‘Suicide Squad’ is a Troubling Swing and Miss for DC

Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad

Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad | Warner Bros.

Over the last three months, we’ve been inundated by advertising for DC’s Suicide Squad. It certainly makes sense; after all the negative press for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, this next release was supposed to be a redemptive effort for the studio. DC wanted to make a statement to the world that they could take a step away from the grim, joyless tone of Batman v Supermantoward a light-hearted villain-centric story. In a perfect world, they envisioned Suicide Squad as their own Guardians of the Galaxy. What they made instead was a cinematic listicle.

So what do we mean by that? Think for a moment on the state of reporting on the internet. There are two tacts writers take: A long-form, in-depth piece with a clear beginning, middle, and end, or a point-by-point numbered list with easily digestible information. Both formats have their place in the realm of new media, but when it comes to film, you want your stories to err on the side of the former rather than the latter.

Suicide Squad isn’t a long-form, well-told story. Instead, it’s a collection of flashy graphics and isolated introductions, utilized in an effort to take a collection of brand new characters and give them enough backstory to matter in a larger context. That’s unfortunately not a great way to get to know anybody. By the time the squad is assembled, we know Will Smith’s Deadshot pretty well, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn a little less, and everyone else almost not at all.

Suicide Squad movies

Suicide Squad | Source: Warner Bros.

io9 pointed out the primary problem with this method, positing the following hypothetical underlining the main issue: “Imagine if The Avengers had been made before any of the other Marvel movies — it would have to introduce Iron Man, Thor, all of them individually.” That’s what happens in Suicide Squad; we get to know characters over the course of a two minute flashback cutscene. Some members of the team aren’t even afforded that much, with Slipknot (Adam Beach) and Katana (Karen Fukuhara) getting tacked on to the story with little more than a “hey these guys are here too.”

Naturally, paper-thin characters beget a paper-thin story. The basic premise of the film has our team assembled by Amanda Waller and tasked with running into a city under attack by two ancient spirits hellbent on destroying the world. Even as they’re thrust into the active war zone though, it’s clear that no one’s really certain what they’re doing there, or what their objective is once they’ve touched down. And because we’ve spent all of no time getting to know anybody, every time they come across a band of disposal evil minions for a fight scene, there’s little in the way of true stakes.

Fast pacing and light character development is quickly becoming an unfortunate hallmark of DC’s superhero universe. On one hand, it makes sense that they’d have to move their stories along quickly to catch up with their Marvel counterparts. On the other, part of what’s made Marvel so successful is the fact that we’ve spent almost a decade getting to know their entire pantheon of heroes. And even when they introduce someone new a la Captain America: Civil War, we get to know them through seeing and experiencing, not through expositional bullet-point cutscenes worthy of a BuzzFeed listicle.

One YouTuber laid out the inherent issues within Zack Snyder’s directorial approach in Batman v Superman (above), and it’s clear that many of these also carry over to David Ayer’s Suicide Squad. Most significantly, he cites the focus on “moments versus scenes.”

What a good scene does is dissolve the actors and the sound stage and the costumes and makeup and camera angle, into a living and breathing reality. There should be a strong sense of place, a feeling of possibility, that the characters who inhabit the space could go anywhere within it, even if they don’t. In other words, the discreet elements that make up a scene shouldn’t feel like they’re in service to something else.

What we get in Suicide Squad is a series of moments designed to feel iconic, but lacking in things like thematic weight and character development. While there are certainly highlights (mainly found in Will Smith’s performance as Deadshot), the whole is far less than the sum of its parts. When you factor in Jared Leto’s frenetic, forced performance as the Joker, shoehorned in for little more than window dressing, you get a film that’s never quite sure what it wants to be.

Tonally, the movie is all over the place. At points, it carries the grim feeling that walks hand-in-hand with Zack Snyder’s DC murder-verse. At others, it’ll take a sharp left turn, infusing pop music and humor into almost random scenes, in a move that just reeks of trying way too hard to copy-paste Marvel’s success with Guardians of the Galaxy. DC seemed to throw every option against the wall to see what stuck, only to see it none of it take hold when it was all said and done.

Should you see Suicide Squad? Sure. It was an exciting enough action flick with just enough in the way of brawling and comic book aesthetics (two huge thumbs up to the graphics department on that one by the way). But if you’re looking for a film that meets the bar set by the likes of Deadpool and Civil War, there’s a good chance you’ll walk out of the theater disappointed. That said, the ball is now officially in Wonder Woman‘s court to save DC’s movie-verse.

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