Scholars Peter Dauvergne and Genevieve LeBaron have studied at length the corporatization of radicalism – the process by which the energy of revolutionary movements is co-opted by seemingly sympathetic actors who have little incentive to support destabilizing of the broader social system. Consider, for instance, the mainstreaming of the Che Guevara T-shirt: someone’s making a lot of money off printing those, whether or not they back Che’s ideas. In embracing the surface-level language and cultural forms of activism and insurgency, entrenched interests neuter potentially dangerous phenomena. Consider another example: the invocation by elite politicians of the phrase income inequality. This language assures potential protestors that their voices have been heard and their concerns are being addressed, but let’s be clear: none of these politicians are particularly interested in equalizing incomes. Radical ideas are distilled into a mainstream form to render them inert.
Director David Ayer’s “Suicide Squad” is the moviemaking equivalent of corporatized radicalism: a bland superhero team-up film, dressed in punkish stylings that aren’t any more threatening than your average Hot Topic store or My Chemical Romance CD. Though flashes of brilliance and wild kineticism periodically peek through the dull facade, any challenging or provocative elements in “Suicide Squad” are crushed down into an easily consumable form that demands nothing of the viewer.
Story-wise, “Suicide Squad” plays things pretty straight. Steely government executive Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) recruits a team of bad guys comprised of assassin Deadshot (Will Smith), longtime Joker girlfriend and psychiatrist-turned-lunatic Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), fire-shooting Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and a bunch of other characters who don’t affect the storyline at all. The villain squad is tasked with a straightforward mission: stop the evil Enchantress (Cara Delevigne) from building a magical super weapon that will wipe out the world. I wish I could say there were some narrative twists in the mix, but there aren’t.
Let’s make one thing clear up front: these characters have a ton of potential, and “Suicide Squad” did some brilliant casting. Robbie is the clear standout as Quinn – equal parts charming and quippy and utterly deranged, and charismatic enough to carry a full solo film if needed. Will Smith also turns in a solid if understated performance as the world’s best hitman who’s just trying to support his preteen daughter. Hernandez is also great as Diablo, who turns out to be one of the film’s most interesting breakout characters and the only one who bears out a developed moral arc.
It’s quite tragic that “Suicide Squad” has such great material to work with, and simply opts for an incredibly mundane save-the-world storyline.
For its first half hour, “Suicide Squad” embraces the delightful, neon-drenched, Arkham-meets-Saints-Row trashiness that keeps the film compulsively watchable. These characters are so outlandish, and have such deviant backstories, that simply watching them chat with each other feels like a guilty pleasure. Black humor, not action or Marvel-style snark, is what “Suicide Squad” has going for it…and unfortunately, this ethos never comes through as much as it should (there’s a wonderful pre-climax scene in which the villain gang shoots the breeze at an abandoned bar, but it’s the only one of its kind).
For that matter, the film’s cannon-fodder antagonists aren’t human beings, but crumbly zombie-creatures that look like they’re made of asphalt. While this was clearly done in an attempt to make the villains “not actually that bad” and keep the film PG-13, it feels disingenuous and untrue to the narrative. For that matter, none of these antiheroes do much that’s particularly culpable: if these guys are Gotham City’s “worst of the worst,” things must be pretty great in Gotham.
The marketing of “Suicide Squad” has highlighted its brilliantly chromatic color palette – wild acidic greens and reds and purples (in one mesmerizing dream sequence, Harley embraces the Joker in a vat of shimmering chemicals, and their entwined bodies are surrounded by swirling red and blue patterns). It’s a crying shame that this hallucinogenic wackiness only comes through in fits and starts: most of the film, like “Batman v Superman” relies on a dark, desaturated color palette as the Squad makes their way across an abandoned city. Even the final battle suffers from this problem: the showdown is shot through a cloud of dust that makes the action almost incomprehensible.
The missed opportunities keep piling up. In a clear attempt to ape Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Ayer throws in countless pop-music cues. Contra “Guardians,” these song choices hit like lead balloons. They range from breathtakingly obvious to the point of insultingly stupid (does a shaven-headed Will Smith really need Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” as his theme song?), to the merely cliche (Eminem’s “Without Me”). Ayer gratuitously squanders the opportunity to throw in something more unique – why not use something by Against Me! or The Offspring? – and ends up looking lazy.
Finally, Jared Leto’s much-ballyhooed Joker is one of the film’s worst elements. Creepy tattoos aside, he comes off not as menacing, but as a drug-addled teenager who could use a stint in juvie. Lying on the carpet in a room surrounded by knives doesn’t make someone menacing: it makes their mother refer them to psychiatric counseling. Past Joker portrayals by Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger coupled chaotic energy with a fierce sense of brilliance and calculation, which made their characters worthy rivals for the World’s Greatest Detective (after all, Heath Ledger’s Joker was out to prove a very specific moral point about the corruption of man vis-a-vis Batman). By contrast, Leto’s Joker simply doesn’t seem especially intelligent. He has nothing to say, nothing he stands for, nothing he’s trying to prove…at bottom, he’s nothing but a thug with bad skin and hair. And there’s simply nothing scary or enthralling in that.
“Suicide Squad” demanded and deserved an R rating, a truly bizarre storyline, and a small cast of characters. It got none of those things.
That being said, “Suicide Squad” does a lot of things quite well. The acting is generally good, the worldbuilding is better than anything in “Man of Steel” or “Batman v Superman,” and the aesthetic choices – when they’re allowed to shine – are mesmerizing. In the right hands, this could lay the groundwork for some really strong material…if the radical flourishes in “Suicide Squad” are allowed to liberate themselves from corporatized constraints.
In a post-“Dark Knight” era, it’s easy to forget that in the grand canon of DC storytelling, Christopher Nolan’s ultra-grounded approach is the actual outlier. Most Batman stories have a touch of the pulpy and the weird – Poison Ivy, Man-Bat, and Mr. Freeze would have no place in the Nolanverse, but plenty of intellectually compelling stories involving them could be told by a gifted artist. If you take Harley Quinn, Deadshot, and a few other component pieces on their own terms, “Suicide Squad” plants the seeds for some really magical and offbeat Batman storytelling (and yes, Ben Affleck’s Caped Crusader does show up in a couple of satisfying cameo scenes).
At the end of the day, DC needs to stop rushing headlong towards its “Avengers”-wannabe project and take a long, slow breath. Everything doesn’t have to fit neatly into the standard superhero-film formula: when you’re building a world with this much potential for creative richness and wild artistry, viewers don’t want to see a Marvel-knockoff conclusion.
At some point, the modern DC cinematic universe will produce an excellent film. “Suicide Squad” is not that film…but it shows enough potential to keep me watching.
Despite flashes of genius, “Suicide Squad” is a good movie trapped inside a very soggy one.