Imagine, for a moment, that Marvel Studios had decided to launch its vast cinematic universe with Captain America: Civil War. That is to say, the movie didn’t merely have to introduce Black Panther and reintroduce Spider-Man; it also had to introduce Cap himself, and Iron Man and Black Widow and Falcon and Vision and Scarlet Witch and everyone else all the way on down the line. It needed to set up backstories and narrative arcs and romantic entanglements for everyone involved. It needed to explain what brought them together. And it needed to do all of this in about 15 minutes in order to subsequently come up with a lame supervillain for them to fight.
This is the challenge that Suicide Squad sets for itself early, and it succeeds just about as poorly as you might imagine. Intelligence operative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) is at dinner with a general, when she slaps down a binder marked TOP SECRET in letters big enough to be seen from space. In it are “the worst of the worst,” an assembly of evildoers whom Waller has managed to corral in a super-secure facility; she wants to form them into a team of on-the-leash supervillains who can do the government’s dirty work with utter deniability.
It turns out, of course, that they’re not really as evil as advertised, at least not compared to their captors. The first two scenes of the movie feature the prison guards meting out sadistic punishments to their charges. This is by no means the last time the movie proposes that its bad guys are actually good guys. But it offers an early, disheartening glimpse of just how little confidence the filmmakers have in the animating premise of their whole endeavor.
Back to Waller and the corner-cutting, expository intros of her TOP SECRET folder: There’s Deadshot (Will Smith), “the most wanted hitman in the world”; Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), once the Joker’s psychiatrist, now his psycho girlfriend; Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), a guy who, well, hurls boomerangs; El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a human flamethrower; Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, hidden under several inches of prosthesis), a super-strong reptile-man; and the Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), a former archeologist intermittently inhabited by the spirit of an ancient witch. For reasons that remain hazy (other than to demonstrate how cunning she is), Waller engineers a love affair between the Enchantress and Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), “the finest special forces officer this nation has ever produced.” The latter is thereby appointed to keep his dubious troops—yes, this is the titular “Suicide Squad”—on the (relatively) straight and narrow.
Are you exhausted yet? I know I was. It feels like roll call on the first day of summer camp—“Tell us a little bit about yourself”—except that almost every character offers either a Tragic Family Melodrama or a Completely Inert and Uninteresting Romance. The producers of the movie could have saved time and money by simply instructing moviegoers to consult the Wikipedia pages of everyone in question before arriving at the theater. Don’t worry though: About half an hour later the movie will introduce two more squad members: Katana (Karen Fukuhara), whose samurai sword “steals souls”; and Slipknot (Adam Beach), “the man who can climb anything.” No, I’m not kidding: He literally has the superpowers of a squirrel.
As I hope I have made apparent, the storytelling that brings all these characters together so quickly is lazy to the point of professional negligence. But it still constitutes storytelling, which is more than one can safely say of the rest of the picture. The director David Ayer (End of Watch) has done solid work in the past, so it’s hard to say exactly what went so terribly wrong here without falling back on the explanation that Zack Snyder, who has largely overseen the DC Extended Universe so far, must somehow be to blame. (Glum? Check. Ultraviolent? Check. Devoid of any apparent empathy for anyone involved…?)
Before I go on, I should mention the good: In stark contrast to its immediate DC antecedents (Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v Superman), Suicide Squad recognizes that, when dealing with super-types, good or evil, a dash of humor goes a long way. (That it took DC so long to figure out what Marvel has known from the start is no small amazement.) Robbie is genuinely terrific as Harley Quinn, earning the movie’s best lines and nailing almost every one of them. (That said, the camera’s incessant leering at her hot-panted posterior is a bit, let us say, Michael Bay-ish.) And Smith is considerably better than the mediocre material he’s given here. Also ... No, that’s it. I have nothing else nice to say.
The plot—and I use the term liberally—really gets underway after the Enchantress’s evil spirit takes control of her archeologist alter ego and liberates her equally evil spirit brother, Incubus. (I learned his name from imdb.com; to the best of my memory, it’s never mentioned in the movie.) He immediately begins a fairly pointless rampage in “Midway City,” which the filmmakers evidently felt was an important locale to introduce for their ongoing DC world-building.
So who does Waller initially send to deal with this civic calamity? Flag and his girlfriend the Enchantress, who has temporarily resumed her human form. She, of course, quickly becomes a demonic entity again, joining her brother and declaring her intention to “build a machine to destroy all of them”—a.k.a. humanity. (And yes, for those curious: This central, evil-plot motivation plays virtually no role in anything that ensues.) As Flag later admits, hilariously, of this preliminary mission: “Needless to say, the whole thing was a bad idea.” Ya think?
One might assume that the instantaneous defection of Waller’s most powerful Squad member would call into question her entire project. But she is undeterred, sending the rest of the team in to deal with the sibling demigods. (Actually, their initial mission is to rescue an unknown civilian from Midway City, and they only afterward decide to go after the Enchantress and Incubus. But trust me: You’ll wish the movie had left out this particular narrative “twist.”)
The team bickers, as such teams inevitably do—in particular Smith’s Deadshot and Kinnaman’s Flag. But because we have so little invested in any of these characters (again, Marvel provides the obvious contrast), this bickering is not charming or elucidating, merely tiresome: people we don’t particularly know or like saying unpleasant things to other people we don’t particularly know or like.
Given the exposition-heavy opening and the bicker-heavy middle, Suicide Squad has remarkably little time left over for any actual action. More remarkable still, this is actually a good thing, as the action sequences the movie does provide are plodding and unimaginative. Part of the problem lies in the characters themselves. El Diablo is really the only Squad member who has a genuine superpower apart from being strong or proficient with weapons—and he initially refuses to use his power, for reasons that will eventually be revealed in a wearisome backstory. As such, the litany of violent shooting, slicing, and baseball-batting (Ms. Quinn’s specialty) quickly becomes tedious. The first big action set-piece is further undermined by the fact that the movie has not even bothered to introduce the—literally—faceless enemies the Squad is fighting. (That this oversight is presumably deliberate makes it no less inept.) Indeed, the fact that virtually all of the film’s action takes place at night can’t help but leave the impression that the filmmakers don’t actually want us to see what’s going on.
Which brings me to the Joker, played by Jared Leto in what amounts to a super-cameo. Post-Nicholson and (especially) post-Heath Ledger, it’s unclear why any actor would want to step into this role and invite what are almost certain to be unflattering comparisons. But perhaps still dazzled by the glow of his weak-year Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club, Leto clearly believed himself up to the task, as evidenced by the near-endless boasts about his method acting. Alas, as amusing as it must have been for the cast-mates who received such in-character gifts from him as used condoms, anal beads, a live rat, and a dead pig, what Leto offers as the Joker is pure Ledger-lite, a heavy dose of antic wickedness ungrounded by anything deeper or more intriguing. When he describes love-of-his-life Harley Quinn as “fire in my loins, itch in my crotch” he traverses the distance between Nabokov and your average horny 9th grader in barely half-a-dozen words.
It would be easy to keep enumerating the almost countless flaws of Suicide Squad: the senseless, lackadaisical killing; the desperate, maudlin attempts at emotional connection; the risibly silly climax, which rather resembles the ending of either Ghostbusters except that it’s played straight; the cliché-ridden soundtrack (“Fortunate Son,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and on and on). But if I have not yet convinced you of the movie’s astonishingly slipshod quality, I’m unlikely ever to do so.
Late in the film, Ayer indulges in a little franchise cross-pollination with a cameo (not the first) by a character from elsewhere in the DC-verse. This time, however, the character arrives with a healthy dose of advice for Squad mastermind Waller—and perhaps, by extension, for DC universe mastermind Snyder: “You should shut it down.”