63. Suicide Squad

Folks, Suicide Squad is about as highly-anticipated as a movie gets.  And while there are a number of factors tying into that, the primary reason can be boiled down to two simple words: Harley Quinn.

The Harley Quinn column that I wrote earlier this year was my most-read piece until yesterday (when my Rotten Tomatoes piece destroyed everything I’ve ever written).  Her first comic book appearance in Batman Adventures #12 can cost upwards of $800.00 in near mint condition.  Her current series at DC Comics written by Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti is consistently an industry best-seller (as it should be.  It’s fantastic and has succeeded because of Conner and Palmiotti, who I give full credit to for Harley’s resurgence.).  And that series relaunched yesterday with a brand new #1 and 75 – yes, 75! – variant covers (and I bought them all, because I’m a true, dedicated Harley lover.  And I’m possibly insane.).  She was added to the Suicide Squad roster just a few years ago and, if she hadn’t been, make no mistake – we wouldn’t be getting a Suicide Squad movie.  Harley is a cultural phenomenon and it’s arguable that she could very well be the most popular comic book character going, at the moment.

So, when Warner Brothers and director David Ayer perfectly cast Harley with Margot Robbie, excitement for Suicide Squad blew through the roof.  Mix in a new Joker in Jared Leto (pronounced LEH-toe) and some nostalgia for the legendary Batman: The Animated Series and a huge opening weekend, leading to a massive overall box office haul, was assured right out of the gate.  But if Suicide Squad lives up to (or surpasses) expectations, then the sky is the limit.  So, will it live and die on the opening weekend?  Or will the film’s quality carry it above and beyond all expectations?  Well, as is widely known by now, critics have not been kind.  Unfortunately, that will have a significant effect on the box office total for Suicide Squad.  Whatever it makes, it would have made more with good reviews.

Now, allow me to set the table.  Suicide Squad is the third film in the burgeoning DC Cinematic Universe.  Warner Brothers saw the success that Marvel has had with their interconnected cinematic/TV universe and decided to . . . well . . . copy them, to be honest.  And that’s fine because this is the sort of thing that fans have always wanted from both Marvel and DC, no matter who did it first.    But they’ve rushed it (and now we’re hearing that very criticism being leveled at Suicide Squad), where Marvel has taken their time.  And Marvel, themselves, are making their own movies whereas DC has to deal with interference from less-knowledgeable (and extremely reactionary) Warner Brothers executives.  As a result, the receptions to the first two installments in the DCCU, Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice were mixed and while the box office returns were solid, they were not blow-away overachievers.  Everyone involved is hoping to course-correct a bit with Suicide Squad, but now they’re getting a similar critical reaction.  Does it deserve it?

Well, yes and no.  I think it deserves much of the criticism but not the vitriol that seems to accompany some of it.

The primary critique that’s making the rounds revolves around the actual story and story construction.  I’ve seem some refer to the story as being incomprehensible, but I thought it was the exact opposite.  I found the main narrative to be obtusely simplistic to the point of laziness.  There is absolutely no meat to the story.  At all.  Rather, the majority of the film is dedicated to the assemblage of the team and their struggles to co-exist with each other while also dealing with their own internal conflicts brought about by their situation.  Not only that but rules are established and then dismissed, broken, and contradicted on a semi-regular basis.  This has to be the result of last-minute retooling efforts after the critical response to BvS.  Again, being reactionary is almost always a bad idea.

It felt a lot to me as if David Ayer saw and loved James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy and just wanted to attempt his version.  The cast of characters is an ensemble of outcasts, just like GOTG.  There is a cool soundtrack, just like GOTG (even including one song that was actually used in GOTG).  And there’s a lot of humor, just like GOTG.  Well, there’s a lot of attempted humor.  A little bit of it lands and when it does, it’s great.  But about 80% of it falls flat due to it being completely predictable and transparent.  They should have asked for Conner and Palmiotti to help with that.  Because I was part of the premiere preview screening.  These people were the hardcore converted fans and when they aren’t laughing at the jokes, that’s a fail.  Still, Harley and Deadshot get some moments that work.

Aside from the humor, the main reason that Suicide Squad can’t possibly live up to GOTG is the aforementioned lack of story.  And that happens because the focus is on introducing too many characters and establishing their relationships.  And so much of that has to be done because (and let’s go back to the beginning, here), Warner has rushed this entire DCCU.

I said in my BvS post that that movie really needed a standalone Batman film first.  And so did Suicide Squad.  Imagine if there was a Batman film with the Joker and Harley as villains that was released between Man of Steel and BvS.  Then, not only does BvS not have to introduce a new Batman, but Suicide Squad is then not responsible for establishing Joker and Harley in addition to the rest of the crew.  That would have helped, so much.  Because while I thoroughly enjoyed both of those two in this movie (more on that in a minute) much of the problems arise in the distractions caused by necessitating the Joker.

Because, honestly, the Joker doesn’t belong in this movie.  He has no strong ties to the Suicide Squad comics.  But he has to be shoehorned into this movie because there is no movie without Harley.  And there is no Harley without Joker.  Had this been taken care of in the Batman movie that we all needed, then the main narrative and the other characters would have gotten more time and attention and Harley could have started to develop on her own a bit, as well.

So, yes, there are significant problems with Suicide Squad.  But, I still found myself enjoying the vast majority of it.  There are three reasons for that: Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, and Will Smith.  The three of them make the movie worth seeing and triple-handedly make it enjoyable.

Margot is Harley.  I don’t say that lightly.  I’ve already established what a Harley nut I am.  And while I was never worried about her casting (just the opposite), I was worried by the marketing.  I’m anxious for the character to move beyond her Joker phase (which isn’t guaranteed, I suppose) because she’s better without him, but this is the perfect Year One Harley Quinn.  Robbie even exudes the character so naturally that she gave me chills during the first couple of scenes in which we see her.  She’s the Poochie of Suicide Squad because when she isn’t on-screen, you’ll be asking, “Where’s Harley?”

I’m not a huge Joker fan.  He’s a flat, one-note character who is only interesting because of his charisma and because of the effects he has on other characters.  Having said that, Leto rocks it and makes me want to see more of him in the role.  I hate the character design (which is another weak point for the movie.  Killer Croc is the worst as they should have gone CGI.  Katana is the best.  Harley is in the middle.) but the characterization and performance are spot on.  This is the closest we’ve seen to the modern-day comic book version and while staying close to the comics isn’t necessary, it’s nice when it’s attempted and it pays off.

And Will Smith does his Will Smith thing.  Deadshot gets the most character development outside of Harley (some characters get basically none) and Smith handles it brilliantly, as always.  Dialogue isn’t necessary to understand who this man is because Smith’s performance is so revealing that his subtext, facial expressions, and body language say it all.  He makes a contract killer more complex and endearing than the script alone would have and I can’t overstate how much of a credit to the film he is.

So, yes, I was hoping for better than what we get with Suicide Squad.  But it’s not a total loss.  Really, this is going to come down to exactly what I was talking about in my Rotten Tomatoes post: what are you looking for?  Most professional critics care more about story than anything, so their criticisms aren’t invalid.  But if you’re more invested in the characters or you just want an escape, you’re more likely to enjoy it, even if it’s been done better by others.  Harley, Joker, and Deadshot are the main reasons to check this out and I think it will be tough for anyone to be disappointed in any of those three.  I’m ready for the announced Harley Quinn movie but I still really hope that Conner and Palmiotti are involved.  They’re the only ones I truly trust with her now that we’re past the origin.  But I digress . . ..

Suicide Squad is deeply flawed but also deeply entertaining.  There are glimmers of greatness amidst remnants of infighting and it’s worth seeing if your personal preferences can align with the end result.  I say give it a shot but if you really don’t want to, I guess you should just stay at home and eat some puddin’.

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