2016 has not been kind to the DC universe. It’s a bad sign when your anchor film – featuring two characters that are as iconic as they are profitable – is released well outside the summer blockbuster season, and suffers some of the most scathing reviews of the year. I possessed so little enthusiasm for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice that I had to keep reminding myself of its existence. When it was finally released, I bought a ticket and – like so many other rightly disgruntled moviegoers – ate shit for two-and-a-half hours.
Fanboys raised their torches to the critical establishment (bunch of meany-heads!). Critics raised their torches to Warner Bros. and the those behind the camera. A lot would have been riding on the next iteration of Batman even if the preceding trilogy hadn’t been directed by Christopher Nolan (Memento), but Zack Snyder wasn’t that filmmaker. Sure, the fact that he helmed the underwhelming Man of Steel made him a logical choice as far as franchise continuity goes, but the truth of the matter is, his style-soaked aesthetic gives his films an anti-intellectual sheen that actively discourages depth and subtext. (There are exceptions, of course: his adaptation of Watchmen is brilliant.)
Batman v Superman cobbled together an intolerable collection of “greatest hits” sequences and warmed-over tropes, all while a studio frantic to compete with the ever-expanding Marvel universe awkwardly shoehorned cameos from characters to set up 2017’s Justice League. The film was weighted down in trying to accomplish too much, and the sense of a continuity person ticking off items from a producer-mandated checklist rendered the experience joyless.
Which brings us to Suicide Squad, whose marketing campaign posited it as the colorful, anarchic antidote to the brooding BvS even before the latter was released. Whereas the dreary color palette of Snyder’s film aligned it better with a late-winter release, the Suicide Squad trailer equated itself with neon fireworks and hypercaffeinated energy drinks.
As handled by writer-director David Ayer (Fury; End of Watch), Suicide Squad captures a chaotic, don’t-give-a-fuck madness and embraces its own off-the-rails, barely-stitched-together plot with the same maniacal laughter of Slim Pickens – or Jared Leto’s Joker – riding an A-bomb into oblivion. Given the volume of characters introduced, two hours is barely enough time to develop any beyond the basest traits and backstories, but Ayer – whose previous films, flaws and all, show a superior grasp of ensemble interaction – somehow manages to give the entire cast a chance to show humanity and depth. Not unlike this year’s Ghostbusters, something that really resonates with Suicide Squad is its attention to the camaraderie – sometimes reluctant, but always present – between the characters. When the narrative flounders, engagement with this disparate group of misfits remains strong.
It won’t read as an endorsement to many, but Suicide Squad frequently reminded me of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (anithero enters a city that’s been turned into a dystopian war zone) crossed with Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City (the faceless villains consist of humans transformed into scale-covered zombie types). Elements of the climax recall the original Ghostbusters (down to Cara Delevingne’s Enchantress bearing an uncanny resemblance to Gozer), not to mention nearly every X-Men movie. Actually, the whole thing feels reminiscent of something Tobe Hooper would’ve directed circa the mid-’80s. While nowhere near the extremes of, say, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, the same over-the-top tonal sensibility is there – and the offbeat collection of antisocial personalities aligns it more with a house of horrors than the stuff of children’s fantasy.
The cast is introduced with rapid-fire urgency (even using the Tony Scott method of superimposing supplemental text on-screen); a couple scenes are devoted to military bigwigs arguing with Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, calibrated to the proper degree of ice-cold) about enlisting psychopaths and “freaks” in the service of good, something that is quickly curtailed when the plot kicks into gear; and the catalyst that produces the BigBad calls into question the selective powers of Enchantress (whose heart – literally and figuratively – is used as a bargaining chip throughout the film). Through all this, Ayer manages to give the characters distinctive traits and motives on an almost even keel; fan service is paid to the relationship between the Joker (a properly menacing Jared Leto) and Harley Quinn (a scene-stealing Margot Robbie), while Deadshot (Will Smith) is given an obligatory paternal quandary (he wants to do right by his daughter, which fits with Smith’s usual “family man” shtick). Meanwhile, military hardass and team leader Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) comes off as a Trump-supporting ‘Murica type initially, but the stakes of the situation (including a personal angle) add depth to his character. Of those I wasn’t familiar with, I found Diablo’s (Jay Hernandez – Quarantine) arc most intriguing, even if it does borrow heavily from Joss Whedon’s Hulk.
Some things don’t work: the inclusion of Batman (Ben Affleck) comes across as shoehorned, and the climactic battle is shot in a monochrome blur against a rain-swept backdrop; at least the editing is good enough to keep the action coherent. How Harley is given – and manages to hold on to – a cell phone for the majority of the movie is confusing, along with the ultimate purpose of Ike Barinholtz’s comic-relief prison guard. And a credits teaser for Justice League attempts to ape Marvel, while telling us nothing we didn’t already glean from BvS. This, and the rush to introduce too many characters and narrative threads, renders the film overstuffed and disorienting at times.
So it makes sense, then, that Suicide Squad is a hot mess. Gloriously and idiosyncratically so. An unabashed, barnstorming ride designed for consumption on the biggest screen possible. While not executed with the same sense of economy and winking sarcasm as Deadpool, it stands tall as a hurrah for the outsider, and a reminder that movies from the DC universe can still be fun when they want to be.
Jonny Numb’s IMDb Rating: 7 out of 10