16 August 2016

First Impressions: Suicide Squad

I was very torn when I finally sat down and took in Suicide Squad (2016) and all its majesty that lies halfway between brilliance and completely misguided idiocy. I came out of the theater pretty jazzed up. While I was watching it there were definitely some significantly apparent flaws, but all in all I was feeling pretty good. It wasn't really until I sat down to write this post and really thought about the mess I just witnessed when I realized just how much of a trainwreck this thing was. Listen, and I'll tell you right here, it's not as bad as everyone says. It at least didn't make me angry. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) was unrelentingly stupid. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and The Hangover: Part III (2013) were movies I looked forward to that were so obscenely terrible that I have trouble watching them casually on television today. Suicide Squad doesn't match that fury, but damn there are some issues at work here. Let's have a lengthy, spoiler-filled discussion!
No other superhero team does their shopping at Hot Topic.

The film feels continuously on the edge of being a really great movie. Somewhere in here is a brilliant genre deconstruction that relishes its own spunky attitude and bold character decisions, highlighting its impressive performances and solidifying DC's place in the Superhero conversation. That's all lost somehow. The largest culprit is its clear disjointed editing and scene selection, especially the beginning.

Now, I don't really care about origins or explanations for superheros. I don't need to know where Diablo gets his fire power from. That doesn't matter. I've been reading comics for the better part of 25 years and crazy metahumans pop up all the time. It doesn't matter. What causes the disjoint, though is how some of the Squad get flashbacks and others don't. It's kind of like Inglourious Basterds (2009) except it doesn't have the great movie around it to make this not irritating.

This wouldn't be a huge problem except for the fact that it feels like there are whole other movies going on with each of these characters that we aren't privy to. We might as well get this out of the way now - this is especially apparent with the Joker. There's also no really narrative purpose for him in this movie, to the point where I'm mystified by his inclusion (well, besides the obvious selling point of putting a really famous and well known villain played by an Academy Award winning actor front and center of all marketing). I figured he'd be a nasty thorn in the sides of our other bad guys, or have his own plot or motivation or something, or even be the main villain! All of that was largely absent. It was as if he had his own movie going on that we saw bits and pieces of as it intersected, but were kept at a strong distance.

This is pretty unfortunate. It's not like the film is necessarily hard to follow but there is a lot of set-ups and characters that are picked up and dropped. To be more exact, there are a lot of times where you're expecting a pay off that never comes, or you get one with no set-up. A fair example is the Joker's threats to Ike Barinholtz, which never really materialize. Another involves most of the side characters, who we'll get into more in depth in a bit.

Staying on the Joker for a second, it's an odd interpretation for sure, but not one without precedent. While Nolan and Ledger's take may have drawn from The Killing Joke, Ayer and Leto's seems inspired heavily by Brian Azzarello's Joker, down to the gangster leanings, flashy outfits (alright, nothing in Joker is as gaudy as Leto), and the manic fury rather than the agent of chaos bit. Joker is certainly a great take on the character, and Leto's interpretation seems interesting, but we hardly spend any time with him. I can't emphasize enough how little impact this incredible character has on the narrative. I figured he'd be at least hanging out on the periphery as a constant threat to every other villain, who after all, are generally afraid of him. None of this happens.

This is Suicide Squad in a nutshell. Constant wasted opportunities. Its place is clearly that of a Batman v. Superman / Justice League (2017) bridge movie, and that focus is fairly clear in a handful of scenes. It's more concerned with setting up this world, with little Batman and Flash cameos, plus repeated references to the Death of Superman (spoilers for Dawn of Justice I supposed, but since they've already posted about his suit in Justice League, does it really matter that he died at all? Is it a spoiler if the franchise isn't actually impacted? Deal with it). This all comes in spite of a cast of characters and core story that's honestly very good. Well, it could have been. Let's get into that, and then each character. Well, the ones that we care about. Oh, the ones that we don't care about are even more interesting! Sit tight, people!

See, I really dug the actual core of the movie, which featured a team of super-powered individuals fighting their way across a city. This is actually really interesting and cool and executed well. However, there is no actual reason for them to do so! What is their mission, exactly? They never find out and neither does the audience. They're supposed to stop the evil Witch Siblings, right? Then what are they doing at the top of this building waiting for evac? It doesn't make any sense and the movie isn't as crisp as it could have been. This is a repetitive criticism by now, but it's again all this wasted potential; a really cool idea and good execution that falls flat because it's ultimately inherently meaningless.

This also then devolves pretty quickly. The sidenote bar scene is pitch perfect, but the ending, defeating the giant glowy man and the giant beam of light in the sky is just an amalgamation of design that we've seen in comic book films ad nauseum. Incubus, the evil witch brother, totally resembled the Destroyer from THOR (2011) or the Sentinels from X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), except he had a conscious mind. Still, that didn't really change his narrative purpose. And that beam of light happens just about everywhere. And what was the Witches' plan, exactly? Defeat the US Army because they play on their phones too much? What the hell? This is emblematic of cinema's worst flaw, which also seemed to be a Dawn of Justice thing - too much happened because it was supposed to happen, or would be cool or convenient if it happened. There's not a lot that happened as a result of what came before it.

So let's get into characters, which are by and large very good. Viola Davis' Amanda Waller was just about a perfect execution of her ruthless Machiavellian stance simultaneously for and against metahumans that you can get. She was actually in this quite a bit more than I thought she'd be, and her contingency upon contingency is damned true to character. Of course, she did weirdly throw this team together to fight a threat that she totally caused herself from unleashing Enchantress. Sure this film is all about exploring personal stakes, but a little bit more ownership may have been worth noting. Moving on, there's actually not really a weak part of this cast, except for maybe Katana and Slipknot. Let's talk about them.

Slipknot was totally bungled. Listen, I know why he's in the movie. He's there so Rick Flag and Waller's threats credible. But he's introduced on the wall of the army meeting room without acknowledgment after they've gone through a description of the entire team without him, then Rick Flag describes him as someone who "can climb anything." What the hell is that? Then his head explodes. We need to feel something about this dude, and the film could have done some incredible things with stakes if we actually spent some time with him!
You really didn't need to mail Viola Davis used
condoms for this.

And there is no real reason at all for Katana to be in this, either. She literally jumps into a helicopter at the last second and Flag says "Katana's here, too. She can cut you." And that's about it. She's another body and very skilled, but there's really not a reason she should be here, have any motivation for what she does, or any reason to have loyalty to these people at all, which is sort of what everyone else develops by the end of the film. It makes no sense.

Squad is continually bogged down by this stuff. Somewhere there is a really good, dark, funny, obscene, and wild movie about a bunch of crooks saving the day. It approaches this when they head to the bar, which feels like a loose left turn. The film could have been full of this kind of stuff, but it's not, really. I think back to the Justice League Unlimited episode "Task Force X" (S2;E4), which did all this stuff more consistently. Don't ya hate it when that happens?

As we move on to the main crew, Jai Courtney's Captain Boomarang is certainly a doofy character, although again I wish we saw a bit more of him. This is the best role Jai Courtney has ever played, people. I would have rather seen things a bit more developed. He's clearly in that tier beneath Waller, Flag, Deadshot, and Harley (maybe even with Joker, honestly), but didn't get the backstory development. To be fair, there really is none for the character, but he's such an oddball that something is worth developing. Or maybe not. I just wish we saw a bit more exploding boomarangs.

Jay Hernandez's Diablo is also a nice character; the only one of these crooks who is remorseful. And you know, that giant fire monster he makes out of himself at the end is totally that "Wait, Gypsy Danger has a sword?!" moment that you wish you saw earlier. Of course he was reluctant, so whatever. His powers are straight up Liz Sherman. I liked how he eventually became the heart of the movie, rallying everyone out of their Enchantress-driven loss-filled stupor and then providing the eponymous Suicide-ness of the film.

Then there's Killer Croc, who doesn't do much, and seems to have a weird big head but is such a step above the awful Lizard from The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) that we don't care. Croc doesn't need a backstory. He's never made any sense. He's a perfect goofy villain to throw in the mix here. I would have liked to see him eat some more people. I did enjoy that summoning this Squad out of prison each time requires at least three or four guard deaths.

Cara Delevingne is serviceable in a bonkers role that doesn't give her all that much to do other than to sway her hips and be a weird cursed archaeologist. There are some big questions, though. What's witch sex like? Her powers seem unlimited and crazy. I'm sure that magic could really fuck up Superman. Also, "June Moone"? I'm not sure they ever actually pair that name together. Her dual-natured Ghost Rider-esque possessed character does some really cool things cinematically, appearing in mirrors or camera pans, but as she becomes the big bad, she gets far less interesting as she loses apparent motivation.

Finally, the big three are Flag, Deadshot, and Harley. This is also the best work that Joel Kinnaman has ever done, and he sort of elevated himself from Garret Hedlund / Charlie Hunnam / Sam Worthington-land. He's at least got some showy scenes and depth of feeling and motivation to show, but again, you sorta wish he was in a better movie. Considering how close this role was to Tom Hardy, then Joel Edgerton or Jon Bernthal, you've got to imagine how drastically different our conversation might be going right now. Although that could have meant that Bernthal wouldn't get to do Daredevil or Edgerton wouldn't get to do Midnight Special (2016), which would have been a shame. Even though Tom Hardy was the best part of The Revenant (2015), which he missed Suicide Squad to shoot, you've got to almost call this film beneath him. At least, as it ended up standing.

This is also the best Will Smith appearance since the first half of Hancock (2009). Besides Winter's Tale (2014), obviously. He actually disappears into the role pretty well, and may be the closest thing we have to a protagonist to follow and relate to throughout the flick. There's this continual battle for his conscience, whether he's a soulless killer, a devoted father, cold-ass mercenary, or loyal team leader. His tiffs with Flag provide some great tension, and his growing bond with Harley is a major reason to stay invested in these characters. Of course that doesn't really pay off, with her leaving to be with the Joker without a second thought.
Aye...the hot pants.

So finally, Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn, who is magnetic whenever she's on screen. Again, since her backstory is so wrapped up in the Joker, it'd be nice if there was something more there. I almost feel like DC was really trusting that the people watching this film understood the characters and the conflict and trusted the audience to be able to dive right in. To some extent that's fair, but it asks us to move pretty damn fast from Harleen Quinzel to Harley Quinn. For the most part we get it and it's fine but there are still these really apparent logic gaps. She's a great presence, though. I do love pairing stars together from previous, completely unrelated films and her bit with Will Smith from Focus (2015) is nicely random. This is a super showy role that also offers the most emotion, silliness, and engagement with the film. It'd be worthwhile to explore her twisted darkness and conflicted emotions a bit more - note the true despair she feels at Joker's (supposed) death when she's alone and her need to mask that pain when she sees the rest of the guys. It's hard enough to really feel for their romance since he's, you know, the damn Joker, and also because there's no reason to ever believe it.

Also, David Harbour, briefly. #StrangerThings.

There's lots of other bits at work here. The soundtrack is very good, but it's also schizophrenic and if not obvious, then at least cliche. It's a clear imitation of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Deadpool (2016), but those worked because they perfectly fit the tone, were surprising choices, and on the part of the former, an instrumental part of the actual narrative. You can see Suicide Squad trying so damn hard to fit in all these bits and pieces of other, more popular superhero films when it's "group of bad guys on a mission through the city" premise would have been so damned good on its own! It's a core reason why DC still seems to be playing catch-up: not only is it a refusal to innovate, but it's a refusal to capitalize or acknowledge that they actually are innovating! It all makes for a decently frustrating flick, all the moreso because it could have been so good.

Also, it almost entirely takes place in Midway City - do I hear a HAWKMAN movie?! Would you believe I knew that off the top of my head. Ugh. Fuck me. It's funny to me that every hero has like, their own little city to patrol, which are all "City" cities. Coast City. Central City. Keystone City. Star City. Also, when a hero ventures out on his own there's an entirely new thing that crops up, like Nightwing patrolling Blüdhaven, which is suddenly right next to Gotham.

Anyway, I think this is worth seeing, despite all my criticism. In many ways it doesn't work as an actual movie at all, but there's enough good character work and fun here to be relevant. Sort of.

1 comment:

  1. Actually I just read a bit that suggested that Boomarang returns to the group after leaving because....that's what boomarangs do. There's no way that was intentional.


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