There’s been a story spreading about a change.org petition to shut down Rottentomatoes.com because of the low aggregate score that the recent DC/Warner Brothers film Suicide Squad received on the site. To be absolutely clear I think this is a truly ridiculous petition, not the least because it’s blaming a site that is simply reporting critical consensus rather than creating it. What’s more the people making this petition (who I can only assume are at least rational enough to know that it would accomplish nothing) were doing so because of a ridiculous conspiracy theory that Disney was literally paying off critics to pan the films of their competition. This too is preposterous. However, just because you’re paranoid does not mean that people aren’t out to get you and just because the people behind this petition are wildly off in their belief that critics are actively being bribed, I do think they might be on to something when they say that there is a bit of an anti-DC bias amongst the critical community. I don’t think critics are consciously trying to sabotage DC’s efforts and I don’t also don’t think that the critics were wrong to pan the wildly mismanaged Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. However, I do think critics are very conscious of the media narrative surrounding the DC and Marvel films and I feel like a lot of them have fallen into something of a trap of viewing the Marvel formula as some kind of bulletproof ideal of the perfect superhero movie and that they have formed a bad habit of lashing out at anything that tries to do something a little different. It’s like there’s a certain confirmation bias going on in which they latch on to any evidence that their “dark superhero movies = bad” theory is true and I feel like DC’s latest movie, while certainly flawed in a handful of ways, had gotten piled on because of this.
Suicide Squad is set shortly after the events of Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice but mostly stands on its own outside of that movie. With Superman supposedly dead the U.S. government has found itself needing a contingency plan so they can make an official response to a supervillain threat rather than relying entirely on independent vigilantes. To do this an agent named Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has devised a plan to recruit supervillains who are currently in prison to form a sort of super Dirty Dozen to be sent on suicide missions in exchange for reductions to their prison sentences. Among the criminals they decide to round up are the high priced assassin Deadshot (Will Smith) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), who is a sidekick/lover of The Joker (Jared Leto). Perhaps less successfully, they also try to recruit someone called The Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) who is a sort of witch that’s possessed an otherwise innocent archeologist and sort of takes over her personality occasionally and casts spells. Waller thinks she has The Enchantress under control because she keeps her heart locked up in a briefcase but doesn’t have the degree of control she thinks she does. Soon enough The Enchantress has escaped and is trying to take over a city. The government’s one hope to stop her is to call in the rest of the Suicide Squad but they’re still pretty damn reluctant to help what with them being evil and all.
I have been broadly supportive of DC’s cinematic efforts BvS notwithstanding, but there were plenty of red flags I saw surrounding this project. The biggest of these red flags is its director, David Ayer. Ayer is a guy who doesn’t get half the hate that Zack Snyder and Michael Bay get, in part because he hasn’t been working at quite the same budgetary league for most of his career but trust me he’s a lot worse than both as a visual stylist and as a wannabe macho poser. He got famous for making faux-gritty movies about “the street” like Training Day (for which he wrote the screenplay, which is easily the film’s weakest element) and the not that widely loved but still vastly over-rated End of Watch. The guy clearly had no idea what he’s talking about when discussing the “inner city” but even when he’s tackling other subject matter as he did a couple of years ago with the movie Fury there’s still this whiff of macho fantasy to pretty much everything he does and even if that wasn’t off-putting his movies still tend to just take a lot of really dumb twists and turns.
So, needless to say, between that and the toxic reviews the movie was getting I had pretty low expectations going into the movie. Thing is, I actually kind of liked it. It’s probably not a hill I want to die defending as there clearly are flaws to it but I did have some fun with it. I’d say that the overriding thing about it is that unlike BvS, which had issues that made it close to being objectively terrible, the quality of this movie is largely a matter of taste. This is a movie that was pretty clearly made for fourteen year olds and one’s enjoyment of it will have a lot to do with how much you’re willing to tolerate its “attitude.” This is a movie that’s very interested in being a sort of MTV superhero movie… or whatever the modern equivalent of that sort of designation is now. It has an “inspired by” soundtrack filled with “edgy” modern artists like Twenty One Pilots, Skrillix, and Wiz Khalifa (in addition to an absurd number of classic rock tracks at the beginning, the music licensing on this movie must be off the charts expensive) and a lot of the characters here have tattoos and other indicators of “edge.” In some ways it almost reminds me of the 2003 Daredevil in its interest in courting the youth, which would seem like a damning indictment, but this approach actually seems kind of appropriate for this particular project and there’s almost something refreshing about a movie that isn’t trying to be all things to all people.
In fact there are a lot of decisions here that would probably seem awful in any other superhero project but which kind of make sense here. Ayer’s dumbass conception of what “the streets” are like is actually sort of a benefit for this particular story as a kind of cartoony grit is what a film like this is supposed to be going for what with it being a movie about streetwise people with silly powers. Ayer’s over the top grittiness also kind of makes sense here in a way that it normally wouldn’t for a superhero movie both because this is about super villains and also because there’s a certain silly mean spiritedness to the way the government operates in this movie that seems almost subversive. Our resident anti-heroes are almost all straight-up abused by prison guards in this thing and Amanda Waller seems like a sort of cold blooded bizzaro-world Nick Fury.
Ultimately though I think what saves this movie is almost certainly its cast. I wasn’t expecting much out of Will Smith here given that he isn’t the biggest part of the advertising but he’s in surprisingly good form. He’s not exactly stretching himself or anything and this is basically a slightly more edgy take on his usual schtick but given that Smith has spent a lot of time chasing Oscars and finding projects for his kids recently it was nice to see him back in movie star mode. I also think that Viola Davis is very well cast as Amanda Waller. I gather that this is not to far removed from her role on “How to Get Away With Murder” (a show I don’t really watch) but she definitely brought a sort of dark gravitas to the proceedings. Of course the real highlight though, as many would suspect, is Margot Robbie’s work as Harley Quinn. Harley Quinn is a character who actually debuted during the 90s in “Batmen: The Animated Series” before being incorporated in the larger DC continuity and has long been this sidekick of The Jokers who also seems to be this brainwashed woman who is essentially an obsessed abuse victim. That’s some heavy material if you think about it and there was a sexual dimension to the whole thing that had to go largely unspoken on that cartoon. Here Harley seems to have been sexually liberated and she has this almost Lara Croft-esque “sexy but ass kicking” aura that Robbie plays into while pulling off that distinct New York accent she’s known for.
Now, I’ve defended the movie up to a point but it does have problems. For one thing the film’s villain, The Enchantress, seems rather poorly chosen. The Suicide Squad consists mainly of a dude who shoots people, a chick who shoots people and hits them with a baseball bat, a guy who throws boomerangs at people, and a chick who stabs people with a samurai sword, and a Special Forces soldier. Granted, there’s also a crocodile guy and a dude who can create fire with his hands but for the most part they’re more like a special forces team of sorts than a conventional superhero team and it seems a bit odd to be sending them against this magical supernatural apocalyptic villain. These guys should be sent to take out a dictator or a cartel or a colorful gangster or something. I think part of why The Enchantress is chosen was the desire to have the team fighting these monster things that she creates rather than humans which helps them keep the violence level down, which brings us to another one of the film’s problems: it really would have benefited from an R-rating. If only this thing had been made after the breakout success of Deadpool it probably would have had the bloody carnage and the f-bombs that would have given its edgy aesthetic into that next dimension that it would have benefited from. Then there’s Jared Leto’s Joker which is… I’m still not entirely sure what I think of it. It’s certainly got nothing on Heath Ledger, Jack Nicholson, or even Mark Hamil’s vocal performance as the character, but I don’t know that it’s exactly a disaster. The idea seems to be to apply that Joker flavor to a criminal who’s more like a Crip/blood style “gangster” rather than the funhouse mirror James Cagney-type we’ve traditionally seen, which is… certainly an idea I guess, but I’m not in love with the execution. I don’t think he ruins the movie or anything but it could have worked better.
So where do I sit on this thing? Honestly, there’s not a doubt in my mind that I liked it, but often it kind of works in spite of itself. Like Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice before it it’s a movie that has great moments and not so great moments, unlike that movie though the plot here is mostly coherent, it generally has more originality, and the performances are pretty much better across the board. However, this is also a movie that is clearly trying to be little more than a silly little action movie so it was never really destined to excel into the highest stratosphere of superhero movies. One thing it is not, however, is the train wreck you may have heard it was. In fact, out of the five superhero movies I’ve seen this year it’s probably my second favorite, or at least the one I’m second most likely to want to watch again.