The DC Extended Universe certainly hasn’t been having as much luck with critics as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and now Suicide Squad have done reasonably well with audiences and fans, but terribly with critics.
Suicide Squad follows on from Dawn of Justice, and is an attempt to do something very different from Marvel, and very different from any superhero movie before it. Instead of being about heroes, it’s about the villains, and not just any villains, but those villains co-opted by the government into acting as a completely deniable government kill squad, aka Task Force X.
The architect of Task Force X is Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), a government operative with an ill-defined role who is most definitely not a nice person. She thinks that the world was lucky with Superman, but that when faced with potential meta-human threats, the United States government needs a strategy. Her strategy is to take superpowered villains, inject them with an explosive charge and then send them on covert missions. If they don’t obey, they’re killed. If they do, they may get privileges in the hellhole that is Belle Reve – a “black site” that acts as a special prison for special people, and seems to be run by semi-competent sadists.
The villains chosen for Task Force X include: Floyd Lawton/Deadshot (Will Smith), a hitman who never misses, but whose love for his daughter led to his capture by Batman (Ben Affleck); Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the deranged girlfriend of the Joker (Jared Leto); Waylon Jones/Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who is a human crocodile; George “Digger” Harkness/Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), an Aussie thief who uses boomerangs; Chato Santana /El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a remorseful LA gangster who can summon fire; and Dr June Moon (Cara Delevingne), an archaeologist who is possessed by an ancient witch, The Enchantress.
Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) is the elite Special Forces officer who is forced into leading them in the field.
And then there’s the Joker, who wants his queen back.
Of course, something goes wrong, and the team is sent to deal with it.
Suicide Squad is definitely an interesting movie, with a compelling premise, and a superb cast, but it is also a deeply polarising one. Most critics hate it with a passion, while fans love it so much that they started a petition to shut down Rotten Tomatoes, the movie review aggregation website that makes clear just how much the critics hate it.
It doesn’t help that there are reports of studio interference, with radically different cuts being fused together in response to preview screenings.
The chief criticisms of the movie are that it’s got a crowded cast and a cliched and pointless plot, one that undermines its whole premise. As well as this is the charge that it’s full of jarring tonal shifts as the film flips between black humour, disturbingly black themes and then ends up as a stereotypical superhero flick. These are all fair points – but they don’t sink the film.
Kevin Smith, the controversial filmmaker and comic book fan, has remarked that the film has the spirit of a “rebellious teenager”, and this seems an apt description. Suicide Squad succeeds with audiences, if not critics, due to the stunning performances of its cast. Writer-director David Ayer – who previously made the rightfully acclaimed cop drama End of Watch – spent a lot of effort getting the actors to inhabit their characters, humanising otherwise terrible individuals and making them relatable.
The stylish first act has a music video sensibility, emphasised by a soundtrack of pop and rock songs ranging from the Animals’ House of the Rising Sun and ACDC’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap to Eminem and other rappers; while the rest of the film alternates between standard action fare and dark humour. The villains’ backstories show that there’s more to the villains than their villainy – but that doesn’t mean they’re not villains.
Where Marvel aims for a certain psychological realism and relatable characters, DC, especially under the command of Zack Snyder, aims for something far more operatic. Everything is over the top, veering towards the grotesque and the outrageous. It sort of works, but the comparison with Marvel – and with Christopher Nolan’s stunning, ideas-driven Dark Knight trilogy – is inevitable.
Morally, the movie seems as conflicted as its characters. The Harley/Joker romance is abusive and obsessive, while El Diablo is trying to atone for his sins, and Deadshot wants to be a good father. Waller, in turn, represents the very worst that a government is capable of.
Nonetheless, like a superpowered Dirty Dozen, Suicide Squad shows that redemption is possible in the battle between good and evil – even if it does this in a messy way.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).