As I’ve noted here and there in Picking up the Spare posts, the narrative that has built up around Suicide Squad that it’s just a mess, the result of a rushed script and production schedule and all sorts of studio tinkering. To what extent all that is or isn’t true, the finished product isn’t as bad as it’s been made out to be by some critics. What I think has contributed to the negativity in the reviews and post-release press coverage is that the movie was sold in a way that didn’t match the finished product.
Here’s the recap: Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) wants to prep for the next war, one that will be fought by metahumans and those with special abilities. She decides the best way to do this is put together a team of villains because they will be easier to control: They do a good job and they get reduced sentences. Do a bad job and they either die on the mission or she kills them for insubordination. So she trawls the prisons for Deadshot (Will Smith), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and others like Killer Croc, Diablo and more. They soon have their first mission, stopping Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), who has turned on the team, from ending the world.
The movie was sold as a madcap joyride, something that was going to serve as a sneaky, subversive antidote to the heavy, dirge-like plotting and story of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. It was going to bring DC Comics characters into the light and have a little fun with things. That’s exactly what’s being marketed in the bevy of trailers and TV spots the studio created along with the brightly colored posters and other ads.
Instead what we got was a slight variation on a theme. Yes, Will Smith holds the screen in a way few actors can and evokes the movie stars of old, someone with charisma and chops and a genuine screen presence. But Deadshot is given little to do other than feel conflicted about being who he is, knowing he’s really good at killing people but also wanting to be a good dad to his daughter. Margot Robbie is great as Harley, that’s for sure, but she’s too often reacting to what others are doing around her and not causing the kind of mayhem that the character should, not to mention the troubling depiction of her relationship with Joker.
Ahhh, Joker. Let’s just be clear: Jared Leto is awful as Harley’s beloved Puddin’. Just awful. The character is there for no story reason. He’s just included because someone didn’t think we could understand Harley unless she had the Joker to play off or provide justification for her actions. It’s not surprising that his role in the marketing was outsized – Joker has a reputation and awareness that rivals many hero characters – but what’s disappointing is that he’s doing a bad Heath Ledger impersonation while dressed like someone from Strange Days. Lift him out of the movie and not only is the movie better because it’s not stopping for digressions but it also lets Harley have a bit of agency that’s her own.
Suicide Squad isn’t the disaster some have said it is. But it is a muddled story that’s every bit as dour and grim as Batman v Superman was, but for different reasons. That stands in stark contract to the marketing campaign that promised goofiness and laughs. While there were some of those the real issue is that we were all charmed by the trailers but the movie as a whole just doesn’t reach promised levels of hilarity and cartoonishness.