‘Suicide Squad’ shows us that badder isn’t better

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Suicide Squad (2016)

Directed by David Ayer

No #SquadGoals here. In an attempt to fit a half-dozen origin stories into one 2-hour DC outing, “Suicide Squad” ends up being a loud, directionless mess. (WARNING: SOME SPOILERS AHEAD.)

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Let’s start with the terribly oversimplified backstories. The hitman Deadshot (Will Smith) has a young daughter, an ex-wife, and the ability to hit any target with a bullet 110% of the time. Dr. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) was a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum before the Joker (Jared Leto) connived her into falling in love with him and turned her into a badass with a baseball bat. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje plays Killer Croc, a sewer-dwelling monster with thick skin and a mean attitude. The Aussie named Boomerang (Jai Courtney) is a former diamond thief, and Diablo (Jay Hernandez) can light a fire with his hands. Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) is a government official who thinks it’d be a good idea to get these baddies together for a good cause—saving the world. She hires Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), an elite soldier, to keep them in line as they try to defeat a new supernatural enemy (Cara Delevingne).

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That’s about all we get for context. If you’ve been keeping up with the comics, maybe you’ll go into “Suicide Squad” with everything you need to know. But to the casual viewer, unaware of the intricacies of DC’s lesser-known superhumans, “Suicide Squad” drops you into a pool without a life vest and laughs as you struggle. It might have helped to see a couple of standalone films first. For characters like Deadshot and Harley Quinn, I would have enjoyed watching them. Under the direction of David Ayer (“Fury”), Will Smith is an action superstar. After he was unfairly denied an Oscar nomination for last year’s “Concussion,” “Suicide Squad” is a nice reminder that Will Smith still has the versatility to carry an action movie and make us laugh the whole time, too. Deadshot looks and acts a lot like Marvel’s Deadpool. In the comics, Deadshot preceded Wade Wilson by decades, but in the film universe, it’s Smith who looks like the copycat. Try to ignore the similarities. Margot Robbie convincingly embodies Harley Quinn. I expect a lot of Halloween parties with one or two lookalikes, but mostly I hope for a feature film with her and her Joker romance and a Batman appearance. But the two biggest stars (despite being miles ahead of last year’s “Focus”) are not enough to drag the weight of their underachieving costars. Joel Kinnaman stepped in as Rick Flag when Tom Hardy had a scheduling conflict. God help us. He’s never been particularly good in almost anything, so you can’t blame him now. Viola Davis, glorious in “The Help” and “Doubt,” has recently taken to trying to lend weight to bad action movie roles (even the word “Blackhat” still makes me physically ill). I beg that she stops. Her attempts at giving gravity to a movie so clearly mediocre only makes things worse. When “Suicide Squad” embraces its identity as a comic book movie, it excels. Enter Jared Leto. His bone-chilling laugh, his ominously worded tattoos, his popped collar…stop it with the Heath Ledger comparisons—he’s not that—but Leto’s Joker is better in different ways. He’s more mysterious, he holds his cards closer, and he doesn’t waste time or wait for you to make the first move. But the best character in the whole movie doesn’t get nearly enough screen time. When you’re trying to make time for a dozen main characters, how could he?

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Next, the villains. No, not the squad itself—the real bad guys. Cara Delevingne plays The Enchantress, a few-thousand-years-old spirit in the body of a bushy-eyebrowed twentysomething. The Enchantress mostly just camps in a dark, mysterious location, the epicenter of the madness, and waits for the squad to show up. In the meantime, she creates an army of zombie-like minions to hold the squad off. A mass of nameless, faceless creatures that run and tackle and even shoot, if they can get their hands on a gun. But since they have no defining characteristics, they’re absolutely no fun to watch. It’s a confusing mess when dozens of them attack at once. You don’t feel anything emotionally when they’re killed. And the worst thing, you never doubt they’ll actually be killed. They have no name, no personality—there’d be no narrative point in letting one win even a single fight. So the action is without consequence or suspense. It’s just there. Remember “The Avengers”? How there was Loki, a villain you feared may actually have some power, and his alien minions, who you just knew would never win? It’s like that, but without a Loki character—a villain that you know and understand and are interested in. Plus, these hollow bad guys only seem to come around when “Suicide Squad” isn’t using some convenient narrative technique to reintroduce The Joker into the story. And, like “Superman v. Batman,” these fights are happening in a largely-evacuated city. You don’t hear the frantic screams of innocent civilians. You don’t see the zombies kill a single human being. It’s as if “Suicide Squad” is being filmed in a vacuum, not in the real world. And for a DC Universe that thrived on gritty realism in its “Dark Knight” franchise, that’s a stark pivot. Since when is Marvel the more realistic universe, the one that looks more like the world you live in?

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If you want an upside, close your eyes and listen. “Suicide Squad” boasts a killer soundtrack of oldies and goodies, plus a loud score that deserves some better action to accompany it. But that’s about all you get. It comes as no surprise that the villain-heavy “Suicide Squad” is badder than any DC movie that’s come before it—but few expected it to be one of the worst.

5/10

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