awry, the Squad briefly consider giving up, but then decide to do something for the greater good and heads off to take down the Enchantress.

Ah yes, the Enchantress. Let’s take a brief look at…

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Those villains

Again, it’s curious that Suicide Squads makers would go to the trouble of casting and designing a new-look Joker and not have him be the film’s main villain. Indeed, the Joker’s role in Suicide Squad is largely tangential; the movie establishes his perverse relationship with Harley Quinn and how she was twisted into being, but he tends to fade in and out of the story rather than have any material effect on it.

Our best guess is that, like Wonder Woman’s appearance in Batman v Superman, the Joker’s role in Suicide Squad is a teaser for further movies down the track. Whether you liked Leto’s gangster take on the Joker or not – and we’re ambivalent about it, to be fair – the character’s simply too bankable for Warner to leave out of the DC universe for too long.

With the Joker’s role being relatively brief (much to Leto’s chagrin, if his interviews are anything to go by), we’re largely left with Enchantress as the major antagonist. This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, had she not been depicted as a largely static, ethereal being who likes to wear round hats and wave her arms about like a startled octopus.

Waller, on the other hand, is by far the more interesting villain: again, Viola Davis is superb here, and while the movie may have been improved with more of her and less of Enchantress, we can at least be fairly confident that, like the Joker, Waller will be back in future DC movies.

A question of tone

There are signs here and there of opposing forces at work when it comes to Suicide Squad‘s design. The grittiness of Ayer’s previous movies is strongly in evidence, but the use of flashy graphics and copious amounts of typography splashed across the screen feel somewhat alien. The scenes between Joker and Harley Quinn are twisted enough, but appear to hint at a much darker version of the film than the one we got. (On a semi-related topic, was anyone slightly unsettled by the scene where Batman gives Harley Quinn a highly suspect ‘kiss of life’ in the boot of a car? It can’t have been just us.)

The fight between El Diablo (in demonic form) and Incubus also looked alarmingly out of place – uncannily like a similar action sequence from the ill-fated Gods Of Egypt, in fact. Could it be that this sequence was added quite late in Suicide Squad‘s making? We know from the Hollywood Reporter‘s 2016 article and others like it that the production on Suicide Squad was rushed to meet a pre-set release date.

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There were even reports that Ayer was required to write the film’s screenplay in just six weeks; this, coupled with some late re-edits, reportedly made in the wake of the response to Batman v Superman, might explain why Suicide Squad turned out as it did. There was, an anonymous source told the Hollywood Reporter, “a lot of panic and ego instead of calmly addressing the tonal issue.”

The future

Having grumbled about Suicide Squad for a good few hundred words now, let’s wrap things up with a few positives. Again, the casting’s effective for the most part: Will Smith’s salary probably wasn’t cheap, but the film’s all the better for his charismatic presence. One of the most promising things about Suicide Squad is arguably its casting – and the heartening thing is that, assuming they’ll all return, the sequel has the chance to fix the things that arguably didn’t work the first time around.

At his best, David Ayer’s a superb filmmaker; you only have to look at how knuckle-chewingly intense his set-pieces are in End Of Watch and Fury to see how good he is at staging action sequences. Those same films also point to a director who knows how to get authentic, engaging performances out of his actors. There are certainly glimmers of this in Suicide Squad; Waller’s terse dinner scene, where she discusses Task Force X over a crimson steak; some of those superb introductory scenes, which cut together so well in the trailers.

Despite all this, Suicide Squad has undoubtedly laid a solid foundation, at least financially. It hasn’t yet been confirmed whether Ayer will be back for Suicide Squad 2, but we do know that he’s involved in a spin-off, Gotham City Sirens, which will star Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. Suicide Squad 2, meanwhile, is said to begin filming next year, with Joel Kinnaman being the first actor to confirm his involvement – he’s returning as special forces colonel, Rick Flag.

Like us, Kinnaman’s hoping that Suicide Squad 2 steps away from the spectral lights and demonic machines of its predecessor. Assuming Ayer doesn’t come back as director, Kinnaman says, he’d be happy with “someone who is great with character and that’s able to ground the story and maybe put ¬†these characters in a more normal situation. It would be really interesting to see these crazy characters interact with regular people as well.”

The characters are in place. The casting is (largely) spot-on. With a coherent, well-paced and smart script behind it, Suicide Squad 2 could be the anti-hero team-up movie we’ve been waiting for.¬†

The Lost Justice League Movie | Forgotten Films by denofgeek

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