Suicide Squad was supposed to be different. Sure, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was a grim, cluttered mess of a movie that marked an uneven (at best) beginning of a potentially epic DC cinematic universe, but audiences were still able to walk out of the theater and say, "Did you see that Suicide Squad trailer, though?" It was supposed to show a lighter side of a film franchise in which both Batman and Superman — heroes in these stories — have already been willing to kill people.
Most importantly, it was supposed to show us that the folks at Warner Bros. still know how to make great comic book movies.
Suicide Squad is not very successful at that.
It's a team-up movie that's almost like an anti-Justice League, where a group of some of the most dangerous supervillains in the world team up to (begrudgingly) save the world — because if they don't, they die. That's more or less the plot in a nutshell: Some bad guys are brought together in the hope that they can do some good.
The first third or so (was it less? More? It felt like an eternity) of Suicide Squad is a slog. There are so many characters to introduce, so many backstories, origins and flashbacks to cover and so many pieces to put into place that the beginning of the film is a cluttered mess.
This is where the current slate of DC films continues to come up short against similar offerings from Marvel. While the latter has given most of their biggest characters room to breathe on their own before throwing them together in crossover films, DC films keep trying to go too far too fast. Suicide Squad doesn't give audiences enough time to fall in love with one character before shoving the next one in front of them. Also, The Flash is there for a minute for some reason.
It's a small blessing, I guess, that they didn't try to tell Batman's origin story yet again. He's in the movie. They could have shoehorned it in if they really tried.
Once you're past that initial hump, though, there are reasons to enjoy what Suicide Squad has to offer. When the titular Squad is finally assembled, the door opens to enjoyable banter and fun-to-watch action scenes, even if their overall mission ("Go into dangerous place. Extract important person.") is relatively rote.
Suicide Squad is not the longest of recent comic book movies, but it still has fat that could have been trimmed. The chief offender is, sadly, The Joker. Jared Leto's take on the classic villain, while probably the least interesting of the live-action Jokers so far, is fine. But beyond his necessary presence in the origin story for Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the character serves no purpose in Suicide Squad beyond getting in the way of more important — and more interesting — plot points. He's unnecessary and would have been better limited to a couple of cameos, similar to the film's treatment of Batman (Ben Affleck).
The time would have been better spent getting to know the rest of the Squad better. Will Smith stands out as Deadshot, the world's deadliest assassin who struggles with how to balance his chosen profession with the wishes of his 11-year-old daughter. He manages to give the plot not only its best emotional hook, but also some of its best comedic lines.
Margot Robbie is noteworthy in her role, though Harley Quinn, a psychiatrist who loses her mind as she falls in love with The Joker, is the type of character who elicits reactions of either love or hate. Suicide Squad definitely leans into her sex appeal, and you could argue that it sometimes crosses the line (there's a weirdly sensual use of CPR that feels like it's trying too hard). But this is nothing longtime fans of the comic character will find new, and Robbie delivers on many expectations while still offering her own take. A silver lining of her hypersexualization: The little we see of her relationship with The Joker is thus far less problematic (read: less a textbook case of abuse) than other iterations of the character. To a point, anyway.
Other characters often feel like filler, but they tend to do well with the time they're given. Viola Davis is an appropriately cold and calculating Amanda Waller. Cara Delevingne balances a normal Dr. June Moone with the unnaturally unsettling Enchantress (who gets the coolest-looking special effects of the movie), but like other characters she doesn't get enough time to grow beyond being "creepy magic girl."
There's room to give Suicide Squad some credit where it's due, though. It can be applauded for leaning hard into the weirdness of its comic book origins rather than shying away from them.
We are clearly beyond the days of Christopher Nolan's Batman universe, where every problem and every villain could be waved away with gritty, real world explanations. In Suicide Squad, a down-to-earth military man explains, without a hint of irony, that the sword one woman wields captures the souls of the people it kills. Nobody really bats an eye at this, but then again, they're also fighting their way through an army of mutated monsters, created by a witch, alongside a man that's basically half crocodile and another man that can shoot fire from his hands. These things are all simply accepted as possible, and the movie is better for it.
That's what you can say about Suicide Squad, I guess. It tries. It doesn't exactly soar, but there's just enough of a "let's just have fun" attitude that it's a serviceable popcorn flick for the people that care about the DC universe.
SUICIDE SQUAD (C)
Directed by David Ayer. PG-13 (for sequences of violence and action throughout, disturbing behavior, suggestive content and language). 123 minutes. In wide release.