REVIEW REVISITED: Suicide Squad (2016)

This is a reprint of my review which was published on this blog in November 2017, with a number of minor revisions. That version of the review can be found here.

Suicide Squad (USA, 2016)
Directed by David Ayer
Starring Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman

It's increasingly hard to remember a time when every superhero film made wasn't made as part of a wider universe, as instalments in an ever-growing web designed to bring the head-scrambling continuity of comics to the big screen. Even with the enormous success of Christopher Nolan's Gotham trilogy, the modern approach to the comic book blockbuster is for each film to form a mere link in a seemingly infinite chain. Depending on your viewpoint, the consistency present within the Marvel Cinematic Universe is either God's gift to fandom or an accountant's wet dream, with Marvel Films churning out instalments which are marketed to the hilt as big events while essentially telling the same story over and over again.
Suicide Squad is the third instalment of DC's Extended Universe, a.k.a. the biggest and most pointless game of catch-up in cinema history. Following the mixed reception for both Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, this was hyped to the gills as the time when DC would get it right. In hindsight, it's a good thing that Wonder Woman game along the year after to set things on the proper path; while it has much by way of disposable spectacle, it amounts to little more in the end than a disappointing muddle.
Even a relative outsider like myself, whose knowledge of DC Comics comes primarily from film adaptations, can see the potential in Suicide Squad's basic story. There is a rich tradition in Hollywood and trash cinema of a disreputable bunch of heavies - whether criminals, ex-soldiers or anything else - who are sent into the pits of hell to carry out a task that no-one else wants to do. That basic premise has inspired everything from The Dirty Dozen to Escape From New York - not to mention the 1978 revenge film Inglorious Bastards and Quentin Tarantino's similarly titled effort.
While its basic premise may amount to The Dirty Dozen in hot pants, the influence of Tarantino is writ large over Suicide Squad. This is particularly the case during the set-pieces, in which the prevalence of pop music in the soundtrack is combined with dark humour and a devil-may-care approach to violence (albeit framed for a 15 certificate). Sometimes this works rather nicely, such as during Harley Quinn's fight scene in the lift, but a lot of the time the song choices feel all too obvious or the action to accompany them is very routine. For all his faults, Tarantino always had an ear for the disjunct between music and the visual image, and there is nothing in here as witty as the Stealers' Wheel section of Reservoir Dogs.
There are other derivative touches on show as well. Cara Delevigne's performance isn't great by itself; she is visually striking, but doesn't have the deep-rooted charisma needed to wade through the special effects which grow as the film rolls on. The entire climax borrows heavily from the Galadriel scenes in The Fellowship of the Ring and by extension The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. The witch's entire appearance is all too close to Cate Blanchett's "drowned elf" look, right down to the distorted voice, and Delevigne's dancing and arm-waving only serves to make the whole thing sillier. As if that wasn't enough, the monsters which serve as the Squad's cannon fodder resemble nothing more than pumped-up versions of the Jagaroth from the celebrated Doctor Who serial City of Death.
If you go into Suicide Squad expecting depth to rival Nolan's Batman films, you will obviously be disappointed. But even setting that aside, it is sad at just how shallow and lacking in motivation the film is. David Ayer's presence behind the camera has been a major talking point; for all the qualities of his previous films, he is essentially a workmanlike gun-for-hire, who occasionally seems lost in the more fantastical elements of the DC universe. The real auteur of this film is executive producer Zack Snyder; the whole project is so caught up in surface and style that it either fails to find time for more or it simply cannot be arsed.
What results from Snyder's presence is a film which loves to focus on the characters' costumes and striking poses, but which is deeply repetitive. This is fine in the first ten minutes or so where the characters are being introduced and the Squad is being assembled; there's a lot of welcome black humour, particularly from a well-cast Margot Robbie, which serves to separate her version of the character from that in Batman: The Animated Series. But this section also illuminates the ongoing double standard regarding costumes in comic book films; while the man are always fully suited and booted, Harley gets relatively little with which to work.
Once the mission starts, the film settles into a very predictable rhythm. It goes as follows: something blows up or attacks, lots of gunfire, then quiet, repeat until they get to the witch. Conceding to formula so easily, without resistance or hesitation, has the effect of halting any real character development; the characters begin as the supposed epitome of bad taste and tough talking, and stay that stand-offish ad nauseum. By the time we get to the bar scene, we're willing them to get on with things so much that we don't really mind whether they grow as people or not, and at the end of the film everything goes (more or less) back to the way things were.
In the face of this boilerplate tedium, you might expect Jared Leto's performance as the Joker to be just the lift that things need. There's no denying that he's visually striking, borrowing heavily from Marilyn Manson with just a touch of Alice Cooper thrown in for good measure. But while he's psychotic enough to be scary and unpredictable, he ultimately lacks the flashes of coherent insight which made Heath Ledger's Joker work. Both incarnations deal in chaos, but one is a dangerous mastermind while the other is a gun-happy playboy.
In the midst of all this mediocrity, there are things about Suicide Squad which are enjoyable. Like the early Harry Potter films, the main saving grace is the cast itself. It's nice to see Will Smith playing against type without making a big deal of it, and Robbie's performance does have a gleeful quality which sets it apart. The rest of the ensemble struggle to get the character development or screentime they deserve, but they all have little moments where they impress.
The film also has a number of moments which are very visually impressive. The best of these is the sequence involving the Joker and Harley kissing in the vat of chemicals as their respective colours blend together. It's a nice, macabre twist on the traditional origin story of the Joker which gets across the characters' insanity but also how much the latter cares for the former (whether it's reciprocated is another matter). There is enough artistry in moments like this and sections of the subway fight to make you wonder why there isn't more of it in the finished film.
Suicide Squad is a disappointment which shows just how far DC has to go to reach either Marvel's consistency or Nolan's brilliance. For all the moments in which it comes together, whether visually or narratively, it's marred by a poor script, derivative aesthetics and a lack of character or soul. As muddled, bombastic, disposable fun, it gets the job done very nicely, but our end reaction is the same as that of Mark Kermode: "Is that the best you can do?".

NEXT REVIEW: Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010)