As a kid watching comic-based animated universes, my loyalties always leaned slightly more to DC than to Marvel. Mainly, it was down to the DC cartoons being better produced and less subject to meddling censors, I think.
In the Cinematic Universe department, however, I’ve rather felt my sympathies sliding the other way. Marvel has consistently demonstrated its ability to tell meaningful stories with complex characters like Tony Stark, Loki, and Black Widow.
By contrast, DC’s Cinematic Universe was kicked off by Man of Steel, which told a by-the-numbers, rather grim tale of what has traditionally been one of the most spectacular and starry-eyed characters in comic book canon. It was, in a sense, an early symptom of the general bleak pessmissm of a lot of popular fiction these days, as if the showrunners didn’t believe that Superman was actually a marketable character, so they just tried to make Batman Begins again.
I honestly completely missed the Batman vs. Superman movie, out of a sense, from Man of Steel that I was going to watch, dark, stoic Batman butting heads with a dark, stoic Superman. Contrast makes interesting conflict and I just didn’t see there being any.
And yet, I nevertheless was intrigued by the next installment after that, Suicide Squad. There’s no counterpart in the Marvel Universe that I know of, where you have an ensemble of villain protagonists. It promised to bring forward some more colourful and clashing characters than DC had managed up to now.
In the wake of the events of Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman, the United States government is reeling from the rising threat of aggressive ‘metahumans.’
Amanda Waller, a covert ops planning specialist, gains leverage on a group of metahumans and criminal masterminds and forms them into a secret task force to throw at extraordinary, high risk situations. In exchange for considerations like reduced sentences and nicer cells, they undertake nearly-suicidal black ops with government deniability. Included among them are the master assassin Deadshot, the ex-gangster pacifist pyrokinetic El Diablo, eccentric Australian bank robber Captain Boomerang (seriously), and Harley Quinn, the deranged counterpart to the Clown Prince of Crime himself, the Joker.
Under special ops soldier Flagg, they must go in against a former member of Waller’s team, the Enchantress, an ancient magical entity which, regrettably, has possessed Flagg’s beloved.
The overwhelming impression you have with Suicide Squad is that it’s a rush job. The members of the squad – and there are seven of them altogether – are introduced in a montage over Waller describing them to some generals, except for Katana, who appears out of nowhere at the end of the first act. In practice, Flagg, Deadshot and Harley are the only ones who get more than a simple backstory. The Joker, in pursuit of Harley, comes and goes as if the writers periodically forget that he’s there. I’m certainly intrigued by the new interpretation of him by Jared Leto. I remember when I first saw his picture in character, I thought it was a Marilyn Manson album cover. But he isn’t characterized deeply enough to have either the bleakly funny quality that Mark Hamill or Heath Ledger provide, nor the airs of a figure that even other villains are terrified of.
The characters are fun but shallow. Will Smith makes Deadshot the heart of the piece, but his backstory is your old family-man-with-an-evil-job cliche; Harley’s insanity doesn’t seem real, just a quirky weirdo who switches occasionally from insightful to broken to just random. Her characterization in the 90s Batman Animated Series was certainly quirky, but somehow the tragedy of her character doesn’t come across as much as I might prefer. But then again, I’m a sucker for Harley Quinn redemption fanfiction, to the point of having written one myself. The tone wavers, as if a gritty, humanizing story was the plan but the writers couldn’t quite believe in comic book characters as anything other than silly. Batman’s brief appearances in particular have a subtle element of the absurd, which, when the bar is set by the Dark Knight trilogy at him being a force of shadowy dread, makes him fall flat.
It also falls victim to the same misstep I observed in Man of Steel. X-Men Apocalypse did something similar as well, and it again speaks to rushing things: the heroes confront the bad guy and save the world…except they kind of don’t. See, something the Marvel Cinematic Universe is pretty good at is creating the sense that our heroes triumph by preventing terrible things from happening, containing the carnage as much as possible. In the DC movies (and Apocalypse), they try to big up the scariness of the villain by having them defeated after the carnage is already underway! Sure, Enchantress is foiled but then again, she covered half the world with her power for a while, amongst other things, slicing an aircraft carrier in half! The city she’s operating in is evacuated and trashed. As with the damage to Metropolis in Man of Steel, or Cairo and the world in Apocalypse, by the time the villain is defeated, it feels like it’s too late. What’s the point of a deniable Suicide Squad if what’s going on is that blisteringly obvious?
Despite all of the above, I feel very much as if the movie has been treated more harshly than necessary. It has many of the hallmarks of the ensemble heist film – an old favourite genre of mine – and however artless the plotting may be, the dialogue is actually quite good. The action is perfectly enjoyable and Deadshot, Flagg and Harley between them really carry the story with their performances. Aptly, since this is another Zack Snyder production, the emotive characters, sense of character bonding, surreal aesthetic and exciting action bits successfully evoke my old friend Sucker Punch. The whole production has a certain je ne se quois that maintains its charm. Set and costume design are top notch, and the choice of licensed music certainly beats Guardians of the Galaxy. The comic relief actually did make me laugh, and as I alluded to earlier, whatever failures in the presentation, the acting closes much of the gap. I look forward to the exploits of the new Batman in particular.
So, on balance, I rate Suicide Squad as a Fun Movie. It isn’t up to the MCU or the Dark Knight Trilogy’s standards, but I think it has potential. My main advice to DC would be: take a deep breath, don’t worry about playing catch-up to Marvel and focus on the story you want to tell. But given how much ground Suicide Squad managed to skim over, I think that possibility is very real. So I’ll stay tuned for now.