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Non-Review Review: Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad is a mess.

Like many contemporary blockbusters, it is overplotted and convoluted. For a film with a (relatively) straightforward story and an impressively large ensemble, Suicide Squad twists and turns in a way that makes it impossible to pin down. The film never seems entirely sure when enough is enough, and always seems ready to pile more on top. The film is never entirely sure what the audience should know at a given moment, particularly compared to the characters. Character development is secondary to a series of quick gags and cheap one-liners.

Whacky.

Whacky.

At the same time, there is a certain charm to the film, once it gets past the clunky exposition or the twisty plot or the inevitable myriad of complications that serve to eat up screentime. The core concept of a team of supervillains enlisted to deal with a national crisis is a great story hook, and Suicide Squad featured a collection of intriguing characters brought to life by a fairly great cast. Suicide Squad works best when it lets those characters cut loose, when it cedes the screen to Margot Robbie or Will Smith. There is an energy and verve to it that is contagious.

That energy does not make up for the movie’s shortcomings, but couple with David Ayer’s sense of momentum, it helps to keep the train from coming off the rails for most of the movie’s two-hour runtime.

'Sup Squad?

‘Sup Squad?

If the basic pitch for Suicide Squad resembles a superhero version of The Dirty Dozen, that is no coincidence. The comic book team was originally created by writer Robert Kanigher and artist Ross Andru in late 1959, at the dawn of the comic book resurgence known as the Silver Age. Kanigher and Andru conceived of “Task Force X” as a straight-up military team, enlisted to face monstrous threats in something of a midpoint between the dying war comics genre and the resurgent superhero genre.

Task Force X would not get a superhero makeover until the mid-eighties, when writer John Ostrander and artist John Byrne resurrected the concept as part of the Legends crossover. Spinning out of DC’s linewide reboot as part of the sprawling Crisis on Infinite Earths that hoped to streamline fifty years of comic book history into a single easy-to-follow continuity, Ostrander hit upon the idea of a team of supervillains conscripted into doing the government’s dirty work in exchange for leniency.

"I'm here to kick ass and chew bubblegum and I'm all out of... never mind."

“I’m here to kick ass and chew bubblegum and I’m all out of… never mind.”

However, the premise was the least interesting aspect of the team, which soon headlined its own Suicide Squad comic launching in May 1987. With the continuity reboot, many old characters had effectively been “orphaned” and disconnected from their origins. There were dozens of comic book characters who had been forgotten about or overlooked in the line-wide reshuffle. Ostrander seized upon these dangling loose ends and sought to integrate them into the book. Suicide Squad became a weird point of intersection for fifty years of comic book history.

The basic premise was highly flexible, allowing Ostrander to run through the various weird genre intersections that define a long-running comic book company. The team could deal with any number of strange threats and ideas drawn from fifty years of comic book continuity. They could wrestle with pop science or high fantasy or even Jack Kirby’s mind-bending Fourth World. Although never a breakout book in terms of sales, Suicide Squad ran for more than five years. In that time, it offered a weird and wacky tour of the expanded DC universe.

She's got drive.

She’s got drive.

At the same time, Ostrander very much rooted the comic in the eighties. Suicide Squad was a book that had a clear eye on cultural relevance, occasionally with eye-rolling results. The first story pitched the team against a group of Middle Eastern super terrorists known as “the Jihad.” A later arc had the group tied up in the War on Drugs, following the lead of supermodel-turned-superhero Vixen. The less said about the arc in which the team confronted voodoo zombies in New Orleans, the better.

The team was comprised of low-rent villains within the fictional universe, but it was also populated by characters that nobody particularly cared about. This afforded Ostrander a great deal of freedom. The book’s gimmick was to kill off a character or two on a regular basis, to keep the audience on edge. This was only possible because Suicide Squad was populated by characters that no other editorial department at the publisher would actually miss. In the wake of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, who cared if Captain Boomerang snuffed it?

Comic book movie boom(erang)...

Comic book movie boom(erang)…

However, it also afforded Ostrander the freedom to play with broken toys. Deadshot would become the book’s breakout character, with Ostrander even writing a four-issue miniseries centring on the character and writer Gail Simone incorporating the antihero into her spiritual successor Secret Six. Deadshot was a comic book footnote at that point, a tophat-wearing mustachioed Golden Age Batman villain reinvented by writer Steve Engelhart and artist Marshall Rogers during their iconic seventies run on Detective Comics. However, Ostrander made him a star.

Suicide Squad attracted the truly oddball characters. There was Briscoe, the helicopter pilot with an… unhealthy relationship with his ride. There was Shade the Changing Man, the continuity outcast created by Steve Ditko and later the star of his own monthly Vertigo comic book series written by Peter Milligan and illustrated by Chris Bachelo. There was also Grant Morrison, the comic book writer who had written himself into the DC universe at the climax of his run on the Vertigo comic Animal Man and found himself conscripted onto the team. Oddballs.

Drinking it in.

Drinking it in.

It is also worth noting that Suicide Squad played a major role in the rehabilitation of Barbara Gordon. Writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland had famously crippled the character as part of their prestige graphic novel, The Killing Joke. The story remains a focal point for debate, particularly given the company’s decision to reverse Barbara’s paralysis in 2011 and the release of an animated film based on the story in 2016. Barbara Gordon’s role in The Killing Joke remains controversial.

Nevertheless, writers John Ostrander and Kim Yale picked up the pieces left by The Killing Joke. In the pages of Suicide Squad, Barbara Gordon revealed a new persona as the hacker Oracle. It was a logical and considerate development for the character, demonstrating that Barbara Gordon was still vital and able to contribute even after she was paralysed. Some might even argue that Ostrander and Yale retroactively redeemed the questionable storytelling of The Killing Joke, turning an abandoned character into a rare representation of disability.

Killing Joker.

Killing Joker.

All of this is to demonstrate that Suicide Squad was a very strange comic book, and its success was very firmly tied into the particulars of its time. After all, it could legitimately be argued that the comic book concept has never worked as well as it did for John Ostrander in those original sixty-six issues. There have been various relaunches and reboots, but none have had the same lasting impression or critical success that marked that initial run. As such, Suicide Squad is a very strange choice for a big budget blockbuster adaptation, let alone the first DC team movie.

Suicide Squad seems aware of this absurdity. The film spends a full forty-five minutes of its runtime setting up the basic premise. The film breezes through a series of “origin stories” for its key plays, kinetic short films couched in superhero shorthand. There is an endearing economy to the way that director David Ayer manages to cover so much ground so quickly. Relying on the audience’s familiarity with the superhero “origin story” template, Ayer creates what amounts to a collection of shorts that fill in the gaps on this dysfunctional team.

Harley hates to be tied down.

Harley hates to be tied down.

Given that superhero cinema was once dominated by two-hour epic origin stories, there is something refreshing in the way that Ayer covers so much ground so quickly in the case of each of his lead characters. In the space of a few moments, Ayer is able to convey everything that the audience needs to know about a collection of rogues that include the hitman Floyd Lawton, psychotic clown Harlene Quinzel, Australian gimmick villain Captain Boomerang, and superpowered witch Enchantress.

The problem is simply a matter of volume. There are so many of these short origin story bits that the film never seems to gather enough momentum before hitting another snag. There is always more mythology to be unpacked. It is not enough that the Enchantress is a magical pseudo-deity, the film also has to introduce her brother. At one point, just before the team embarks on their mission, the character of Katana is introduced at the last minute. It almost seemed like the film forgot that it had to cram one more flashback and introduction in.

Swords and sorcery.

Swords and sorcery.

To be fair, this would not be a huge issue if the plot itself weren’t horrendously over-complicated. The basic premise of Suicide Squad is very straightforward. It is so straightforward that it can be accurately explained within a two-minute trailer or by a single line of dialogue. These are bad guys sent into deal with a bad situation, in exchange for amenities or suspended sentences. When disaster strikes in the fictional Midway City, the team are dispatched on a rescue mission to recover a high-value target and get out of dodge.

In theory, this is all quite simple. However, Suicide Squad needlessly complicates it by throwing in all manner of twists and convolutions to this straightforward narrative. Most notably, the plot hinges on the cast rescuing the exact same character twice. The team come close to succeeding in their objective, only to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and find themselves effectively back at square one. All of this serves to push the characters up against the plot’s “big bad”, something the script could easily accomplish in a more organic manner.

Psyche out.

Psyche out.

Compounding these plotting issues is the question of what the audience needs to know at a given moment. There are a number of big dramatic reveals at the climax of the film that feel shoddily executed. It seems quite likely that Suicide Squad was heavily edited before its release. Most notably, the sequence documenting the attack upon Midway City seems rather choppily put together, with the stakes escalating incredibly quickly while (human) characters seem to teleport in and out in order to provide plot exposition.

It seems likely that Suicide Squad would flow a lot better if it actually skipped the attack sequences, and opened in media res with the characters responding to the attack. Towards the end of the film, several characters become aware of plot details that the audience learned more than an hour earlier, which adds a real dissonance to the revelations about the nature of the attack. Suicide Squad might have worked better had it kept those details in reserve until the climax, rather than trying to have its cake and eat it by showing the details up front and making a big deal of them later.

Shocking behaviour.

Shocking behaviour.

For example, one of the film’s better reveals is the identity of the high-value target that the team have been sent in to extract from Midway City. It is a development that feels organic in the context of the film, but which as much a surprise to the audience as to the characters. It is probably the best-executed twist in the film, and there is a sense that the script tries to repeat it once or twice at the climax to a muted effect. Suicide Squad feels like a movie that has been over-edited, worried that the audience cannot be trusted to handle very basic plot twists.

This sense of over-complication extends to an entire subplot focusing on the Joker. The Joker is one of the most iconic characters in comic books, and it seemed inevitable that he would make an appearance in DC’s cinematic universe sooner rather than later. Indeed, making Harley Quinn so central a character all but mandates and appearance from the Clown Prince of Crime. However, Suicide Squad is overly enamored with its take on the harlequin of hate, and so dedicates an entire subplot to the character.

This is problematic in a number of respects. Most superficially, it adds yet another plot beat and character element to a script that is already close to bursting. On top of following Task Force X as they venture into Midway City to deal with a cataclysmic threat, it also follows the Joker as he plots to be reunited with his henchwoman and somehow ventures into the middle of the crisis just long enough to cause complications but without interfering too heavily with the primary plot. It is all very messy.

However, it also causes some issues with the portrayal of the relationship between the Joker and Harley Quinn. Harley Quinn is a relatively new addition to the larger DC universe, introduced by writer Paul Dini as a character on Batman: The Animated Series before being incorporated into comic book continuity. (In fact, Suicide Squad manages an impressive visual shout-out to the cover of the comic introducing her to comic book continuity.) Despite being introduced on what was a family friendly show, the relationship between the two was abusive.

"Harvey's gonna hate me for stealing his gimmick."

“Harvey’s gonna hate me for stealing his gimmick.”

Suicide Squad retains some elements of the abusive relationship between the Joker and his favoured sidekick. Elements of Paul Dini’s Mad Love are retained in her origin, as a clinical psychologist at Arkham who finds herself drawn to the Joker. The Joker then manipulates and warps her, with Suicide Squad offering some fairly graphic imagery of her transformation. However, Suicide Squad also seems to suggest that the Joker really does care for Harley Quinn despite of all the abuse he inflicts upon her.

The Animated Series was always quite candid about the nature of their relationship, to the point that writer Paul Dini helped to chart an arc for the character than led her away from the Joker’s abusive clutches and towards a healthier and more fulfilling romantic relationship with fellow Batman villain Poison Ivy. In many ways, the handling of Harley Quinn’s character arc was an extended metaphor for domestic violence, dealing with a horrifying (and all too common) occurrence through the prism of genre storytelling.

Suicide Squad seems to genuinely believe that the Joker and Harley Quinn are embroiled in a twenty-first century Bonnie and Clyde outlaw romance. When Harley is taken from him, the Joker seems to cross the globe to reunite with her. Once her transformation is complete, the character is never physically abusive towards her. Although it is suggested that Harley loves the Joker slightly more than he loves her, Suicide Squad feels a little too comfortable with the dynamic between the two characters.

To be fair, a lot of this is down to Leto’s take on the Joker. Oscar-winner Jared Leto is inheriting the part from Heath Ledger, who made the part so effectively his own in The Dark Knight. The comparison does Leto no favours, but it is a comparison that would be complementary to very few actors. Perhaps as a response to Ledger’s definitive grounded take on the character, Suicide Squad offers a very cartoonish take on the character. Leto’s Joker feels more in tune with Cesar Romero than Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger or Mark Hamill.

Batter up.

Batter up.

Indeed, what is remarkably about Leto’s Joker is how casual the film seems to be about a man with bleached white skin and bright green hair operating within the realm of organised crime. This version of the Joker is not so much a loner or a freak as an eccentric. He does not seem to have a grand philosophical motivation for what he does, he is instead driven by immediate impulses. There is something incredibly superficial about Leto’s interpretation of the character, which is almost endearing given that comic book villains seem to be drawn more and more to nihilism.

Watching Leto’s Joker, there is a sense that the character just wants to cut loose and have a good time, that he is not engaged in some sort of philosophical battle of wills against the Batman with the city’s soul caught in the balance. It is admittedly a take on the character that seems strange after Heath Ledger offered a definitive interpretation of the Joker as urban terrorist and force of nature. Certainly, it seems unlikely that Leto will be remembered as an iconic interpretation of the character. However, these differences are intriguing of themselves.

This hits on the key strengths of Suicide Squad. In its strongest moments, the over-complicated plot and the over-crowded narrative don’t matter, because this is a delightfully strange little film. Repeatedly throughout the film, the central characters reflect on what it means to be “normal”, and whether that is something that any of them might aspire. “Normal is a setting on a dry cleaner,” Harley Quinn states at one point. When another character confesses to his monstrous acts, Quinn suggests, “You have to own that sh!t.”

Suicide Squad is an odd film about a delightfully odd set of characters. It is this oddness that is most endearing about it, despite the obligatory “end of the world” stakes and the “floating ring of trash in the sky” that seems obligatory in every big budget blockbuster from The Avengers to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows. Even with its over-written script, Suicide Squad is still a film that finds room for a character named Captain Boomerang or introduces Slipknot as “the man who can climb anything.” (His power is a grappling gun.)

There is a sense that, for better or worse, Suicide Squad is utterly unashamed of itself. It is a comic book blockbuster that does not beg to be taken seriously. It basks in absurdity. It is a comic book film that accepts comic book storytelling prima facie. To pick a minor example, Suicide Squad never feels the need to explain why Floyd Lawton wears a silly costume, because he’s in a superhero film. To pick a major example, the Joker is allowed to coexist with an ancient three-thousand-year-old witch.

There are aspects of Suicide Squad that are ripe for mockery, most obviously how downright tacky Jared Leto’s Joker actually is in costumes and accessories. At the same time, there is something endearing about the film’s willingness to run with this weird dream-like logic, whether it’s having that same Joker man a gattling gun in coats and tails or having Harley Quinn pick a giant wooden mallet out of her war chest. In that respect at least, Suicide Squad captures the sheer weirdness of its source material, something writer John Ostrander clearly built the comic to showcase.

What a Croc.

What a Croc.

Casting is a major part of this. Margot Robbie is very much the film’s breakout performer, offering a delightfully demented (and occasionally vulnerable) take on Harley Quinn that does the character proud. Robbie amps up the “Noo Yawk” accent that she employed for The Wolf of Wall Street, and owns just about every scene in which she appears. Robbie does a lot of the heavy lifting for the script, which has a half-dozen other characters to worry about, creating a sense of a truly broken individual.

However, Robbie is ably assisted by turns from Will Smith and Viola Davis. Davis is very good as Amanda Waller, the mastermind behind the whole “Suicide Squad” idea, and one of the most intriguing characters in the DC playbook. Suicide Squad is endearing in its willingness to acknowledge Waller as monstrous in her own right, even beyond her relationship with a rag-tag bunch of supervillains. Repeatedly over the course of the film, it is suggested that the government parties employing the services of these villains might be far worse than the villains themselves.

It is tempting to read this as a form of political commentary from David Ayer, particularly given the film’s rather low-key depiction of supervillainy. Suicide Squad is a film in which the “worst of the worst” consist of an expensive hitman who doesn’t “do women or children”, a psychotic clown lady arrested during grand theft auto, a gimmicky diamond thief, a recluse treated like an animal, and a Los Angeles gang member with temper issues. Even the Joker seems to operate on a much smaller scale than Waller and her government officials.

Suicide Squad provides an interesting companion piece to the political meditations of Batman vs. Superman. As in Batman vs. Superman, and in contrast to something like Captain America: Civil War, Suicide Squad seems to suggest that the exercise of any power is inherently a political act. Suicide Squad is very much a War on Terror movie, reflecting twenty-first century anxieties about power and authority. The attack on Midway is initially presented as a “terrorist” incident, shot through with heavy religious undertones and tied back to government policy.

Alleyway allies.

Alleyway allies.

For his part, Smith was one of the most reliable leading actors of the nineties, and it is fun to see the performer playing (somewhat) against type as the world’s deadliest hitman. Although the “against type” aspect of the character is softened by emphasising Deadshot’s adorable daughter here is something quite wry in taking one of the biggest box office draws and most charismatic leading men of the nineties and placing him at the head of a dysfunctional ensemble. Smith proves suitably game.

Indeed, Suicide Squad is almost cheekily self-aware and referential. Playing against (or at least with) Smith’s established persona is just one example. At one point, Amanda Waller passes a vendor selling branded Superman shirts, like those might find on a New York street corner. Later, the Joker is framed lying on the ground surrounded by knives and daggers and other such implements of death. David Ayers frames the sequence in an overt homage to a similar composition involving Jared Leto in Requiem for Dream.

At the same time, the film’s visual aesthetic sometimes overwhelms. The character designs are striking, almost suffocating. The Joker is perhaps the most egregious example, with numerous tattoos to indicate just how edgy he is. Is the forehead tattoo reading “damaged” really necessary? The same is true of the markings on Harley Quinn, whether the “Lucky You” tattooed above her crotch or the “E-V-I-L” spelt out across her fingernails. These feel like heavy-handed signifiers of ideas that the characters communicate quite effectively on their own terms.

There is also a very faint sense of moral panic about all this, as if their tattoos and body markings are being used to evoke a sense of “otherness.” The bad girl Harley Quinn is distinguished from the good girl Harlene Quinzel by the ink on her body, as if the very act of tattooing a human body is something unclean or bizarre. It lends Suicide Squad a strange reactionary tone, as if somebody on the production heard about nineties gang tattoos and decided to weave it into a superhero narrative. (In fact, the Joker has a tiny “J” in place of the iconic teardrop tattoo.)

On the strait and narrow.

On the strait and narrow.

Still, Suicide Squad is fun. Director David Ayer seems to be enjoying himself playing with these characters, and it shines through. In its best moments, Suicide Squad zips along with a compelling verve. The plot is nothing special, and Ayer seems to understand that the key to keeping everything on an even keel is to keep the audience (and the characters) moving. This is most notable in the opening and closing segments of the film, in which Ayers rushes through montages set to classic rock, trusting the audience to keep up and the visuals to convey what needs to be said.

Suicide Squad is a bit clunky in places. The script pays far too much attention to the particulars of what amounts to a very generic comic book armageddon, instead of letting the characters breath. However, it also assembles a charismatic cast of actors to play the weirdest superhero ensemble since Mystery Men, and trusts a director with enough energy to keep it moving along. Suicide Squad doesn’t always work, and it’s not consistently a great film. However, it is a reliably bizarre one, and it works best when it celebrates that fact.

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10 Responses

  1. What I always appreciate about your reviews is your ability to find the positive. I, and most of the internet, often fall into considering something all bad or all good, so it is nice to find someone who has a more balanced opinion. That being said, even based on this positive review I think I will stick to the DCAU. It still seems to be the definitive take on all of these characters. The CADMUS arc with Amanda Waller. which includes the suicide squad episode, Task Force X, is a DCAU high point, and seems like it covers much of the ground these DC films, Batman vs Superman and Suicide Squad are now trying to cover.

    • It’s strange. People seem to think I’m a “soft”/”generous” marker when it comes to films, but I’m not entirely convinced. I do spend a good third of the review outlining the very basic plotting/structuring problems with films and the issues created by the focus on the Joker. And I can do as brutal a takedown as anybody else, I think; this year “Truth” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” come to mind. I’m also quite proud of my “Terminator: Genisys” piece.

      That said, I’ll readily admit that I start from a position of wanting to like a film. I’m more inclined to talk about the elements that interest me, and to engage with the good elements in a bad script. Snark for the sake of snark doesn’t necessarily interest me as a mode of critical discourse, as good as it can feel to read. (And to write.)

      But, yeah, Task Force X is a much better take on this concept than Suicide Squad, which I seem to like a lot more than most critics, even while having serious problems with it.

      • Darren, if you think Terminator: JeanSize was you being brutal then – I’m sorry – you’re no Roger Ebert. Nor should you be. Keep being you – your extremely even-handed approach to criticism is very helpful. When one sees how hard you stretch to say something positive in certain reviews that’s damning in its own way.

  2. Watch it, and enjoy it. The sloppy editing (specially after the introduction of the characters) is noticeable, but after that the movie is very energetic and fun.
    About the relationship between Joker and Harley, I think it’s still an abusive relationship, in my opinion. After all, he ditch her and left her in the bottom of the river when things got to hot. The Joker attempts to free Harley could be more of a sign of a possessive behaviour.

    • It could be, but it’s not really played that way.

      The rumours of the deleted scenes are interesting, and point to a much stronger (and more interesting) movie.

      But, again, I liked it more than most.

  3. Interesting review.

    I’ve never understood why the Poison Ivy/Harley relationship is so popular. Granted it is certainly less overtly abusive than Harley/Joker but that is at least universally seen as a toxic relationship. In any incarnation Poison Ivy is a mass murderer, manipulator and terrorist and I always find it creepy so many seem to rush to forgive her (then again I feel much the same about Magneto – I guess I just have difficulty ‘getting’ that type of mood.)

    • I think a big part of the Ivy/Harley popularity is the ambiguity of their relationship (platonic? sisterly? sapphic?). Also, the original pairing of the characters in the TAS episode “Harley & Ivy” gave a pretty compelling female empowerment story along the veins of Thelma and Louise.

      • Is it still ambigious?

        And again, as with Magneto, I guess my issue with the Thelma and Louise angle is that Ivy is pretty damn evil in TAS. She is the same woman who faked a relationship with a man to slowly and painfully murder him for the ‘crime’ of building on a wildflower meadow.

        “Harley and Ivy” is a fun episode but I’m not going to be cheering on the terrorist and her girlfriend just because they have cute banter.

    • Then again, the same logic might apply to Harley in that regard. Even allowing for her abuse, she is still an accomplice in countless murders.

      (Although more recent interpretations like the new 52 or Suicide Squad mitigate that by having Harley’s transformation be literalised rather than just treating her as an easily obsessed fan.)

      With Ivy, I think there’s a sense that they are something approaching equals, and that Ivy might actually care for her and wouldn’t intentionally hurt her. A legitimate outlaw pairing rather than an explicitly abusive relationship. I think there’s also just the fact that lesbian relationships are still quite rare, and would have been especially rare in what is a nineties family cartoon. Representation is inherently good.

      • I think the difference with Harley and Ivy is that Harley is severely mentally unbalanced and Ivy is generally depicted as sane… which in some ways makes her worse that a lot of other Bat villains, not better – she’s a genocidal terrorist on her own terms. I do realise that the relationship hasn’t been portrayed as overtly abusive and I can agree Ivy cares in her own way but there is a strong power imbalance there that leaves me uncomfortable.

        (Mind you as you point out Harley’s level of sanity and awareness is debatable.)

        I think Convergence: Harley Quinn, though not a particularly good comic, cast the relationship in a slightly more negative light, more along the lines I’d go with.

        As for the representation angle I’m not sure I’d entirely agree, but that is getting into a different debate altogether.

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