As an amateur film critic (who is always accepting donations) I'll often hear my casual critiques met with "Whatever, man, it's just a movie." When I complain about a lazy plot or unmotivated characters, the response is usually silence or disinterest. And I understand why; people go to the movies to be entertained, not to nitpick or browbeat.
At the same time, there's a correct way to tell a story. Not all movies have to tell stories, of course, but if you're introducing characters, setting, and plot for use in a linear narrative, those need to pay off somehow. There needs to be a logical path, a rising action, a conclusion. That's how stories have been told since the beginning of time.
And that, in a nutshell, is what's wrong with Suicide Squad: it's shitty at its core. It subverts the storytelling process in jarring, nonsensical fashion, introducing characters out of nowhere, propping up irrelevant antagonists with no explanation of their plans, and waiting over an hour for its leads to interact. It's so inept, it's basically the The Room of comic book movies.
It starts with the characters, which will garner most of the tepid praise Suicide Squad receives but feel (more than usual) like action figures inhabited by Hollywood stars. The most lifelike is Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), the government official who brings the Squad together and constantly vocalizes how little she of a fuck she gives. Davis is a great actress who provides a needed spark to her every scene, and Waller occupies an interesting space between hero and villain that deserves to be explored. Of course, that means she's quickly tossed aside for a nearly endless amount of backstory.
We’re introduced to Deadshot (Will Smith), who interacts with Ben Affleck’s Batman for 20 seconds and also loves his daughter very much. Then there’s Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), who was the Joker’s psychiatrist-turned-lover and somehow along the way learned to fight enough to participate in a massive battle against weird alien monsters. She also loves booty shorts. Finally, we meet Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje); one killed his family with fire, the other two are a boomerang-wielding thief (I think) and a man with scales who apparently can swim well and likes the dark. Try to guess who is who.
What a ragtag squad, right? You can only imagine the hijinks they’ll get up to. Now picture spending several minutes with each of them, and Waller, and their field leader Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and his girlfriend-slash-witch (Cara Delevingne). Oh yeah, and the Joker (Jared Leto) shows up here and there, mostly to kiss Quinn and emasculate-slash-murder Common. All of this setup takes roughly 60 minutes, during which there’s zero interaction between the Squad. They don’t form bonds or find things to hate about each other; they literally do not come into contact.
Again, there’s no right or wrong way to make a movie; bending genres and breaking the mold help create masterpieces. But if you’re putting together a comic book movie where the idea is “a bunch of villains begrudgingly join forces and save the world” and you keep those villains apart for over an hour, you’re doing something wrong. And Suicide Squad suffers mightily as a result; the last half is filled with battles against Putty Patrol-type henchmen and and attempts to topple the ill-defined, world-destroying scheme of Flag’s girlfriend-witch. In between all that, writer-director David Ayer tries his best to bring everything together, but it’s too late. When you don’t lay a proper foundation, the house on top is going to sink.
Rumors are already swirling that the final product isn’t exactly Ayer’s vision; that a more jokey cut was preferred to his darker version and the lighter one won out. Of course, most of the first hour (rumored, unsurprisingly, to be the most altered part) doesn’t snap with Marvel charm; it just slows down the journey to the meat of the story. It’s rarely wise to pry open a movie and shove in extra scenes where they don’t belong; again, Suicide Squad is emblematic of the risks in allowing outside factors to dictate your process.
Then there’s the soundtrack, which is the most direct response to Guardians of the Galaxy in a movie that was clearly rebuilt after James Gunn made Marvel several hundred million dollars. But where Guardians used the music as a plot point—harkening back to Star Lord’s past and emanating from his Walkman—and tried to pluck songs that its audience didn’t know by heart, Suicide Squad fills its first hour with as many bread-and-butter rock tunes as possible. Twenty seconds of Rolling Stones here, a couple CCR songs there; even “Spirit in the Sky,” which was also heard in Guardians, makes an appearance. It’s the latest and greatest attempt by DC/Warner Bros. to say “we can do this too,” and its embarrassing.
Suicide Squad feels like perhaps the most meddled-with movie of all time. There are 20 minutes in the back-half where its characters finally interact with each other—a bar conversation that harkens back to similar intimate chats in Ayer’s Fury—and then make a conscious decision to proceed with their mission; it needed ten more scenes like that to come anywhere near working. For all the hype that referenced The Dirty Dozen, it’s clear whoever put this movie together never saw the 1967 masterpiece. Something tells me that person is probably not David Ayer; something also tells me that getting into bed with DC and Warner Bros. at this point may be a financial dream but an artistic nightmare. If DC remains as reactive as they’ve been in the recent past, another tailspin is probably in order for the fledgling cinematic universe builder.