It feels good to be bad.
Suicide Squad, based upon the DC comics line popularized by John Ostrander in the late 80s, has finally hit theatres. Centered on a group of ne’er-do-wells, sociopaths, and killers, the film’s function is two-fold: it continues to build and expand the DC Extended Universe of films while also serving as an art-punk response to the more straight-laced, level-headed heroes audiences are used to. Though critically maligned like its predecessor, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad has steadily broken records since its release last Friday, once again showcasing a disconnect between general audiences and critics. Whether the film has the legs to be considered a massive success remains to be seen, however, like BvS, I must once again count myself among those pleased by the film. In fact, I’d go beyond saying I’m pleased; I loved it.
After two viewings I’ve come to the conclusion that at its (blackened, Enchantress) heart, this film is a character piece. By no means is its plot the most original, nor well-executed story in a modern cinema, but here are the basics: Amanda Waller, government operator and leader of the shadowy organization known as ARGUS, has assembled a team of supervillains to be sent on assignments that require their particular array of skills. Given incentive to succeed by miniature explosives implanted in their necks, Task Force X or the Suicide Squad allows the government to run covert ops with plausible deniability should anything go wrong. After a misstep by Waller jeopardizes Midway City (and perhaps the entire world), Waller activates Task Force X, ordering it to infiltrate the besieged city and extract a high value target before it is too late.
Though the plot sounds involved, it doesn’t have that many moving parts, but that is alright. It serves its purpose as the foundation upon which the strengths of the characters and their chemistry can be displayed. The performances (at least for me) all worked, with a few especially meaty roles that the actors fully inhabited.
Margot Robbie is the standout performance here, fully transforming herself into fan-favorite Harley Quinn, girlfriend and accomplice of the infamous Clown Prince of Crime himself, the Joker. Robbie goes for broke, chewing bubblegum and scenery with a thick New York accent and generally acting in the way fans have wanted to see since Harley’s introduction in a 1992 episode of Batman: The Animated Series. She’s funny, demented, and more than capable of handling herself in a fight, but Robbie also manages to instill within her intelligence (she does have a doctorate in psychology after all) and flashes of humanity; the moments are brief, but it becomes apparent that Harley’s manic glee is not always genuine, her crazed posturing an act as often as it is the real thing.
Much of this has to do with her relationship with Jared Leto’s Joker. Their history is illuminated through a series of flashbacks that show how Dr. Harleen Quinzel fell for the man she was supposed to be treating, in turn becoming his accomplice and lover. The bizarre codependency of Harley Quinn and the Joker is something I never thought I would see on the big screen, and thankfully (once again, for me) Suicide Squad nails their relationship. The Joker, for all his sociopathic tendencies, does share some connection with Harley, though the extent of his feelings at any given moment seem to be as unpredictable as the rest of his behavior. He’s just as likely to save her as to put her life in danger, just as likely to use her as he is to help her. In turn, Harley possess a mad sort of love for the Joker, something deep and illogical, but not all that unrealistic given the realities of abusive, manipulative relationships. Robbie and Leto are electric when onscreen together and I hope we get to see more of them in the future.
As for Leto’s Joker, I was incredibly impressed. Leto had the extremely unenviable task of following Heath Ledger’s classic take on the character from 2008’s The Dark Knight. Though not given half as much screen time as Ledger (Leto’s Joker is not Suicide Squad’s main antagonist), Leto makes the most of it, presenting what is perhaps the most unsettling Joker to date. There is a palpable sense of meanness to this iteration, something that was present in Ledger’s Joker, but not at the forefront of his character’s message-based mayhem. In contrast to Ledger’s more anarchic villain, Leto’s Joker is full gangster; a blinged-out, dead-eyed monster with a silver-grilled smile who preys on others’ discomfort and pain. His singular obsession in this story is Harley Quinn yet who knows what he would do as the primary antagonist of a Batman film. How would he and Harley interact with the looming threat of the Bat? How would Affleck’s Batman react to Leto’s Joker since we know Leto’s Joker killed Robin? I can’t help but be excited by such thoughts and I hope Leto gets the chance to reprise this role in a much larger capacity.
Continuing with the squad itself, one cannot avoid talking about Will Smith as Floyd Lawton, aka Deadshot. A marksman of uncanny ability, Deadshot is the world’s most wanted assassin; however, he has one glaring weakness which gives Waller control over him. Smith brings his effortless charm and charisma to the character and his interactions with the rest of the squad as well as their government handlers are some of the best scenes in the movie. Assuming the position of the leader of the squad itself, Smith does admirable work; his chemistry with the rest of the cast, especially Margot Robbie (who costarred with him in last year’s Focus), is stellar. On top of that, Deadshot’s abilities are wonderfully showcased in a number of scenes, making the seemingly mundane power of being “really, really good at shooting stuff” far cooler than you ever thought it could be. If Deadshot was not a popular character before, he’s about to be.
Despite being impressed by both Robbie and Smith, for me it was Jay Hernandez (Friday Night Lights, Hostel) that stole the film. He plays a former gang member and powerful pyrokinetic called El Diablo. Once a man of violence, now sworn to peace, El Diablo grudgingly goes along with the squad, reluctant to use his powers until the situation forces his hand.
I won’t say anymore for fear of spoiling the film, but I will say that El Diablo has perhaps the most satisfying emotional arc of anyone in the squad and Hernandez’ soulful, somber performance takes what could have been a caricature and makes his character’s journey not only interesting, but moving as well.
Rounding out the main players, Viola Davis brings it as Amanda Waller. In a film full of bad people, Amanda Waller is perhaps the worst. If there ever was an “ends, not means” person, she’s it. Fully committed to her purpose, Waller is a stone cold personification of everything a normal person fears about the government: her resources are unlimited, her reach vast; she’s ruthless, manipulative, and worst of all, self-righteous. Everything she does is to protect the United States of America and she believes that Task Force X is the first step in developing a program that will protect the US in the new metahuman wars to come. Viola Davis ably embodies Waller, filling her with a palpable tenacity and brusqueness that’s straight off the comic book page; even when she’s not in control, Davis conveys a sense of assuredness that makes Waller’s mistakes seem like they were part of her plan all along. As frustrating as she is fascinating, I can’t wait to see Davis’ Waller pop up in more of the DCEU.
As for the rest of the squad, they don’t necessarily get much development, but they do serve a purpose. Jai Courtney (Spartacus, Terminator: Genisys) is at a career best as the beer-swilling, unicorn-fetishizing Captain Boomerang, whose ability is just as ridiculous as his namesake suggests. Courtney showcases great comedic chops, serving as comic relief in a number of scenes, yet offering some real heart when necessary.
Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje plays Killer Croc, a metahuman with mottled skin, immense strength, and cannibalistic tendencies. Though he rarely speaks, Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s physical performance is great and the practical effects used to bring his character to life are truly impressive. Here’s hoping that we’ll get to see Croc cross paths with Affleck’s Batman sometimes in the near future.
Karen Fukuhara plays Katana, a government agent who wields a katana that steals the soul of whoever it kills. She doesn’t have much to say, but man does she look cool doing just about everything.
Rounding out the squad is Special Forces leader Rick Flagg as played by Joel Kinnaman (The Killing, House of Cards); Flagg is suitably authoritative and capable, yet perhaps not in as much control as he’d like people to believe. Kinnaman’s arc, though spoilerific, is a fun aside and one that makes his relationship with the squad and especially Deadshot that much more interesting by the end of the film.
Kinnaman is an interesting actor and one who I find charismatic in a way not unlike Tom Hardy, whom he replaced after The Revenant’s shoot had to be extended. I would love to see Kinnaman push this character into a different, more challenging direction should the opportunity arise.
Lastly, Cara Delevingne portrays archeologist June Moone, and more importantly, her sorcerous alter-ego, The Enchantress. A lot of criticism has been levelled at Delevingne’s portrayal of the Enchantress, particularly in her movement choices for the character, but in this case as in many, I feel people are being a bit unfair. Acting, like writing, is a difficult, easy job in the sense that it’s not like working hard physical labor day-in and day-out, but it is an art form and there are interpretations and choices that must be made in any given project. For all that criticized her acting choices, I offer this scenario: You’ve just been cast as the Enchantress, a 6000+ year-old entity who is now once again walking the earth. Convey her otherness with your movements. Go.
It’s a difficult role to play, just like the Joker, but with even less direction and absolutely no other iterations from which to draw. For me personally, I enjoyed Delevingne’s performance and thought she conveyed the dichotomy between her characters well for the material she was given.
As far as the directing, it’s no secret that I really like David Ayer (you can read my glowing review of his WWII tank-drama Fury here). Though Suicide Squad is not plot heavy, Ayer excels with character drama, and just like in Fury, End of Watch, and Training Day, he has a clear written voice and style that bleeds into his work. Though the film’s editing may seem slightly off-kilter and disjointed at times, overall it worked for me and I hope Ayer gets the opportunity to continue to explore the world of the Suicide Squad, hopefully with a little more freedom and time to develop his ideas. With DC’s new Chief Creative Officer/writer Geoff Johns (who is a DC comics superstar if you didn’t know) now in charge of all DC Extended Universe films, I’m sure it would be an even wilder ride.
In the music department the film is also a lot of fun, sprinkling original tracks with recognizable hits in a pleasing manner that never felt out of place or forced to me. The original score by Steven Price (Fury, The Hunt) is incredibly atmospheric and heroic while retaining the all the darkness of the premise; its climactic track, “One Bullet is All I Need” is sure to make it into my Epic Writing Music playlist.
In short, I disagree with the majority of critics on the merits of Suicide Squad. I think it is a wonderfully-acted ensemble piece that, though light on plot, delivered what I desired from the start: it touched on the Joker and Harley Quinn’s twisted relationship; it gave me a suitable taste of Leto’s unnerving and utterly bizarre take on the Joker; it had some stylish, fun sequences involving a group I never thought I’d see onscreen; and most importantly, it showed bad guys doing some good.
Whatever Task Force X’s next mission, count me in.