The strengths of Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad might not be as good as you hoped, but it isn't as bad as you've heard.

A movie full of supervillains doing supervillain shit is obviously right up my alley. I rolled my eyes when I saw Killer Croc in the previews – but what does it even mean to like or dislike a character in an era of constant reboots, reinventions, and retcons? The Harley Quinn from Batman: The Animated Series and, oh, the Harley Quinn from the Suicide Squad comic might as well be different people. (And the big problem with Killer Croc in the comics isn't the character per se; it's the way he's usually brought on to provide a pointless fistfight with Batman before the real villain's plot is revealed, or to demonstrate how dark and gritty the DC universe is by eating someone. They should just change his name to "Filler Croc".)

So despite the dire reviews, I gave Suicide Squad a try. And there's a lot to enjoy here.

First off, there are plenty of good performances – especially Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, Will Smith as Deadshot, Jared Leto as the Joker, and Jay Hernandez as a surprisingly soulful El Diablo. Generally I enjoy the Joker most when his only tenuous connection to humanity is his obsession with Batman, and find that giving him a sidekick, much less a girlfriend, in Harley Quinn makes him less of a figure of horror1. But Leto brings out the Joker's terrifying unpredictability – you cringe when anyone catches his attention – while simultaneously having a creepy chemistry with Robbie. The romance when the Joker dives into the chemical vats to save Harley is as genuine as it is sick2.

And that scene isn't just romantic; it's beautiful. When Suicide Squad tears itself away from dusty prisons and generic post-apoc cityscapes, it's full of poetic imagery – like the Joker sitting in a ring of knives and ripped-out piano keys. South African rappers Die Antwoord accused Suicide Squad of ripping off their imagery, but the movie picks up influences everywhere and stretches them out of shape. It's cinematic Silly Putty. In one flashback, for example, Harley Quinn dons her classic black and red to recreate Alex Ross's iconic painting; in another, she's channeling Lady Gaga3. It's like two hours of music videos – or, more precisely, two hours of widescreen comics with Spotify oldies playing in the background. It's a pleasure to look at.

And then there's the bad stuff. The movie feels as though a lot was cut – one squad member, for example, isn't even mentioned before he joins the first mission. (His face is in Amanda Waller's Powerpoint earlier, and I was staring at the screen, wondering if I'd miscounted.) I have a feeling his scenes were snipped to get this show on the road a little faster, but the film is just full of these wait-what? moments. (And Katana should've been deleted at the screenplay stage – the whole story would be the same without her.)

I don't mind that the main storyline is a little thin – the first Avengers movie was the same way for the same reason. Introducing a huge cast takes screen time. But I do mind that (unlike The Avengers) so much of the dialogue is first-draft clunky, and that many of the punchlines are unintelligible even when they're not spoken by Captain Boomerang. (I didn't have any trouble understanding Australians in Sydney, so I guess Jai Courtney – from Sydney himself – is just mushmouthed.) Plus, once Enchantress stops looking like a hitch-walking Japanese ghost, she just looks ridiculous.

I was going to rank Suicide Squad against other superhero movies. But given how often I felt like I was watching a Let's Play video of a computer game, let's say instead that it isn't as good as Arkham City, but is better than Arkham City's DLC.

1. Suicide Squad is miles beyond, say, Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo's The Joker graphic novel, which turns the Clown Prince of Crime into a generic gang lord with a palette swap. (back to article)

2. The film doesn't bother to show us how the Joker got inside Harley's head in the first place, even though that's the most interesting part of the story. Then again, neither does the original Mad Love (back to article)

3. Every time the film pauses too long on a sign, it's someone significant's name – the climax, for example, is set in the John Ostrander Federal Building, and John Ostrander wrote the Suicide Squad comic. (back to article)

Written on August 13, 2016