Suicide Squad review: Villains couldn't save the DC cinematic universe

Villains: they're bad, but we like them anyway

Suicide Squad isn’t what it seems like in its trailers, but it’s not anything that you couldn’t have guessed. It’s not the confident beginning of a tonal shift in the way Warner Bros. makes superhero movies, but it wears its heart on its sleeve more than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It’s got a plot that was edited into incoherence, but it’s also got several strong performances from great actors, in good roles.

It is by no means good, and yet I can’t bring myself to hate it.

Set after Batman v Superman, and therefore after the death of Superman, Suicide Squad opens with Amanda Waller shopping her idea of Superman replacement. "We got lucky," she tells one government official, "Superman shared our values." The next nigh-invulnerable, practically omnipotent metahuman might not. Thus: the Suicide Squad.

Suicide Squad is neither the movie the Warner Bros. cinematic universe needs, nor the one it deserves

Viola Davis does a solid half-hour of expositional heavy lifting explaining her handpicked group of thieves, murderers and madmen that she has leverage on, in seven separate origin stories packed into a single montage. Despite all of that exposition, two members of the Suicide Squad are simply tossed in just before the action begins with little to no explanation.

Instead of the plot ramping up, it cliffs up, as the film goes from exposition to action through a series of events that seem as if they’re nearly instantaneous, but, as a character finally explains more than an hour later, actually happened over a period of three days. The U.S. government throws our protagonists at a crisis created by the failure of a plan. That plan, we see, was crafted by folks who are ostensibly some of the most competent and intelligent people in the DC cinematic universe — but it also appeared to have several logical inconsistencies from the get-go.

Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad’s fight scenes are standard fare; they aren’t shot in a particularly memorable way, nor is there any particular focus on showcasing the Squad’s diversity of combat abilities or even (with a few notable exceptions) establishing why they’re so much more powerful than the spec ops commandos who surround them that make them worth the risk.

Characters don’t so much have arcs as they have a series of steps. Eventually the movie simply reaches a point where if the amoral loners don’t pull together to save the world, the movie will end, so ... they do. An attempt to fuel this transition is made through what is trying to be a reveal of previous events as they actually happened, but in actuality is just a piece of information necessary for the previous events to have made sense at all.

After all the hype, Jared Leto’s Joker is largely unmemorable and uninspired. But that works out fine, because he’s also barely in the film. Suicide Squad seems to rest heavily on the not-erroneous assumption that the audience is already very familiar with the Joker as a character, because in practicality it frames him more as Gotham’s top gangster than as its mythic god of chaos. Aside from his manipulation of Harley Quinn from psychiatrist to patient, he does nothing in the movie that you would commit someone to an insane asylum for.

Suicide Squad Warner Bros.

All of the good in Suicide Squad rests squarely on the shoulders of Will Smith, Margot Robbie and Viola Davis. Davis and Smith share duty on what might be the movie’s best scene, a moment in which Amanda Waller and Deadshot meet for the first time and get to showcase not only the core competencies of their characters, but the ease with which each of them recognizes the other’s competence. Deadshot and Harley Quinn are the closest things the film has to protagonists (the movie tries to push Jay Hernandez’s El Diablo into that space in the third act but doesn’t quite get him there), and if Warner Bros. is at all smart, it’ll make Amanda Waller into the Phil Coulson of the DC Cinematic Universe. Viola Davis is just that good.

Smith, Robbie and Davis elevate the performance of every other actor they get to verbally spar with. Joel Kinnaman’s Rick Flagg in particular only becomes more than a square-jawed, lawful good government agent archetype when he’s arguing with Deadshot or Waller. The three sell the most ridiculous dialogue with aplomb, as in a moment when Harley crows "Now that’s a killer app!" after someone has literally killed a person with a smart phone app. That, I thought to myself, is absolutely the sort of joke that Harley Quinn would make and enjoy.

Suicide Squad is overproduced, over-edited and largely incoherent from a narrative standpoint, but it’s not the most overproduced, over-edited and largely incoherent thing to come out this year, this summer, or even from Warner Bros. this summer. However, mindless accompaniment to popcorn with a some bright points doesn’t really cut it in the world of interconnected superhero universes, summer blockbuster successes and ballooning budgets.

If you’ll pardon a twist on the old phrase, Suicide Squad is neither the movie the Warner Bros. cinematic universe needs, nor the one it deserves. Much like its protagonists, it’s in a gray area in a world where everybody cares about the extremes, and more’s the pity.