This article contains spoilers for the movie Suicide Squad. Read at your own peril.
I don’t know anymore. I really don’t. I’m officially middle aged, and am thus, by definition, “out of touch”. This means that I will never again understand what the kids are into, and I will never again have my finger on the pulse of pop culture or on “what’s cool”— if indeed I ever did! The fact that I put quotation marks around “what’s cool” is a sure sign that I’m now an old fuddy-duddy, as is my unironic use of “fuddy-duddy.”
There are two constant reminders of my out-of-touchedness. One is the ubiquity of pop music that I find starkly intolerable. Surely there is objective evidence that all modern music is ear-scathingly crap, no? No?
The other is movies. It takes a lot to make me like a movie these days. In my youth, simply being in a theatre was a guarantee that I would enjoy myself. The shared crowd experience, the popcorn, the huge screen –these were all earmarks of a special experience, so much so that the actual content of the film was almost irrelevant.
It helped that I was in my teens in the 1980s, the golden age of rapidly produced popcorn movies aimed at young people, before the advent of brazen product placement, studio interference, and the supremacy of focus groups. Imagine trying to get a cult classic like Big Trouble in Little China green-lit by a major studio today. It would fail all corporate litmus tests. Yet I saw that film three times in the theatres, and consider it one of the highlights of my movie-going life.
That brings us to Suicide Squad. When deciding whether to write a review of this movie, I challenged myself to write something that I had not already seen written by other reviewers. It’s all out there: how Warner Brothers forced the re-shoot of scenes and the re-editing of the original footage to satisfy focus groups’ responses, and to make the otherwise grimdark and shitty DC cinematic universe a little more fun. It’s also out there that, in a rush to get this movie quickly into the wild, to wipe the horrible taste left in the public’s mouth by Batman v Superman, director David Ayers wrote SS’s script in under 6 weeks. All of this seeks to explain why the movie is underwhelming.
Instead, I want to talk about how SS failed narratively, and what it could have been, had its creators taken both the source material and the art of storytelling a little more seriously.
I have a good friend in the industry who warned me that, based on reports from the field, Suicide Squad was a “shit show”. I wasn’t surprised. Then I saw those beautiful, glorious trailers and was convinced, like so many others, that in fact DC, WB and Ayers had created the long sought superhero art film, that magic blend of sex, violence, visual poetry, physics-defying action, and a story worthy of the evocative source material. I was wrong.
I’m a fan of the comic book series, Suicide Squad. If you don’t already know, it’s DC’s version of the Dirty Dozen: B-list villains from the DC rogue’s gallery are compelled by a secret government agency to engage in very dangerous quasi-legal missions, often resulting in the death of one or more of the party. The Squad is always controlled by Amanda Waller, IMHO DC’s biggest bad-ass, a rotund Black woman with no super powers, unless you count humongous metaphorical balls and the kind of terrifying bureaucratic power with which we are all familiar. In most depictions, Waller represents an agency variably called CADMUS or ARGUS, which is usually tasked with developing anti-meta human solutions on behalf of the US government, in case, you know, Superman goes rogue.
The existence of the Squad answers some questions about the disposition of villains in the comic book universe. If Batman keeps catching these guys, how come they’re on the street again just a few issues later? because CADMUS let them out. Why are they always sentenced to spend time in the same handful of places –Arkham Asylum, Belle Reve prison, etc? Because the government likes to have them in convenient places for extraction.
The beauty of the Squad stories is that these are antiheroes who are free, narratively, to perform offputting tasks that a superhero is otherwise prohibited from considering. Squad members can steal, commit assault, even murder, in the furtherance of their mission. This opens up an embarrassing treasure trove of storytelling opportunities.
Squad members have built-in drama. They are sociopathic, so will have conflict with each other, their handlers, and with the mission itself. As antiheroes, they will have shallow egos and will respond to challenges in an unpredictable, combustible fashion. The slightest sense of team work or affection between them would be moments worthy of audience celebration. It’s storytelling gold!
In a two hour movie, we have very little time to establish tone, the nature of the narrative universe, the back stories of key characters, and, most critically, the key elements of core storyline. Given the scarcity of time, a Suicide Squad movie needs to be lean. But what did we get? In the movie, there are at least twelve characters plucked from the comic books –Deadshot, Harley Quinn, Captain Boomerang, Rick Flagg, Amanda Waller, Diablo, Killer Croc, Katana, Slipknot, Enchantress, Joker, and the motherfrackin’ Batman himself.
About whom do we actually learn anything? Deadshot, Quinn, Waller, and Enchantress. The rest are there for window-dressing. Personally, I found the Joker and Batman scenes distracting and pointless; they did not further the story much. Slipknot is introduced quickly just to be the token death, as is required in most SS stories. Killer Croc has nothing to do. Captain Boomerang and Katana contribute nothing.
I defy you to tell me something about the characters of Katana, Flagg, Croc or even Boomerang that has nothing to do with their appearance or abilities. That’s the litmus test for a poorly developed character.
Then there’s Enchantress and Diablo. What was the former’s power? Her motivation? She got more screen time than the majority of characters, but we actually know very little about her. With Diablo, there was more of an effort to create a character with some internal conflict. But, in my opinion, he was ultimately uninteresting.
Then there’s the question of why the team would include someone who refuses to use his powers. But if we ask that question, we enter the realm of plot holes and things that made no sense. Other reviewers have tackled those items with sufficient gusto that I do not feel the need to retread that path. Let it suffice that there are holes aplenty.
But my biggest issue with the Suicide Squad movie isn’t its uneven tone, its misspent efforts to be “cool”, or its failure to develop characters. It’s frankly the lack of a compelling story. Why is this team assembled, when everything they accomplished could have been done with a heavily armed conventional assault team? Since the city is evacuated, and the central threat is a messy CGI monster (whose entire premise reminded me of Ghostbusters II), why not simply launch a cruise missile at destroy it all, as they pretty much end up doing anyway?
I lay the blame squarely at the feet of the director David Ayers. I’m not a fan of directors writing their own scripts, especially not in so-called genre films and when so much grand source material already exists in the comic book universe. The Suicide Squad is a storytelling device tailor-made for heists, not assaults on a supernatural target. This was a wasted opportunity to tell a tale of stealthy infiltration in which each member’s unique skill could have been applied in an entertaining fashion.
Off the top of my head, I can think of two other cinematic Suicide Squad incarnations who got the formula just right. In the Justice League Unlimited episode, “Task Force X”, the idea of the Squad is introduced and established in under 3 minutes when Captain Boomerang is recruited by Rick Flagg. Their mission is to infiltrate the Justice League’s headquarters and steal an all-powerful weapon. The audience remarkably ends up rooting for these villains against the heroes, because that’s the nature of heists. Everyone pulls for the robber!
And in the direct-to-DVD animated movie Batman: Assault on Arkham, based on the video game, the Squad is assembled to steal Riddler’s cane from the lockup in Arkham Asylum. Everyone’s role is well established in that version. Harley Quinn, who really has no business being part of a militatry-style assault team, is included because, as a former employee of the Asylum, she knows the facility well. And the inclusion of Batman and Joker in that version make perfect sense, with the former being sent by Waller on a goose chase so that he doesn’t get wise to the Squad’s mission. Their depiction of Deadshot is closest to Will Smith’s portrayal, yet he’s given much more to do and more stealthily dances on that line between villain and reluctant hero.
Suicide Squad the movie was a wasted opportunity. There was frankly no reason for this particular team to be assembled to undertake this particular mission. The movie fails from its very inception. If anyone wants my advice (and no one does), it is this: hire actual writers to write scripts. There is no shortage of extraordinary storytellers from the comic book world –Matt Fraction and Neil Gaiman to name but two– who could have easily produced a more compelling script than this boring mess.
But of course, the hardcore fanboys will not care, as this graphic shows us:
And, as a result, we will continue to get mediocre cinematic crap like this, which will eventually convince studios that the era of the comic book movie must come to an end.