Suicide Squad is a movie that believes itself to be much cooler and forward-thinking than it is, like a child who has a bad attitude because someone on television made being rude look hip. There is no heart to the story, nor is there ever any real threat to the central players. Like Batman V Superman before it, Suicide Squad is another overly long exercise in seeing just how many characters, storylines, and set pieces can be stuffed into a film without once offering a coherent narrative. It’s better than Dawn Of Justice, but only marginally, and it manipulates untold volumes of source material in order to create its world. This isn’t David Ayer bending his vision to work with the characters, it’s David Ayer bending the characters to match his vision, and the result is a neon-bathed, bullet-riddled mess.
There are essentially two chapters to Suicide Squad: The one where we get the gang together and the one where the gang is tasked with saving the world literally a day after first being asked if they would like to participate. The former runs about an hour in length and includes many loosely defined origin stories, while the latter runs roughly 70 minutes and rarely thinks to develop the characters beyond what was established in the preceding half. The two exceptions to this rule are the arcs of Deadshot (Will Smith) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), who more or less serve as the stars of the show. Deadshot is an arguably good guy who does bad things for money and Harley is a good woman turned bad by the ever-malevolent Joker (Jared Leto). Their stories take up more screen time than the origins of Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), Slipknot (Adam Beach), Katana (Karen Fukuhara), Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) combined, but once the fate of the world is at stake it none of it really matters.
As bullets begin to fly, Suicide Squad tries to up the ante by leveraging the twisted relationship between Joker and Harley as a side story. The events depicted mirror sequences fans of the comic books that inspired the film will immediately recognize, but the core of the pair’s relationship has been changed to give the appearance of co-dependency. Harley is undoubtedly who she is because of painful things done to her by Joker, but the film glosses over the horrors of what exactly happened to her in order to make their love appear more like a runaway romance with elements of madness rather than an abuser and the woman he abuses. This completely alters everything that has defined the—for lack of a better word—“couple” throughout time. Harley has always longed for the Joker because he crafted her to essentially be his slave, but Joker has never gone out of his way to help or save Harley unless Batman was involved. Here, for the better part of two hours, audiences watch Joker lose himself and all motivation as a result of being without Harley.
If the villain of Suicide Squad were at all compelling I could probably overlook changes made to the characters as being needed to properly craft the DC cinematic universe at large, but that is unfortunately not the case. The protagonists of the film battle an entity whose name they never learn and whose powers are as vaguely defined as the machine they are allegedly building in order to destroy mankind. When one of their own switches sides there is a rise in the stakes of the moment, but given that we’re told none of the squad members are out for anyone other than themselves it’s a fairly minimal change. The characters want to save the day and move on with their lives almost as much as you want them to save the day and move on, as if everyone in the film and those watching it are in agreement that there are more interesting adventures to be had.
What saves Suicide Squad from completely succumbing to the depths of mediocrity is its cast, led most notably by Will Smith. There is no reason for an actor with the pedigree of Smith to accept the challenge of carrying a production like this, but the veteran actor proves he still has what it takes to make you care about a world that seems so disinterested in entertaining its viewers. The same can be said, though to a much lesser degree, about the work of Kinnaman and Robbie, who each deliver strong performances while embodying paper-thin characters. The only real disappointment is Jared Leto’s turn as The Joker, which feels like an amalgamation of every previous Joker iteration combined with a dash of effeminate behavior. His Joker is by far the most sexually charged version of the character we have seen, but his idea of chaos—based on what we are shown in this film—is about as brazen as mixing every soda variety available in the movie theater lobby dispenser into one cup.
I don’t blame David Ayer for the shortcomings of Suicide Squad because there is no denying that the film was edited to be something other than what was originally created during production. That said, in the few moments where Ayer’s original vision appears to shine through there isn’t much to make you believe an alternate cut of the movie would make it that much better. There is a strained desire to be fun throughout the film that comes across as desperate more often than not, and because of this the film is never able to develop anything of substance. The characters are weak despite having thousands of pages of material to pull from, and the evil they face never once feels like a real threat. I believe there are people who will have much more fun with this film than I did—especially those who know little about the characters going in—but I doubt anyone will be shouting with joy from the rooftops when their screening ends. As far as I am concerned, Suicide Squad is the biggest disappointment of 2016, and I am legitimately worried that DC/WB will be unable to save their cinematic universe in the years ahead. Here’s hoping I’m wrong.