briarwood: Suicide Suad Harley Quinn (Suicide Squad Harley)
Morgan Briarwood ([personal profile] briarwood) wrote2016-08-15 10:43 am

Movie Review: Suicide Squad

I'm actually glad I didn't post this sooner, because after seeing it a second time, I've changed my mind about Suicide Squad. It's actually not bad. It's not as great as it needed to be to "save" the DCEU, but if you divorce it from the trainwreck, it's a decent movie that does well on its own terms. That's how I tried to see it.

Suicide Squad should have been to the DCEU what Guardians of the Galaxy was to Marvel. By that, I mean far enough away from their main "universe" that it should be free of all that baggage. If it succeeds - great. If it bombs, it can be written off as a failed experiment. I suspect that was the idea, at the start. But the critical failure of BvS has got everyone saying that this is their chance to redeem the DCEU. Hell, even I said that the best thing about BvS was the Suicide Squad trailer! On that level, I'm afraid, it fails. On the other hand Suicide Squad doesn't suck. I can name a string of comic book movies that are worse and most of them are on my DVD shelves.

So I won't compare Suicide Squad with BvS or Guardians or anything else DC or Marvel have put out recently. Actually, the comparison that comes most readily to my mind is The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - does anyone remember that one? Sean Connery as Alan Quartermain, bizzarely teamed up with Dorian Grey, Jekyll and Hyde, the Invisible Man, Mina Harker (somehow a vampire/human hybrid) and IIRC, Captain Nemo. It had he same kind of team-of-oddballs-saving-the-world concept as Suicide Squad and it sort of worked, but the film wasn't exactly memorable. And Suicide Squad is pretty much in that league, but better.

The plot is relatively simple. Government agent Amanda Waller wants to assemble a team of evil people with superhuman abilities to battle unspecified future threats. One of said evil people escapes her control and hatches a plan to destroy the world. The newly-created "team" is dispatched to deal with it. One of that team is Harley Quinn, whose psycho-boyfriend the Joker takes advantage of the mission to "rescue" her. Shit blows up, people die, the world is saved.

It's a respectable plot. Certainly if you compare it to most modern action movies outiside the superhero genre, it has more plot than they usually bother with, and it should work. The idea of putting together a team of supervillains is different enough from the recent crop of superhero movies to be novel and it brings with it an inherent conflict to fuel the drama. The characters (whom I'll discuss in more detail below) are a mismatched bunch and the cast is refreshingly diverse. It has all the right ingredients.

But somehow it doesn't quite work. As with many superhero movies, it's the let down by its third act showdown and the following fallout. It has other weaknesses, too, but I think that's the reason I needed to see it twice. Because there's a moment, just before the not-heroes walk into the final battle that feels like, if the credits rolled in that moment, it would have been a better movie, even up there with some of the best of Marvel. And then it just fails to deliever the final act.


The first act of the movie is all about introducing the characters so it's a lot of flashback interspersed with the team being assembled and the situation being set up. This is where the film really shines. I usually don't like this kind of non-linear cutting-back-and-forth (I kinda feel like a story should have a beginning a middle and an end in that order, which is why I loathe Tarantino films), but here it works, with Amanda Waller providing the exposition while we cut into flashes of the bad guys' lives.

Then, with characters and peril established, we move into action. I loved that the villain of the movie is originally one of the Squad, albeit before the Squad is actually a thing. Enchantress escapes from her handler just long enough to unleash a monster in a subway and in an act of supreme idiocy, Waller then sends her to deal with the monster. Naturally, that goes to hell, which forces Waller to activate the rest of the Squad, perhaps before she was really ready to do it. They are collected and dropped into the city now under magical attack but their mission isn't to stop Enchantress; rather they are sent to locate and rescue a mysterious VIP. (If there's a place the film went wrong, this was it - having established at the beginning that the point of the Squad is to battle big nasties the regular troops can't, sending them on an in-out rescue mission felt...wrong. I guess it was setting up the twist, but why not just send them directly against the big bad?) In a not-too-predictable twist, the VIP turns out to be Amanda Waller herself. Joker shows up, bad people do bad things and we move awkwardly into the third act where our not-heroes must go up against the big bad. Which ends pretty much as you would expect.

Maybe it's asking too much to want a bit of depth. Something to think about. A moment or two to engage my intellect and emotions. There are moments in the script that should  have delivered the emotional punch: Harley sitting in the rain when she thinks Joker is dead, Diablo's story, Flagg giving the order that will kill June. But somehow none of them quite get it right. It's true that a few years ago no one would have expected depth from this kind of movie. But the bar has been raised, and it's not as if the potential isn't there with this group of characters. I want more than eye candy.

 

Disclaimer: I know Harley Quinn and Killer Croc from a single comic, Deadshot from Arrow and the others not really at all. So this is not based on whether or not the characters are true to their origins. It's just how I feel about the characters as written.

Harley Quinn is fun. While I don't think there's any way to make her backstory acceptable to a feminist like me and her brief scene with Batman is deeply unsettling (and I have to assume deliberately so because it only needed a slightly different camera angle to remove the ambiguity - why are DC mvies so set on this character assassination of Batman???), overall I did love Harley. She has a great attitude and adds fun to a fairly angsty story.

That backstory: a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum, she falls in love with her patient, the Joker. There's a problem right there because the whole doctor/patient thing isn't less skeevy for the gender-switch. It's strongly implied that she's the reason for the big riot in Arkham, where the inmates literally take over and Harley finds herself a prisoner, strapped down to an electroshock table. Joker tortures her and she apparently loves it (not that I have anything against actual masochism, but, really?) and later she voluntarily dives into a vat of acid to transform herself into his perfect mate (shades of Bella Swan here!). While a now-free Joker plays at being the new crime boss of Gotham, Harley pole dances for his entertainment, is apparantly thrilled to prostitute herself at his command and they appear to embark on a Bonnie-and-Clyde style crime spree. Just when I'm wondering why Batman is asleep on the job, he appears in the Batmobile and the brief chase ends with Joker driving their car into the river. Batman pulls Harley out, but there's no sign of the Joker. Harley goes to jail.

I don't want to go on a feminist rant about that because really, it's what's in the canon and what really matters is who she is now. And what she is, is a woman who seems to love life and doesn't give a shit what anyone thinks of her. That's pretty awesome, even if it does come with a side of psycho-killer. I feel like there's a genuinely feminst message that could be given here. Something about having the freedom to be who you truly are - because whatever horrible stuff there is in Harley's story, in the present she's either genuinely happy or a superb actress pretending to be so. And I read it as the first. Sure, she's crazy, but she loves it. For her to be vulnerable to Joker in the beginning, she had to be miserable. So in a way, hers is a positive sory arc - from miserable conformist to joyous anarchist to villain (almost) redeemed. And under that ditzy act is a really smart gal.

Deadshot has potential as a character, but the whole good daddy who kills people for a living feels like a tired cliche. (Dexter. Every Liam Neeson character this decade.) It also rather undermined the whole "they're the worst of the worst" thing that's the premise of the whole movie! Does loving his daughter make up for having killed loads of people? Well...no, but it gives him a motivational twist. This is a guy with an amazing skill set. There's a scene where he gets to let loose with a bunch of guns and you can see he just loves it. But in that scene, he's shooting at target dummies, not at people. There are people right there - it's obvious he could have slaughtered all of them if he wanted to, but it's his skill that gets him off, not the killing. So the underlying assumption in the movie is that it's largely a matter of chance that had Deadshot taking the master-assassin route; he would as easily have been a sniper on the good guys side. If the film has a genuine hero, it's Deadshot. (Which is weird, because in Arrow he's a real bad guy.)

I found that reinforced on my second viewing because I noticed something the second time that I missed: Rick Flagg is nominally in charge of the team, but every time a key decision has to be made, every time someone has to make a move, it's Deadshot who does it and Flagg who falls in line. Which rather explicitly puts Deadshot as the "hero" of the story.

I've seen a lot of discussion online about the scene at the end where he is apparently teaching his 11-year-old daughter how to shoot people, but that's not how I saw the scene. He's helping her with her math homework. She's the one who frames the problem in terms of firing a gun (it's geometry) and he explains how in real life it's not as simple as a diagram. It's a bonding moment and see above - for this guy it's not about killing, it's about the skill. (which doesn't mean it's okay to have that conversation with an 11 year old girl, but it's not as awful as some suggest).

Diablo is perhaps the most sympathetic character and he's the only one other than Harley who has a real story arc that unfolds throughout the film. A former gang-leader/drug-dealer, he is a pyrokinetic with potentially devastating power, but he's sworn off using it. We slowly learn what he is and why he's afraid of his power and while his story could so easily have become the same old tortured-hero cliche with Diablo, it never felt that way. Partly it's in the performance: Jay Hernandez plays it beautifully restrained and low-key making the moments when he cuts loose all the more impressive. The other part is the story arc. Though we see very little of his actions as a criminal before his imprisonment, we are told enough to understand that he was a genuinely bad guy. While Deadshot and Harley are sympathetic from the start, Diablo's past is harder to empathise with and yet he is, in the present, a different person. There's more of a sense that this really is a bad guy on a road to redemption and that makes his story the most complete and satisfying of the Squad.

Amanda Waller is a brilliant character! While I did feel she was under-used, it's so great to see a woman character who is strong, confident, decisive, goal-oriented, and takes no shit from anyone. She's a very masculine character; in most stories, this would be a man and honestly, it would make little difference if a man were cast. Only at the very end is there a hint of vulnerability and given the context even that might have been duplicitous. I'm okay with that in one movie, but if we're going to see more of her I'd really like to see something a bit less masculine in her. No, I don't mean more feminine. I mean...look, as written it's like the role was meant for a hyper-male actor, and they just happened to cast a woman. I know that's not it, so I want to see something that shows me she's a woman. A strong, takes-no-prisoners, badass woman.

Katana, I don't know what to think. Nominally one of the "good" guys, she seems to have a fascinating backstory but the movie shows us only the surface of it. She's an amazing fighter. She apparently has a magic sword that captures souls (how is never explained, nor is what this might mean other than it's a bad thing for the soul. I mean, does having souls inside it make the sword a better weapon? Is there some higher purpose? No clue is given). But very little is made of her presence. Shades of Zack Snyder, I think: take a kick-ass female character and insert her into a movie with no effort at characterisation and make her most significant role be "the one the other guy flirts with". Which brings me to...

Boomerang Wasted. Has no powers other than being good with an unusual weapon. He's perhaps the most unambiguously "bad" of the bad guys, but at the same time, he's just a bank robber. It's hard to see why he's among "the worst of the worst" unless he also has rapist on his rap sheet - based on his sleazy flirting with Katana (who really should have skewered him on that sword at least twice) it seems likely.

Rick FlaggNominally the leader, he's the guy giving the orders and in theory the guy who has the power to kill the "bad guys" he's controlling. Key word: control, which is notably absent. Yes, we get a scene in which he does kill, which ought to underline that he's a badass, but it's more than overwhelmed by his weird and somewhat skeevy romance with June Moon/Enchantress. No one really respects his authority, not even his own boss, and the character is just weak. (I'm intrigued on this one - is he meant to be this way, or did they screw up his character?)

 

Killer Croc was always going to be a challenge and while he's very much a background character here I've got to give the film props for making it work. Like the others, there's some badass lacking - in the comics Killer Croc is genuinely scary: not the smartest supervillain, but dangerous, amoral, sometimes unpredictable and always relentless. Not so much in the movie, but they would have needed an R rating to really go there with this character. We're told, not shown, that he's bad, which seriously diminishes the impact. Where Suicide Squad succeeds is in treating Croc as a human character; he comes across as just another of the team, with the same issues and drives the others have. There's a beautiful moment where Harley makes an offhand comment about him being ugly and his response is...just perfect. But by emphasising his human side, that's also where the film really fails Croc. I've seen both versions in the comics - the "beast" Croc who is a dangerous, scary badass, and the more human version who is effectively trapped by his "condition", unable to function in human society but with enough humanity left to be a tragic figure. In a comic you can see that change from one panel to the next. On the big screen there's enough flexibility for both sides to show through but this film doesn't really get there. He gets his hero moment, which is really cool, but still I wish the director had the guts - pun intended - to really go for it with Killer Croc's scary side.

Enchantress is the most mysterious and also the most straightforward of the bad guys. Her introduction, early in the film, is one of those explanations that sounds good but doesn't actually explain anything: she's an "inter-dimensional being" of unknown (but huge) power, who partially posesses the body of June Moon, an archaeologist who evidently made the same mistake every mummy movie warns against. Amanda Waller controls Enchantress by literally keeping her heart in a box. Naturally Enchantress is not happy about this and rule 1 of dealing with powerful aliens is don't piss 'em off! June Moon, on the other hand, is the lover of Rick Flagg, and here's where it gets problematic. At one point Waller says that she put them together fully expecting they would get involved, as a way of manipulating Flagg. Fair enough, but this has the effect of reducing June to a non-character. She exists as a tool for Waller and a motivation for Flagg, and has no character or story of her own. It's a real shame, because the tension between her and Enchantress is one of the more fascinating elements in the movie. She's not a willing host to Enchantress and yet it appears Enchantress can't manifest without her consent and there are hints that the relationship is more symbiotic at the beginning than it is at the end. There's a lot of potential there and it's not really explored.

It's also not clear what Enchantress has to gain from destroying humanity. I get that she's pissed off - I would be, too, if some controlling bitch put my heart in a box - but she doesn't seem to be motivated by revenge. There's something else going on and it feels like some important stuff maybe got left on the cutting room floor.

Slipknot - redshirt. 'Nuff said.

The Joker. I saved the best, and worst, for last. This is a great Joker. He's a really hard villain to bring to the screen. Too clowny and he's not frightening (Jack Nicholson). Too gritty and you lose some of the essential Joker (Heath Ledger). Jared Leto is a good middle ground between the two. He's weird, deranged and scarily compelling. You can understand how Harley got sucked into his world. But there's something that doesn't quite work for me, and I think that's in the script rather than the actor or director. Because the Joker doesn't quite fit in this film. I can't explain it better - it's a gut feeling. In Harley's backstory he fits - their relationship is disturbing as hell, but it works. But in the present, it just feels slightly off. Maybe it's just me.

The other side, though, is the Joker's place in the wider DCEU, and that's where I'm worried about this version. I can't see this Joker facing off with Ben Afleck's Batman. They each work on their own terms, but I can't see them sharing a screen.

 

Overall, I did enjoy the film and having seen it twice I do think the critics are being a bit unfair to this one. It's not perfect by any means, but it's not the hot mess BvS was, either.

But I also feel there's an opportunity missed here. You have a roster of "bad guys". This means it can be something really different from the regular superhero fare. Suicide Squad could be knockabout comedy, it could be high-octane drama, tense spy thriller, body horror, gore-fest or farce. It could work as almost any genre imaginable, depending on which bad guys are on the roster and how much courage the director has.

You know what I really want? I want R-rated Suicide Squad directed by Kathryn Bigelow. She has a unique way of showing horrible things in a way that simultaneously condemns them, and also makes the audience complicit in the atrocity. Her films are disturbing to watch but it is what this film needed. I want to be cheering on the bad guys one moment and horrified at myself for doing it the next. I want to see these characters truly being "the worst of the worst" and still be the heroes of their own stories. I believe it can be done...but this film missed that particular mark.


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