Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Thoughts on Suicide Squad

Property of DC/Warner Bros.
DC attempts to snatch some of Marvel's box office success have been less than stellar. Their movies have a tendency to garner a lot of lead-up hype, open well, and then crash on the second weekend because everyone that sees their movies comes away thinking they're, at best, average and overhyped. And that really is at best since the last four movies DC has put out has been surrounded in controversy:
  • Man of Steel had a joyless, gray, Superman violently murder his opponent, and that's after a 30 minute fight in which Superman and Zod level at least half of Metropolis. 
  • Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice only had the titular fight for about 15 minutes and ended with the characters becoming best bros because their mom's had the same first names. 
And now Suicide Squad. Early critics reports already had people uneasy when the fun, gonzo tone of the trailers didn't match the more apparently more reserved tone, darker tone of the movie. Before even that, the Juggalo Joker design was causing people to tilt their heads and wonder just what we were getting from what was touted as the "last hope"* of a stumbling studio trying to regain their footing and start matching Marvel's audience and critical success.

Instead of a dumpster fire, I found a movie that was flawed, nonsensical, but ultimately enjoyable. The plot was an everloving mess, and the more you think about it, the worse it holds up--which is saying something because it doesn't even hold up under a surface-level cursory glance, but the characters were fun, the cast engaging. They had good chemistry, and I found myself looking forward to the few moments the movie slowed down and let them just be around each other.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the promise of the movie more than the execution. It was sprinkled with good ideas, but squanders almost every one of them by surrounding it in a shit sundae of a plot.

If you want a good example of a movie length Suicide Squad story, I'mma stop here and encourage you to read Colby Park's review of Batman: Assault on Arkham, and after you've read that review, go buy the movie because honestly it's the best Suicide Squad movie that's out and available to watch right now.

That said, there's something to be said about seeing our heroes re-imagined on the big screen. That's part of the draw of the live action adaptations--seeing drawings and words on a page come to real, physical life. And I think we honestly get some of the best live action adaptations we could've hoped for: Margot Robbie was great as Harley Quinn, Will Smith is fun in most everything, and I kept being reminded how much I miss him in big expensive action movies where he smirks and snarks and shoots things, and Viola Davis turned in a tense performance as Amanda "The Wall" Waller.

Hell, Jai Courtney turned out a fantastic performance as Captain Boomerang. This may be the first movie I've seen that I will remember Jai Courtney being in.

That was this movies biggest strength. The characters were well cast with good caliber actors with good chemistry, and it shows. When the characters were just hanging out, shooting the shit, this movie lit up in a way that I haven't yet seen in a DCCU film. If this movie had just been a series of vignettes of the characters hanging out, it would've been great.

Before I go heaping too much praise on the performances, I want to note that even the good performances feel a little restrained at times--especially Viola Davis.

Davis occasionally seemed a little unsure of herself, almost like she was holding back. Quiet performances aren't bad, but while Waller is definitely a sly, calculating woman, she's also not afraid to get in someone's face and tell them to fuck right off. With a little more coaxing from the director, I feel like Davis's performance could've been elevated to something phenomenal.

That said, not every actor was gold. I actually really like the concept of Leto's Joker as a modern day gangster--replacing the old 20's and 30's trappings with grills, tattoos, and big rings. In fact, there's one moment where the concept tried to proved it could work: the Joker's goons bring in a guy and tie him to a chair. The Joker comes in, holds out his ring like he's fucking Marlon Brando in The Godfather, and when the guy kisses it, the Joker grins, climbs up on the guy's lap, and drolls, "I can tell you meant that." That got a chuckle out of me.

Unfortunately, the rest of Leto's performance was not that good. His performance was just...weird. It's hard to put my finger on specifically why it didn't work, but it didn't. His quiet, whispery voice and delivery were almost too borrowed from Ledger's Joker, while everything about the character seemed like he should've been bombastic and over-the-top. Like, Johnny Knoxville could've played the hell out of this type of Joker.

Also, I hated Leto's Joker laugh. It was a weird quacking laugh, sounding more like a sarcastic laugh given at a really stupid joke than the manic laughter that even Cesar Romero gave as the Joker. When the 60's Batman nails the Joker closer than you, you've misstepped.


Speaking of the Joker, I want to get into some of the more spoilery choices the movie made that I found very interesting. With the exception of one uncomfortable and violent scene in a flashback involving Harley Quinn and electroshock therapy, the Joker is actually less violent toward her, instead coming across almost more romantic--or at least manipulative, depending on your read. Again, that electroshock scene.

In the New 52, they revised Harley Quinn's origin to include the Joker throwing her into the same acid vat that made him the way he is. This movie borrows from that new origin, but instead of Harley being thrown in by the Joker, she actually jumps in on her own. But what really makes the scene interesting is after she jumps in. The Joker turns to walk away...and then turns back and dives in after her and pulls her to the surface.

There are moments throughout the movie where you can see cracks of what could've been bleeding through. There's another great scene at the end of the movie where the Joker breaks Harley out of prison. He and his goons are all dressed like SWAT cops, and after they cut the door to her cell open, he pulls his helmet off and the camera zooms in on him like some cheesy romance hero complete with Harley's cry of, "Mistah Jay!"

For those few seconds, you can see a dark humor that should've been in this movie all along, a juxtaposition of the insanity and cruelty that these bad guys engage in with the more common tropes and portrayals. If this movie was made with the craft and humor of, say, Fido, we'd be having a whole different conversation.

And that's the biggest problem with this movie. You can nit pick this thing to death because it's full of bad or confusing choices. Take the character of Diablo. I saw a lot of fervor made online about how Diablo is a Latino man who's a gangster, one who murders his wife and children.

Maybe it's because I'm a white guy and therefore a lot of this stuff isn't personal to me like it is to Latin@s, but the character pretty compelling. The thing is, I didn't get that Diablo was abusive to his wife like I saw some alleging online. I did see him smack her on the ass at one point playfully as she walked past, and while this movie's objectification of woman bounces between annoying and yawn-inducing, it seemed like he genuinely loved his wife.

His backstory plays out like something you'd see on a supernatural version of the Sopranos. Diablo is a criminal, and while is wife is aware, she doesn't seem to care that much as long as he keeps it away from the. One day, his wife finds that he's been keeping some of his criminal stuff at the house--money and guns and stuff if I remember--and she gets pissed. They get into an argument, and eventually he loses his temper--and control of his powers--and accidentally burns his house down, killing his wife and his kids.

That's certainly a dark backstory, but they're criminals. Of course they're going to have dark backstories. And while it also falls into fridging territory, it does add some compelling reasons for him to hold back and not fight--he doesn't want to lose control like that again, to cause harm and potentially kill someone when his powers have already cost him dearly.

But then they go and do something like reveal that apparently Diablo is, like, an Aztec fire god or something? There is zero hinting or foreshadowing of this. It comes out of nowhere during the fight against one of the big bads and then they just shrug it off. Like...y'all don't want to talk about how seemingly human Diablo just turned into a giant flaming skeleton wearing an Aztec headdress? No? You're just going to let that go unremarked on? Okay...just seems like something you might want to talk about.

The movie isn't just riddled with bad decisions, unfortunately. It's structurally a mess. I've seen some people say that Marvel's movies are getting formulaic, that they all seem to rely on the same beats. And that's probably true. I would argue those beats are mostly versatile enough that you can tell a gritty political intrigue story like Winter Soldier and a irreverent, galaxy-spanning romp like Guardians of the Galaxy, but I see their point. And while I appreciate movies trying to buck that structure, a big budget comic book movie was maybe not the time to try that, especially so early in DC's shared universe.

The trailers pull a fast one in making you think Enchantress will be on the team--and the movie kinda tries to do that, too. They introduce Enchantress like she's going to be a member of the Squad, with her own little flashback and everything. But the very first time that Waller tried to use Enchantress for anything, it goes wrong within seconds. Literally seconds. Like, so fast, it makes me wonder why the movie bothered wasting time trying to set her up as a team member--she never even gets to actually join the team. It's like, "let's use her to go somewhere we can't because she can teleport--wait where are you going?? You're only allowed to teleport where I tell you to!!!"

Amanda Waller says that she can control Enchantress because she has her heart separate from her and she can stab at it to hurt her. This, also, is immediately undercut. When Enchantress goes rogue, she frees her brother from a little husk voodoo doll thing, and then he gives her some of his power so that her heart getting stabbed over and over doesn't kill her. And when he does that, she basically becomes fully powered, he doesn't seem any weakened by the effort, and the entire heart thing is basically dropped until the climax when suddenly the heart becomes important again.

But what I still don't understand is, instead of scrambling the Suicide Squad...why didn't Waller just destroy the heart. If the point of the Squad's mission was to kill and stop Enchantress and her brother, why bother with the squad at all? And if the point wasn't to kill her, what did they think sending three people who can shoot good and three people good at punching was going to accomplish against a reality bending magic user??

I thought maybe Enchantress would decide to fight with the squad. Maybe her brother gets too power hungry and she sides with them to stop him out of spite. Or maybe Dr. Moon (the person Enchantress is possessing) gains control over the powers and sides with them. Something. Anything to provide dramatic structure and tension to the film. But no. There are no twists and turns. No revelations. No surprises. The one thing treated as a big revelation to the cast--that Rick Flagg is sleeping with Dr. Moon--lands with a huge shrug because we've known that from probably the first 20 minutes of the movie, and it doesn't seem to matter to the mission that they're on anyway. Again, if the goal was to subdue Enchantress without killing her, how did they plan on doing that when she immediately teams up with her equally powerful brother and creates a swirling vortex of city destroying power in the middle of downtown? Waller has no qualms killing the fuck out of the rest of the squad if they go rogue, but she doesn't want to kill Enchantress? Why??

This going rogue and becoming the villain of the movie? That's in the FIRST THIRD! From a structural standpoint, it makes no sense because the movie introduces a huge and deadly threat, and then goes back to meandering and teambuilding that feels almost like a derailment when you're imagining while these people are being all cute and snarky, a whole damn city is being destroyed--which is exactly what is happening. Imagine if, in Man of Steel, Zod started fighting Superman in the first third. and then, while Metropolis is being decimated, it cut over to Bruce Wayne going around and recruiting the Justice League like we saw in the sizzle reel from Comic-Con. That's what happens in this movie.

It would've made more sense to introduce some smaller token threat, and then escalate the situation when Enchantress gets involved--like how in Guardians of the Galaxy, the team starts out trying to steal and deliver a priceless artifact, only to eventually run afoul of Ronan.

Enchantress was a bad choice for a first movie villain. Maybe in movie 2 or 3 when the character dynamics are a little more established and you need to up the tension by pitting them against a threat that hopelessly out-matches them. Maybe as the dark final chapter were a few team members actually die? But not as a first villain.

Another of example of this movie introducing and immediately dropping ideas is in the climactic final fight with Enchantress. She puts a spell on the team, tempting everyone with visions of what their heart most desires. But Diablo, in a decent bit of character building, isn't fooled by the false reality where his wife and kids are still alive because he's already owned that he killed them, and while he hasn't really moved on from it, he's not going to pretend that he didn't do it just because it's more comforting.

That in and of itself would be fine, but then he turns to everyone else and basically says, "Hey, guys. This isn't real." And everyone goes, "Oh? Yeah, I guess you're right. Okay." And that's it. They held the tension for all of maybe 60 seconds before it was over.

And that's a damn shame. The heart's desire fantasy sequences could've been used to great effect to develop everyone's characters. People have already been talking about Harley's fantasy--her and the Joker dressed looking normal and dressed in 1950's style clothing, kissing and tickling their baby. Harley even presses the "normal" cycle on her dishwasher. It's sad and funny in the best way, but entirely too short because it's there and gone in a flash.

This scene should've been used to really dig into the hearts of these characters. Deadshot could've been spending time with his daughter somewhere free from the fear of persecution, Killer Croc could be enjoying life as a normal looking person, and maybe just for a humorous cut away, Captain Boomerang's fantasy is just him, like, drinking a fuckton of beer and eating fried chicken or something.

Instead, Deadshot's heart's desire is apparently to kill Batman in front his daughter. How...sweet? Rick Flagg's was obviously him sleeping with June Moon. And, as I already said, it amounts to nothing because they all just shake it off.

Imagine if Diablo was able to sort of sour everyone's fantasies with reality. Like, his protestations that the dreams aren't real seeps into the fantasy and changes them. Suddenly, the cops bust in and arrest Deadshot while he's with his daughter, the Joker turns violent and hateful against Harley, Dr. Moon turns into the Enchantress and starts killing flag--everyone's piece of heaven turns sour and they wake from their nightmare.

For an example of how this exact concept can be done to great effect, go grab a copy of JLA/Titans: The Technis Imperative. In that book, Cyborg--who is currently a planet eating spaceship (don't ask), starts gathering up all of the former Titans and putting them in virtual reality pods in which they live through what he think is what they want most and will make them happy. That is met with humorous and heartbreaking results, as below.

Property of DC/Warner Bros.


Ultimately, Suicide Squad was an enjoyable mess. The plot is riddled with stupid or baffling choices, false starts and stops, and clear studio intervention, but that doesn't stop the cast from being charming and fun. It doesn't stack up against any of the Marvel movies on a structural level, but I actually probably like this movie more than either of the Thor movies--which may be blasphemy to some, but honestly while the Thor movies are obviously better made, they're boring to me.

I actually think I would watch this again. It's almost definitely not worth theater prices, but maybe buying from the $5 bin at your local grocery store, or renting it from a Redbox isn't out of the question. And obviously, I would strongly suggest you get Batman: Assault on Arkham first because it is an example of what this movie could have been.

With news that DC is pushing Man of Steel 2 into production, I can only hope that maybe this movie will get a sequel with a better script. Or hell, DC, just go ahead and get that Gotham City Sirens movie started. Because I'd love to see more Harley Quinn sooner rather than later.

As for the DCCU? It doesn't appear that they're learning from their mistakes. For one thing, they're making Man of Steel 2--blech. But for another Justice League is teasing a black suited Superman--ala from The Return of Superman. Yay, more stupid 90's garbage. Let's just keep our fingers crossed that the Wonder Woman is good, eh?

*I'm honestly not convinced that these movies will have a "last hope" type situation. For one thing, the movies make more than enough money overseas to continue justifying their existence. Additionally, DC has staked their reputation on their approach to these movies. At this point, changing direction would look either like they were copying Marvel, or admitting that their first attempts sucked, and they don't want to do either of those things. So with each movie met with a collective shrug, I think the "last hope" will just shift to the next one, making it not really a "last hope" but more a desperate stupid optimism that maybe MAYBE the next one will be good, while watching DC continue to double down on the same decisions every time.