At some off-in-the-distance eye-squint of a level, Suicide Squad files itself in the same phylum as Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, and not only because Snyder is now the spiritual guiding light of the DC Cinematic Universe (and assuredly had a hand in Suicide Squad, however clandestine that hand was). Both stake their identities on a liquid understanding of superhero morality, where goodness and badness are not essential, innate mantras but malleable clay to be sculpted by whatever entity chooses to. Except, while Watchmen donned the garb of “good guys as bad guys”, Suicide Squad bears witness to the inverse; tonally, it also proposes itself as the polar opposite, a rip-roaring, piratical B-picture, a vulgarization of Watchmen, which was a lugubrious, thematically portentous “take me seriously” A-picture. For Suicide Squad, vulgarization is the ideal. Vulgarity is no shame, unless you act ashamed of it, which is where the film buckles and the whole faux-blasphemous edifice crumbles, deflates, and ruptures. Rule-breaking though it seems, Suicide Squad bears exactly the narrative structure, and even the particulars, of a project conjured by a whole bunch of starch suits.
Initially, Suicide Squad whispers that its badness is a weapon for spirited glee and rakish, ping-ponging disarray, but the finished film feels afraid to unleash its inner-id, to uncage its animalistic impulses, to derive glee out of willful disobedience. Instead of a forward thrust of a slashing weapon, a piercing blow, the film wields its “badness” like a flimsy, gossamer cardboard shield, a get-out-of-jail-free card, deployed to protect itself from claims that it is too safeguarded, too willing to color inside the lines. The titular team of bad dudes and certainly-not-damsels is more or less squeaky-clean, as is the narrative structure and the style and the mood and even the kitchen sink. But the film’s only rejoinder to this claim, the aforementioned shield, is a cop-out, a casual and comically frequent utterance of something like “we’re bad”, “don’t forget we’re the bad guys”, or some variant of the same.
Which is a trick, essentially. The impious impulses of a should-be-unhinged comic vortex of a film are sanded-down and reined-in to acceptable blockbuster channels, occasionally swiveling ever so slightly to imply a painfully half-hearted simulacrum of badness that the film is woefully uncommitted to. It barely even qualifies as doodling within the lines for fun, let alone breaking the doctrine of the Hollywood machine. Superficially anarchic but still obliging its overseers, this isn’t only blasé, designed-by-committee filmmaking, but the definition of pretension. Show, not tell is the golden rule of cinema, and while Suicide Squad is committed to telling us how bad it is from time to time, it never feels it to the bone. We’re meant to infer lunacy, I guess, but the film barely even implies it.
Not exactly the sort of film whose depth requires the judicious use of German compound words to unpack, there’s a theoretical bliss in the “bunch of villains enter city to rescue someone and things blow up from there” structure, a bliss the bulk of the film spends flagellating into nothingness. The narrative structure is a comatose mess, but not the gleeful mess that was promised; rather than a hurricane, we get spasms of inanity from the macro-level (a deliriously half-assed plot structure that flips back and forth on itself) all rubbed down by filmmaking that is pitifully timid and afraid to burst into a gallant whirlwind of chaos.
For instance, rarely has a film been so indiscriminately, purposelessly drunk on classic rock songs that it feels as though it should come with a lyric sheet or twelve. But the songs never suggest a kind of modern-day B-grade Fantasia of gloriously askew visual chaos married to energetic music. Rather than loosening up and creating a sort of lurid poetry of action and music, where the action follows the flow of the tunes, the songs are left wallowing in the background as the film trucks along a narrative no one cares about. The ideal for Suicide Squad could have been something like a Pollock drip painting, all slashes and lacerations of raw color kindling the screen and setting it ablaze in sheer motion and candy-coated color untempered by narrative. But the film always plays down to its safety shackles – narrative, mostly – rather than setting them on fire. It wants to be a mess-up-the-joint anarchist’s superhero movie, except it’s always cleaning up after itself. It remains just as chained to its corporate storytelling masters as any other film released in 2016.
From there, the faux-looseness of the storytelling, nominally a liberating reprieve from filmmaking rules, sinks in and the consciously casual narrative initially filled with digressions (like the pop-art character introductions, the film’s only incarnations of the kaleidoscopic spirit of the trailers) warps into something too streamlined, too aerodynamic, too ensconced in its comfort zone for its own good. The film might even be too good for its own good, failing to break cinema at the hinges in furious, ferocious bursts of maniacal invention oblivious to common sense. Instead, the glimmers of entropy, like those character introductions, mostly slide into the order of the film unnoticed and remain acquiescent to the rules of the game. They’re like misfiring neurons to be excised rather than conscious attempts to explore the film’s unkempt, batty secret desires and mania. As opposed to a maddened, beautiful accident that consciously disavows conventional screenwriting, the film quickly takes the shape of a work with an aspiration to be conventionally good (“to make sense”, basically) that simply fails at it.
Which, theoretically, asks us to fall back on the design of the film, the style, to excrete the slimy goodness of revelry the film’s advertising suggested again and again, but here too, the film itself never requites the advertising’s goodwill. Director David Ayer has, until this point, thrived commercially, if not artistically, with a fairly monotone brand of arch-seriousness that hides his lack of handle on texture or composition, producing works like End of Watch, Fury, and Sabotage that trot out bro-tastically idiotic characters and mistake them for wayward, lost souls. But whatever you think of Ayer’s brooding style (I can’t stand it personally), his resume doesn’t exactly suggest “popcorn rave-up”. Directing platonic ideal after platonic ideal of adolescent-grade seriousness sans aesthetics other than “brown” or “grey” does not exactly foretell or prophesy the candy-coated rollercoaster Suicide Squad aspires to be.
And the prophecy, or lack thereof, didn’t lie; rather than dancing, pirouetting, or strutting around with a lithe, alley cat pizzaz, the film is totally lead-footed, rushing past scenes, stopping dead in others, introducing individual characters (in one case) three times, and generally slipping from non-connected scene to non-connected scene while pretending it is graced with a cohesive story. Primarily, the film lacks flavor, and it wouldn’t know what to do with flow if it smacked the film in the face. As a parade of mindlessly repetitive action scenes, the directing exhibits not one iota of kineticism or movement-oriented form to enhance or arouse the action, instead remaining content to simply point at the characters while people shoot guns everywhere. Worse, the aesthetic is submerged in a swamp of brooding darkness without the walls-closing paranoia or creeping dread necessary to sell that aesthetic. Obviously, the action lacks consequence, but even more importantly, it lacks snap, crackle, and pop. To say the least, the film is hardly the stylistic fashionista it purported to be. Despite all the bullets flying everywhere, it mostly just sits around in a blithe morass of nothingness; every moment of demented whimsy and humor is imposed onto the film from above rather than slithering in from below, meaning that every moment of humor stops the film dead in its tracks.
As a beast, Suicide Squad should be lapping at the banks of insanity and foaming at the mouth, waiting to break out of its superhero cinema box. But it is pitifully sedated, a hoax of a film where the so-called carousel of recklessness is executed gangland-style, only ever interrupted by a cabal of performances dedicated to stoking a fire in a film that desperately prefers ice. Surely, Margot Robbie’s sniveling, willful chaos-branded tornado of joie de vivre and boisterous, ever-kindling self-love, also known as Harley Quinn, is magnetic. Robbie secretes the lawless, short-fuse of a performance the film positively demands, refusing to be the pawn that the film itself is. Ablaze with color, she most singularly turns this soiree into a proper backroom brawl or a rumble, purging comparisons to other superhero movies. The other draw, Will Smith headlining a blockbuster yet again (!), is almost equally mischievous as an incisive deadbeat father figure, the perfect assassin Deadshot, trying to make amends. Ayer’s heart is clearly in Deadshot, as it is in the ex-gangbanger turned reformed citizen El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) who spits fire, is graced with a near Shakespearean narrative, and suggests, rather problematically, Ayer’s sympathy with men who have problems with women.
Even the bit parts are more or less in harmony with one another: from Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney, a meatheaded Australian playing a meatheaded Australian, and doing his damndest to not feel like an off-brand Tom Hardy, originally cast in the role) to Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman, a meatheaded Swede played a meatheaded Southern American) to Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, somehow effective despite the grotesque black stereotype this crocodile of a man is) to Katana (Karen Fukuhara, a stoic Asian woman stereotype, perhaps unfortunately played rather ably by the actress). If that cues you in to anything, racism isn’t exactly out of the David Ayer modus operandi; all of his films having thrived on caricaturization and stereotyping rather profusely, but Suicide Squad more or less tries to elevate it to an art form. I must admit, even I do not know what to make of the head-honcho government type Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), who is a brutally effective portrayal of government sangfroid and also, probably, an unfortunate “no-nonsense black woman” stereotype.
As for the antagonists, villain Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) is an irrelevant non-entity, although through little fault of her own. But even Jared Leto’s much-maligned tertiary villain turn as the Joker thrives against all odds, his over-affected inflections, bodily gesticulations, and grotesque, ghoulish charisma promising a cartoonish death-enthusiast and merry prankster much more similar to the expressionistic comic character than, say, Heath Ledger’s vaunted portrayal. It is unfortunate that each and every one of these characters is all dressed up with no place to go, with their batty, nervous energy never afforded the luxury to fuel the demented recesses of the writer-director’s mind. They suggest a bundle of nerves in a film dead-set on untying the knots and placing everyone in a straight, curated line from point A to point B.
Rather than a walkabout with entropy, Ayer’s direction and script evokes crippling, straight-faced tedium, the exact phylum of all of Ayer’s other films here over-exerted into pretending it occupies the cinematic kingdom of comedy, two tones that remain insoluble. As opposed to staging a certain fascinating meeting of contrasts, the contradictions in the film simply stamp each other out, resulting in a work without a meaningful direction, or a fascinating lack of direction that leaves it running around in furious circles. The rattling, ricocheting raucous sideshow we were promised – a sort of low-brow Mad Max: Fury Road, more a circus than a story – is nowhere to be found, replaced with a thick apprehension to indulge in its ode to playing outside the rule structures and sucker-punching the dogma of the mainstream.
Not only is this film trivializing, but it is profoundly disrespectful to its central characters. Rather than taking a cue from its anti-heroes and freeing itself from the tyranny of structure and shooting up with a shot of Tex Avery style anarchy, the actual film feels vaguely disgraced by these heroes, as though it is too cowardly to imbibe in their rule-breaking ne’er do well demeanors. It is, in short, a spineless production, a work that hardly even mounts a single mutiny against its corporate overbears, which, considering the subject material, is not only dispiriting but faintly blasphemous. Suicide Squad should be firmly indebted to, and proud of, its shaggy digressions, sidebar vacations, and altogether loopy junctures. Rather than wielding this deviance and willful disdain for propriety and narrative edicts – rather than being glad to be bad, to stir things up, to break the rules of filmmaking – the result is just a facsimile of any dozen other hero movies with a palette swap. It’s a paean to outcasts, and yet it is always obsequious to the need to fit in, entirely redolent to and idiomatic of the neoliberal individual savior norms undergirding every other superhero film. For all the film’s freakish posturing, its freak flag flies, from minute one to the end of the credits, at quarter mast.