Review: ‘Suicide Squad’ Isn’t Just A Mess, It Illustrates All Of DC’s Biggest Problems
In the DC-verse, heroism hinges on the issue of whether or not to hit something, and how hard.
If the trailers for Suicide Squad promise a party-sized bag of mixed candy, the film itself is more like a bare handful of sour warheads. Audiences still buzzed on the raucous energy of the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’-soundtracked marketing will find their high won’t last long once they actually get into the theatre; the air almost immediately starts leaking out of the film once it starts. The whole first half-hour is a riot of blunt exposition, useless flashbacks, and false starts.
This is a movie that doesn’t even know how to begin.
The set-up is clear enough: Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), a tough as nails intelligence operative, is pulling a lot of strings to bring together a black ops team of “metahumans” that the government can use to combat super-powered threats. On the slate are Deadshot (Will Smith) an expert marksman and assassin; Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the deranged girlfriend of Batman villain The Joker; El Diablo, a former LA gang leader with pyrokinesis; Captain Boomerang, a totally normal Australian; and a couple of others whose names you don’t need, under the leadership of soldier Rick Flag. Sprung from a black site prison, and injected with explosives to ensure their compliance, the fractious team is sent to Midway City, where a supernatural disturbance is in progress.
But Squad takes this elementally simple action premise — a team of misfits brought together to take on a dangerous job — and comprehensively bungles it. Here’s one brief but important example: the actual reason why the squad is deployed to Midway City is, ultimately, muddied, as are their objectives once they’re in the field. No spoilers, but the film actually seems to even contradict itself on this matter, like the makers themselves aren’t sure. This is a men-on-a-mission film with no real sense of what that mission is (which is surely a metaphor for something).
Every now and then a sharper version of the story peeks around the edges of the film, and you can glimpse the movie’s writer/director David Ayer might have made, before it got buried under much-publicised re-shoots and likely corporate tinkering. Warner Bros is plainly eager to make the film a smooth re-entry for audiences into its DC universe project, after the cultural bellyflop that was Batman vs. Superman, and a sense of anxious eagerness to impress pervades the film. This might explain the endless series of on-the-nose needle drops that burst onto the soundtrack whenever the film feels like it’s losing momentum (i.e. often).
One area where the film actually might have benefited from more corporate oversight is in its gender and sexual politics. Interrogating a film on its ‘wokeness’ is not always a productive activity, but when a major blockbuster has a highly-sexualised woman at its centre it ought to be fair to ask questions about how it sees her.
Robbie is a hugely charismatic and capable actor but, as Harley Quinn, she is not only the focus of an uncomfortable amount of textbook-style male gaze filmmaking, she’s also underserved by the material. Quinn may, as conceived, be a pin-up fetish object, but she also could, in theory, be a strong, self-assertive character on her own terms. Yet the film continually returns her to a subordinate position as The Joker’s moll with almost no sense of agency outside of these terms. There’s even an extended, functionally useless subplot in which he tries to spring her from squad duty and she pathetically follows.
Part of the problem here is also Jared Leto’s performance as the Joker. The film is evidently trying to give their relationship a Bonnie and Clyde-type frisson, but Leto is so coldly lecherous and uncharismatic that the few glimpses of the couple’s past together — in which he tortures Quinn, passes her off to a criminal accomplice for sex, and induces her to commit a faux-suicide — read as abusive rather than kinky. So, with the exception of the steely Waller, women are mostly present in Suicide Squad to be ogled, harassed, have their butts patted, or get punched in the face, giving the film an ugly, misogynist aftertaste.
This misogyny is characteristic of writer/director David Ayer’s work to date, although it’s typically present as a symptom of his major obsession: the necessity of violent men to the functioning of society. In previous films like Fury, Sabotage, and End of Watch, Ayer imagines the world in a state of war (secret or open). Here, the forces of good consist of hard-boiled, brutal men, who take on the dirty work of maintaining civilisation against the forces of evil even when it means a messy, compromised end for themselves. He loves soldiers and cops and gangs and basically any situation in which men can bond in a macho fashion, and from which femininity is a distant distraction.
Ayer’s narrative peccadillos make him not only a fine choice to adapt the Suicide Squad comics, they also make a him a natural fit for the emergent DC comics movie-verse which is developing a sort of grubby obsession with moral compromise. Ayer shares with Zack Snyder (director of Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman) an ardent desire to see the world in shades of grey and a keen interest in the male musculature. If Snyder never made 300, Ayer probably could have.
A kind of fascistic love of force may turn out to be the defining element of these DC films — Superman ended Man of Steel by snapping the neck of his enemy, after all — since none of them have yet to develop a philosophy of heroism beyond the application of violence. The Marvel superhero sequence, although increasingly tired, at least engages in an ongoing moral debate about how heroes ought to conduct themselves. Age of Ultron, notably, spent a huge amount of time having the Avengers team try to limit civilian casualties during the film’s climax, while this year’s Captain America: Civil War pivoted on the question of whether they could accept government oversight. In the DC-verse, heroism hinges on the issue of whether or not to hit something, and how hard.
That Squad somehow manages load up even that decision with a tangle of mixed character motivations and fumbled plotting is maybe even a little impressive. Its ethics are as incoherent as its storytelling.
Suicide Squad is in cinemas from tomorrow.
James Robert Douglas is a freelance writer and critic in Melbourne. His work has been found in The Big Issue, Meanland, Screen Machine, and the Meanjin blog. He tweets from @jamesrobdouglas.