Introduction: Suicide Squad was one of the most anticipated and promoted summer movies of 2016. After seeing its trailers, it looked kooky enough for me to give it a try. Even after the avalanche of bad press upon the film’s release, I was still intrigued to check it out to settle my own curiosity. So is this a blockbuster gone bust or is it just as misunderstood as its titular band of antiheroic misfits? Be aware – some spoilers may be present throughout.
The Story: [from Rotten Tomatoes]: It feels good to be bad… Assemble a team of the world’s most dangerous, incarcerated Super Villains, provide them with the most powerful arsenal at the government’s disposal, and send them off on a mission to defeat an enigmatic, insuperable entity. U.S. intelligence officer Amanda Waller has determined only a secretly convened group of disparate, despicable individuals with next to nothing to lose will do. However, once they realize they weren’t picked to succeed but chosen for their patent culpability when they inevitably fail, will the Suicide Squad resolve to die trying, or decide it’s every man for himself?
My Take: I give every movie I watch the benefit of the doubt. Regardless what audiences or critics say, I sit those opinions aside and view a film with fresh eyes and draw my own conclusions. Sometimes a film that gets panned by critics gets praise from me, and other times a film that earns glowing reviews sometimes fails to ignite a spark in me.
So how did Suicide Squad hold up?
I just have to come right out and say it…
Suicide Squad is a terrible movie.
But it’s a special kind of terrible in that it’s not immediately apparent that it’s bad, at least not at first glance. Instead, it actually needs to be seen as its principle flaws exist at the structural level, its story’s skeleton as it were. It has broken bones and missing pieces that go unnoticed unless seen up-close. That struck me as such a shame seeing as this film obviously took millions to make, threw tons of money into its marketing, yet turned up drastically short on what – at least in theory – it had the potential to be.
As stated, the biggest flaw Suicide Squad possesses is in its very structure, which affects all of the components reliant upon it, from tone to characters’ story arcs. Each of the three acts are decidedly different in delivery, tone, and pacing. The first act, which introduces the members of the Suicide Squad, passed by at an erratic pace and felt like a sequence of infodumps. Rather than spend time organically incorporating characters’ backstories, the film takes the easy way out and splashes pertinent information about each character on the screen (a la trading card stats), giving the audience mere seconds to take it in. This is outright lazy, if you ask me. Instead of presenting the Squad’s members as unique individuals, the reasons as to what makes them each tick are simply glossed over. The only exception is Deadshot, who receives the most polished and coherent backstory in comparison (though even this is somewhat lacking), and he becomes one of the most well-rounded characters because of this.
Otherwise, act one is a floundering mess. It’s weighted down with pop music samples that barely play through one verse, it takes too long to set up the plot yet speeds through character introductions, and it drags its feet just getting to the initial conflict. It isn’t until forty-plus minutes in for it to finally come to terms with what the general plot is going to be, which opens the door to act two.
But the second act is even shakier than the first as all it consists of is characters playing Rambo while dodging and shooting at bubble rock-headed humanoid creatures. It reminded me a video game and, in terms of character development, there leaves a lot to be desired. Scenes chiefly alternate between the Squad’s overseer (read: babysitter) Rick Flag growling orders and the Suicide Squad either (a). serving as backup or (b). just walking around. Seeing as a second act is supposed to be moving towards the story’s highest dramatic point, Suicide Squad misses the mark and echoes the narrative depth of a first-person shooter game. Despite all of the action, there is nothing of substance that occurs at such a critical time in the film.
Thankfully, the movie seems to find its footing in the third act, which contains more character-focused moments albeit they’re brief at best. Honestly, the all-around best scene is the bar scene, which opens act three. This is where, for me, the movie really begins and it’s a shame it didn’t open with this sort of pacing and tone. There is no bombastic action, no frantic fights, and no flying bullets. It’s just the members of the Suicide Squad sitting around and talking. It’s a subdued but very effective scene as it dives into some introspective and even philosophical moments. Here, some of the characters discuss what drives them, for better or worse. When one character laments about a terrible tragedy he directly caused, Harley Quinn urges him to “own that” and concurs with another character that, on the inside, each one of them is “ugly.”
She goes on to assert that, “Normal is a setting on the dryer. People like us, we don’t get normal.” Her remarks, as well as musings from other characters, raise the implied question of why people such as themselves are deprived of a normal life – does it simply come with the territory of being a villain or is it a direct consequence of committing bad actions? In another scene, Deadshot calls out Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) on some of her actions, including killing people in cold blood. He witnesses this and muses, “And I’m the bad guy?” Through this scene as well, the film raises questions of what it means to be a villain and how such a character is formed by the choices he or she makes. These would have been great to explore more thoroughly, and the film does in minor ways, but ultimately it forsakes any attempt to make serious connections or commentary and simply jumps from set piece to set piece.
I also liked the scene where Enchantress tries to manipulate some of the Squad by showing them visions of their deepest desires. Most of these hallucinations involve family, either real or imagined, and this was a nice touch as it dove briefly into what the Squad truly holds dear. By way of example, Harley Quinn envisions herself as a happily married woman with a house, two children, and a washing machine. This reveals more about her than any amount of neon graffiti on-screen text ever could because it shows rather than tells. On the surface, Quinn is crazy and violent yet in her heart she longs to be a wife and mom who both loves and is loved; thus, this shows how she’s not entirely infected by her bad inclinations. Yet, as with most of the best moments in this movie, the scene quickly ends and we’re made to endure yet another bombastic set piece. Collectively, these quiet, subtle moments all feel like they’re building up to something only to be deflated by overwrought action.
Overall, Suicide Squad is a mishmash of tones, pacing, and narrative styles. The first act is frantic, colorful, and full of infodumps that drag on far too long. Act two sacrifices character development for shoot-em-up video game-style action where dialogue exists only to instruct characters where to shoot, where to run, and what not to do. The third act is the strongest as the characters finally come together and start musing about the consequences of their transgressions. But it’s a shame it takes the film nearly its entire running time for the the best parts to emerge.
Aside from these structural flaws, there are other issues serving as cracks in the film’s veneer, namely an odd chief antagonist choice. When news broke that the Clown Prince of Crime himself – the Joker – would be making an appearance, naturally I assumed he would serve as the film’s principle villain. However, in what has to be one of the film’s biggest blunders, the Joker (Jared Leto) does not become the central villain. Instead, that honor goes to Enchantress, one of the Suicide Squad’s own members. In fact, the Joker doesn’t consume much screen time at all, which is strange considering he’s one of DC’s biggest and most widely-recognized bad guys.
This choice utterly baffled me. The Joker is consistently ranked as one of the top comic book villains of all time and for good reason – he’s crazy, diabolical, manipulative, unorthodox, and yet carries a cloak of mystique. Even casual Batman fans know who the Joker is, as well as his basic traits, as he’s been a staple villain in the DC universe for years. Hence, it only made sense to showcase him as the film’s villain, seeing as most viewers probably won’t be familiar with the Suicide Squad, so it helps to have another principle character who is easily recognizable. But awarding the spot of chief antagonist to a relatively unknown character (at least to mass audiences) was a creative decision that made absolutely no sense. In terms of Leto’s performance as the Joker, I’d give it a two out of five: it’s not terrible as he gives it an urban gangsta flair but it’s far from flawless, and I can see why some fans don’t care for this interpretation. But part of the lack of love might be due to the fact that the Joker is never given much to do; hence, his presence is squandered and he’s never developed as a character.
Not to mention Enchantress is never given a good motive to be a villain. While it’s obvious she seeks to reclaim a part of her that another character is keeping hostage, why destroy the whole world? Why not just target that one individual? Similarly, since Enchantress seeks to control the world, why destroy it? If there is no world to rule over, what’s left to control? The only reason the film gives for her war against mankind is that she feels slighted that people no longer worship her as she was once revered as a goddess, but even this isn’t explored in depth or at any length. It’s almost as if the story just dropped her in as a villain and then scrawled in a random motive. But in the end, this only causes Enchantress to become a throwaway character, a trait that should never be awarded to the lead villain.
Negative reviews are always the hardest to write because I find it much easier to praise a movie than focus on what fell flat or didn’t work. That being said, some of the characters here are interesting but their developments feel restricted by the film’s shaky structure and pacing issues. I strongly believe any one of these characters could be in a film that focused just on him or her and they would be able to carry the weight. Hence, the best characters for me were Deadshot (Will Smith), El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie).
Deadshot’s story arc feels the most complete thanks to a concrete (albeit brief) backstory, which helps ground his character. In second place was El Diablo whose arc, like Deadshot’s, feels finalized to a degree, which, again, is assisted by a good backstory that unfortunately doesn’t get revealed until act three. Lastly, Harley Quinn is a standout and Robbie looked like she was having a blast playing her. However, Quinn’s evolution seemed incomplete, and one issue I took with her storyline was how the abusive aspects of her relationship with the Joker were downplayed. Any casual Harley Quinn fan knows that the Quinn-Joker ship is seriously messed up. The Joker often subjects Quinn to physical, psychological, and verbal abuse, and while some of that is hinted at here, for the most part their pairing is played up as a romantic coupling of two criminal oddballs. But this is a misrepresentation and doesn’t reveal the extent of the relationship’s thorniness. Lastly, it’s only fair I give a mention to Katana as well who, despite being a cool character with an emotional backstory, is unfairly showcased. She’s presented as a bodyguard for Rick Flag, but she does get a brief moment where she goes off alone and tearfully promises the soul of her husband (which is trapped in her sword) that she will see him again if she should die. This was a rare, poignant moment and gave a tiny window into her character; but again, like most of the good parts of this film, it doesn’t last.
As a whole, the film feels unfinished and gives the impression that much of the original cut was left on the editing room floor, which makes me wonder what was omitted and why. (Just to note, I rented the film through iTunes and nothing indicated it was an extended version, so I assume I viewed the theatrical cut.) To be honest, I felt like Suicide Squad had potential, not in its finished state but hypothetically. Stories about antiheros are interesting as they usually bring up good questions regarding moral behavior, transformation, and redemption. While this film dabbles in these waters, it abandons them just as quickly as it sticks its toe in. In reality, this film could have gone one of three ways: an action flick filled with colorful characters, a shoot-em-up popcorn flick, or an introspective antihero piece. Any one of those directions would have been fine; but to its detriment, the film never makes up its mind and tries to combine all three, never fully fleshing any one of them out.
Probably the only time the film deals at any length with the topic of flawed people is through it’s credits song, “Heathens,” by Twenty One Pilots. All my friends are heathens/take it slow, the singer says, affirming that broken people need a gentle touch. It’s worth nothing that the word heathen, while it can refer to someone who doesn’t believe in a particular religion or who engages in pagan beliefs, is also used as a term for “a person regarded as lacking culture or moral principles.” Hence, a heathen is an outsider. The singer then goes on to request, Please don’t make any sudden moves/You don’t know the half of the abuse, implying that it’s impossible to know another person’s circumstances, then assures us that flawed people surround us and we engage them every day (You’re lovin’ on the psychopath sitting next to you/You’re lovin’ on the murderer sitting next to you….You’ll have some weird people sitting next to you). While the song never explains whether it’s literally talking about killers and criminals, I tend to believe these terms are being used as metaphors for the moral damage everyday people can do to each other by hurting feelings or cutting others with their words.
I like how Adam Holz chooses to interpret these lyrics: Is the band literally suggesting that we might be among psychopaths and murderers and not know it? The song doesn’t answer that question definitively. But I suspect Joseph and Dun [of Twenty One Pilots] are speaking metaphorically here, provoking us to consider that shadows lurk in all of our hearts. Accordingly, their message is the same to all of us, no matter how broken (or not) we consider ourselves and others to be: Don’t be too quick to judge people who look or seem radically different. In this context, “Heathens” is the perfect theme song for Suicide Squad as it’s easy to see the shadow lurking in characters’ hearts, yet their shows of loyalty and even desire for good dreams displays that they are not entirely evil.
Now if only the movie itself made so deep a claim.
Content Breakdown: Suicide Squad was given a PG-13 rating but my assessment of its content is as follows:
Language – Profanity usage is frequent at times, though not pervasive, and employs typical PG and PG-13 words, chiefly the sh-word. A single f-word is heard in the lyrics to the song “Gangsta” by Kehlani that plays over a scene.
Violence – Suicide Squad is surprisingly violent, especially in its second act, and, despite a lack of gore, the movie skirts close to an R-rating due to the frequency of its violent action. Characters shoot, stab, slice, and bludgeon baddies. While there is no blood or gore (as the creatures simply crumble apart), such scenes are usually large-scale and carry on for several minutes. Elsewhere, we watch Deadshot engage in his trade as a hitman as he takes out a mark (though there is minimal blood). Other characters are forced into perilous situations and engage in fisticuffs, firefights, and the like. We learn how one character torched people alive, see another character shoot several innocent people in the head, witness the Joker prepare to torture Harley Quinn, among other moments of peril and violence. Also, the Squad’s members are injected with small explosives in their necks under the threat of death should they defect. One member does defect and is promptly killed (the character’s head explodes at a distance and we see the headless body though it isn’t gory). Lastly, some of the songs used in the film glorify criminal activity and/or contain references to drugs, violence, and torture (such as “Purple Lamborghini,” “Sucker for Pain,” and “Gangsta” which is about a woman who is “built for the abuse”). Overall, this film harbors a dark tone and has frequent, prolonged scenes of violent action that, while nearly bloodless, can still be intense.
Sexual Material – Most of the film’s sensuality (as there are no actual sex scenes or nudity) comes courtesy of Enchantress. First, we learn that June Moone (who Enchantress possesses) is in an unmarried relationship with Rick Flag and the two are rumored to have been sexually intimate (though nothing is ever shown other than a few kisses and they share a bed fully clothed). June is seen once, briefly, in a bra and panties as she’s lying unconscious on a stretcher. Enchantress herself is garbed in barely-there costumes that cover critical parts of her anatomy but little else. Enchantress’ kisses transform normal humans into monsters she employs as soldiers, and she performs a gyrating dance as she casts a spell in order to create a doomsday machine. Elsewhere, the Joker refers to Harley Quinn as the “fire in my loins, the itch in my crotch” and offers her to please another man who refuses her advances. Quinn herself is also sexualized as we see her changing clothes in front of ogling men (she’s wearing tiny shorts and a bra as she tugs a form-fitting t-shirt over her chest) and wears said shirt and skimpy “booty shorts” all throughout the film. Elsewhere, Quinn dances in a nightclub in a short, low-cut dress as she briefly grinds on another woman. Also, the Joker-Quinn dynamic is questionable as it is based upon control and abuse though there is only an undercurrent of that here. In several flashbacks, we see the Joker threaten to torture her and later ask if she would both live and die for him before she takes a dive into a vat of acid. Lastly, some songs used in the film have sexually-charged or sensual lyrics (such as “Come My Lady,” “Super Freak,” and “Over Here”).
Recommended Audiences: In my opinion, I believe Suicide Squad stacks up this way (note that just because something isn’t recommended for a certain age group doesn’t make it “bad”):
Children – Not recommended due to the film’s story, dark tone, and content.
Older Children & Teens – Not really recommended unless teens are fans of anyone in the cast or like comic-book movies in general; however, the violent and sensual content should give parents and guardians some pause.
Young Adults & Adults – Not really recommended, but die-hard DC fans who want to follow the DC Extended Universe might still want to check it out. Otherwise, there isn’t much here to recommend to casually-interested viewers.
Overall, Suicide Squad is a cinematic mess as it’s a mishmash of tones and ideas, never settling on what it wants to be. In truth, it feels like a squandered story, something that had the potential to be good in theory, especially considering its motley crew of fun characters. But it never materializes into anything other than a sub-par superhero action flick.
(One Star out of Five)