There is nothing in Suicide Squad that shows any hope that an auteur filmmaker can do anything distinctive with the current cash cow of the Hollywood machine: the super hero movie. What Christopher Nolan once made his own has devolved into a predictable pastiche whose charms should be wearing thin on audiences. It doesn’t help that the movie is also an example of how bad one of these films can be when it becomes watered down and designed to refrain from shaking up anything in the so-called DC Universe. Suicide Squad, a PG-13 film, was supposed to be DC’s entry to rival Marvel’s R-rated Deadpool. Even though Deadpool had its own problems as a self-aware action movie, it still had focus and a bravado that is nowhere to be found in Suicide Squad.
Suicide Squad follows a group of villains with super powers released from prison as part of a government plan to protect the world from terrorists or whatever sign-of-the-times fear currently plaguing society (Zika?). Starring Will Smith as the hit man Deadshot and Margot Robbie as the Joker’s manic girlfriend Harley Quinn, alongside several other less familiar DC baddies, these guys are supposed to be complex people who have long fallen from grace and are supposed to rise above to find their humanity and gain the audience’s sympathy. But writer-director David Ayer tries so hard to take a safe route, you can see the gears trying to manipulate audience emotion, revealing the inherit problems of these comic book adaptations straining to catch up with decades of printed storytelling.
You can’t totally blame Ayer, who last gave moviegoers Fury, an incredibly strong and startling war movie featuring a better fleshed out motley crew of characters. The preciousness Hollywood has for its ongoing world building of interconnected comic book films creates such tight restrictions on storytelling that anything that might upset that world has no room to prosper. At one point, toward the end of Suicide Squad, one character asks another, “Shouldn’t you be dead?” Of course not, this is the DC universe, and it’s gotta be milked. That means no major players should be written off in one movie.
The result of these storytelling restraints is a soulless kind of filmmaking hampered by pussyfooting. It’s like a syrupy glaze that drowns out any possibility to shine above what has become a predictable pattern of storytelling. Characters dole out uninspired lines that play superficially to feelings, like, “Dad, I know you do bad things, but I still love you.” Then there are the clichés, like “fight fire with fire.” Sometimes the script inadvertently deflates the tension by spelling things out. Someone over a radio says, “Use extreme caution,” and someone in the action responds, “I don’t like this.” But in case you miss that, someone else says, “I don’t like it either.” A kid playing with his action figures can come up with better chatter to establish tension.
Ayer leans on montage to reveal the background of the members of the Squad. Often these sequences are accompanied by songs that have become their own clichés.“Super Freak” is used to establish Harley in happier times, and “Sympathy for the Devil” is the walk-on music for the brains behind creating the crew, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis). The soundtrack continues with uninspired choices like “Seven Nation Army” when the group first gather to head out on their first mission, and then there’s “Spirit in the Sky” as they set out for a mission they call “suicidal.”
There’s an orchestral score too, and it’s even more bland than the de rigueur song selections, another big disappointment considering it was composed by Steven Price, the same man behind the Oscar-winning score of Gravity. Prices’ contribution to Suicide Squad might as well be some generic junk made for a cheap video game. It sounds that banal.
Trying to rise above the din of the soundtrack — not to mention plenty of ear-splitting gunfire — are characters trying to grapple with conflicted feelings of conscience. But it’s like the tiny sound of gears creaking below the noise of a demolition. No one can hear it or really notice it. That’s why Ayer throws in a bar scene, late in the film, where the group grapples with its conscience and rallies over some drinks before entering the fray again. As bad ass and conflicted as Suicide Squad tries to be (which is not much), in the end, it’s the same, safe, cheap sentiment played against heroic acts that we’ve see over and over with these movies.
The movie has some moments that make Smith and Robbie easy to watch. Robbie in particular delivers nearly all her lines with a semblance of personality. But the thespians hardly have any room to act between the film’s quick edits, one-liners and the almost schizophrenic tonal shifts of its spasmodic storytelling. Most of all, Ayer just relies on visual gags to make up for mishandled attempts to squeeze too much complexity into too many characters over too little time. Instead, props make up for character development. In an unremarkable performance by Jared Leto, the Joker now has grills and even his wide grin had been reduced to a prop — a tattoo on top of his hand. There’s a semblance he is trying to embody the character’s sinister nihilism, but it doesn’t come close to what Heath Ledger reinvented in that Nolan movie.
It’s nothing new that women in this genre must wear skimpy outfits, but the shots between Robbie’s legs and the digitally enhanced hip shaking of Cara Delevingne as the Enchantress border on grotesque. When everything seems at stake and Deadshot sees the Enchantress, he rhetorically asks the group’s leader (Joel Kinnaman), “That’s your girlfriend?” and he affirms (cut to her shimmying). There’s a creepy sense he is showing her off as an object, despite the fact that the world may be coming apart at its seams, around them.
Throughout Suicide Squad, the stakes never seem to rise to anything more than visual gags. One character dies early on as proof the explosive implants in Squad members’ necks work, but the poor sap never gets a montage or quirky still shot of their personal folio, so who cares? The movie is just a connect the dots exercise in what has become formulaic filmmaking at its worst. It will take a hand as bold and subtle as Nolan to make these films interesting again, so when a director like Ayer, who has been involved in some of Hollywood’s darker and complex films, fails as bad as this, you wonder with whom the hope for a truly interesting entry into this tired genre lies.
Suicide Squad runs 130 minutes and is rated PG-13. It opens pretty much everywhere on Friday, Aug. 5, with options to see it in 2-D, 3-D and IMAX. Warner Bros. Studios invited me to a 2-D preview screening for the purpose of this review. All images in this review are courtesy of Warner Bros.