By Preston Wilder
Never mind Batman vs. Superman, the battle of the comic-book studios is way more relentless. “F*** Marvel!” cried David Ayer, writer-director of Suicide Squad, at last week’s New York premiere, and later had to apologise – but why should he have to apologise when Marvel seem to have perfected the art of shuffling superheroes around, presenting them in various permutations with a few tired jokes and a Stan Lee cameo, and getting fanboys to pay for the privilege again and again and again? It’s annoying enough if you’re a filmgoer, let alone a rival studio.
Suicide Squad isn’t Marvel; it’s DC Comics in league with Warner Bros, who sank $250 million into Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice earlier this year and now pony up another $175 million for this one. I enjoyed B v. S for its frenzied stylishness – it certainly seemed much bolder than most of those Marvels – and Suicide Squad kicks off in similarly rousing, OTT fashion, with propulsive editing and so many song cues it starts to feel like a collection of music videos (not necessarily a bad thing, in a comic-book movie). Alas, it peters out long before the end.
The starting-point is the same perverse impulse that animated B v. S: an irrational fear of Superman. Sure, he’s the very embodiment of omnipotent virtue (God, in other words) – but what if Superman were a terrorist? What would we do – what could we do? – if he swooped down on the White House to abduct or assassinate the President? This scenario prompts a shadowy government agency under Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) to create a secret task force of villains, Dirty Dozen-style – though The Dirty Dozen made sense, since men on Death Row were the only ones willing to go on a probable suicide mission, whereas here it’s unclear what the agency gains by using loose-cannon bad guys as opposed to soldiers or superheroes. (After all, it’s not really a suicide mission: the point is to defeat a potentially evil Superman, not die trying.) I assume it was clearer in the comic book.
The opening act, introducing the Squad, is enjoyably snappy. Deadshot (Will Smith) is a hitman who never misses; Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is a lunatic, as well as the girlfriend of the even more demented Joker (Jared Leto). Others include Captain Boomerang, Diablo, and a scaly mutant named Killer Croc. “Do not attempt to feed,” warns the agency file on this creature, and we also get Waller and Co. making sardonic remarks as the Squad’s dirty deeds are revealed (“Talk about a workplace romance gone wrong!”). It’s all good fun.
The film’s biggest problem is the way it gradually unravels from this dark, twisted, finger-snappingly cool comedy to a turgid, special-effects-laden fantasy with a lame-brained plot about an evil Enchantress bent on world domination. The success of Deadpool (Marvel again, naturally) seems to indicate that the comic-book audience is growing more cynical, and perhaps more impatient with the trappings of the genre – but Suicide Squad gives in to old-fashioned detail like glowing waves of energy to indicate Magic, plus the kind of sentimental calls-to-arms that’ll prompt an instant eye-roll from the more jaded teen viewer. “I lost one family. I ain’t gonna lose another one!” (Pro tip: any film where a member of the gang refers to the others as ‘family’ has officially gone full Disney.) “You messed with my friends!” snarls a Squaddie, then they all venture forth in slow-motion. Meanwhile, the Joker – a genuinely unsettling figure who’s been prominent in the film’s misleading marketing – is increasingly sidelined.
The cast is a mixed blessing. Davis is reliably solid as Waller, a character defined as “the Devil”, introduced with a certain Rolling Stones song, though also equated with God (“I see everything”); as in Batman v. Superman, the film isn’t shy about scattering religious allusions to bolster its gravitas. The sight of a has-been movie star forced to work as part of an ensemble can also add gravitas (Tarantino does it all the time) – but Will Smith isn’t a has-been, least of all in his own mind, and he acts throughout like he’s starring in a Will Smith vehicle, throwing the film off balance.
Then again, there isn’t much balance to begin with, Ayer’s script reducing most of the Squad to supporting ciphers and placing most of his chips on Robbie’s malevolent nymphet. She’s a riot, sashaying about in hot pants and a T-shirt emblazoned with ‘Daddy’s Li’l Monster’ – but her sex-kitten snark brings diminishing returns, especially as the film around her grows increasingly leaden and cheesy. Suicide Squad is the kind of movie where you’ll watch the first half-hour when it plays on pay-TV a year from now, then zap to a sports channel; not much return on $175 million. I dunno how they get away with it, f***ing Marvel.
DIRECTED BY David Ayer
STARRING Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Jared Leto
US 2016 123 mins