Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
August 2016

Suicide Squad

You give supervillains a bad name

On self-fulfilling prophecies, Suicide Squad's failure to pull off its simplest prerequisite, and the catastrophic disappointment of DC's filmmaker-first approach

Suicide Squad
Warner Bros.
Director: David Ayer
Screenplay: David Ayer, based on the DC Comics characters
Starring: Margot Robbie, Will Smith, Viola Davis, Joel Kinnaman, Jay Hernandez, Cara Delevingne, Jai Courtney, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Jared Leto
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 3 minutes / 2.35:1
August 5, 2016
(out of four)

As someone who has just seen the movie Suicide Squad, I can say with no trepidation that I have no idea what the movie Suicide Squad is about. Or even if it's about anything. I mean, don't get me wrong, I intellectually understand what the concept is. I could describe it in a sentence if I had to. I can even name all of the characters. What I don't know is why the movie exists, what story its creators thought they were telling (or why), what functional or aesthetic purpose any individual scene has, or what any of it ultimately adds up to. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln...

It would not be enough to say this movie is pointless, but that it is so thoroughly without a point - so utterly without significance or accomplishment on any level - that I'm almost tempted to interpret it as a large-scale nihilistic abstraction ... except it hasn't even the courage for that, to say nothing of competence. Let's set aside that it's an interminable viewing experience. Even that can be forgiven in the right circumstances. More to the point: Suicide Squad is only barely a movie at all. It's just been stitched together to resemble one. I suppose it technically qualifies - in much the same way I could splice together all the videos on my phone and slap music on top of it and call it a movie - but beyond that, it shares only a first-glance resemblance to what we would call narrative filmmaking. This is more like a sizzle reel. A sizzle reel for a theoretical movie about lame-ass criminals. No, strike that - sizzle reels are more coherent. No, this is like a supercut put together by a precocious YouTuber with limited imagination and less attention to detail, whose only acquaintance with popular music is from existing soundtracks to other movies.

This is the kind of film that makes you lose all faith in the story process of franchise filmmaking. All the time and all the resources spent to make this thing, and the end result is so devoid of sense - of shape, of cohesion - that one wonders, in exasperation, how anyone imagined this would all come together, and what the hell it was supposed to be. This is the kind of movie that makes you appreciate the structural integrity of a porno film.

Once there was a concept. Wasn't there? There had to be. There was a vision for this comic-book adaptation about DC villains being thrown together as a begrudging team of covert government mercenaries. Someone imagined this - imagined what it would look like. The ultimate antihero movie. And the outcome is this thing, filled with ... well, I hesitate to call them ideas. They're just emblems of ideas. Facsimiles. Supervillain simulacra.

This film isn't even the bare minimum of what it set out to be - or thinks it is. It starts with a premise that turns out not to be the premise at all. It starts with a storyline that exists entirely within its own vacuum, entirely for its own sake. (In other words, nobody actually thought of one.) It's designed as an appendage of the burgeoning DC Universe, yet its brief, gratuitous attempts at connecting to that world are laughably irrelevant.

How bad could this movie be? So bad it can't even get its simplest, most fundamental details straight. The basis for the movie is that the world's most dangerous criminals are rounded up together. "The worst of the worst," declares Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), the CIA honcho who puts the task force together and seemingly (?) has a plan for it. Let me repeat that, and capitalize it, for clarity: The Worst of the Worst. Writer/director David Ayer makes clear that this is no joke; as Waller makes her pitch, the scene is shot in moody hues of gold and brown, in the middle of a dark, rainy night in Gotham. And yet, once we see them in action, those supposed worst of the worst somehow aren't so bad at all. Ayer has given us a whole ensemble of villains with hearts of gold - snuggly, cuddly little teddy bears by comparison to what Waller has told us, in no uncertain terms, what to expect. And look, I'm happy to give the film a little leeway here; no one wants or expects us to go along for the ride with a bunch of, like, Nazis, or sexual predators. But this movie goes so far in the other direction that it makes a mockery of its very premise. It defeats its own purpose.

This is not a minor flaw. This is the entire concept. Not just villains - supervillains. Not just bad - the worst. Of the worst. Here, instead, is what Ayer gives us: A hitman who - aside from seemingly only whacking fellow criminals - is at heart really just a loving father who wants to spend quality time with his daughter. A human flamethrower who has become a pacifist, ashamed of his ability and regretful of every time he's used it; he's in prison for what amounts to a tragic accident. An innocent and brilliant woman occasionally possessed by the spirit of an evil sorceress. A reptilian maneater with super strength and anger issues, but who's really more victim than villain. A boorish, mouthy thief who ... well, he's a thief, I mean how much of a supervillain could he really be. And then, of course, the once and future queen of the Gotham underworld, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), who - to the film's credit - at least seems to display some psychopathic inclinations, which is more than I can say for the rest of this lot. But even her status as supercriminal is mostly owed to her connection to her long-lost lover, The Joker (Jared Leto). He's the only truly evil baddie in this bunch, except he's not actually part of the squad; his role is reduced to a few fleeting appearances, mostly in flashbacks to an era in Gotham that seems a lot more interesting than this one. (Though Leto's performance is rather awful, there's real potential to the idea of a film centered around these young gangsters in love - the blinged-out, neo-punk king and queen of Gotham, with all the mad, dangerous romance and sinister melancholy those flashback sequences seem to be suggesting.)

But aside from the tangential impact Joker's presence has on the action, these are the sorry excuses for bad guys we're left with. Deadshot (Will Smith). El Diablo (Jay Hernandez). Enchantress (Cara Delevingne). Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney). (Oh, and there's also, technically, the legendary supervillain Slipknot - the Randy Couture to the Suicide Squad's Expendables - who dies almost immediately. I'd call that a spoiler alert, except the film cares so little about the character - and, as a result, shows such little respect for actor Adam Beach - that he's the only one of the squad that doesn't get an introduction.)

Giving these characters backstories - even tragic ones, stories that give background on why they became bad guys in the first place - is all well and good. Necessary, even. But the film weights it so far in favor of their gooey human center that the whole concept of villainy is lost.

Doing them no favors is the Abbott-and-Costello routine of a plot they're stuck with. I'll try to make this as linear as possible: Waller puts together the Suicide Squad - hand-picking each supervillain herself - presumably with missions (or types of missions) in mind. One of those supervillains (Enchantress) loses control of her good half and goes rogue. Then Waller commissions the Suicide Squad to stop her. That's it. That's the plot. This plot is not treated with a sense of cosmic irony - My god, what have we created?! - but as a routine series of events, the exact type of thing that the task force was put together to handle. Except ... I mean, without the existence of that task force, there would be no crisis, and no mission, and no movie. As a supplemental conceit, as something simultaneously contending with a larger narrative, it's workable. But that's not what we get. The story and the conceit behind the story are indistinguishable from each other. They are one and the same. The entire screenplay of this movie is one long retroactive justification for the existence of its own premise. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy without the benefit of any awareness. It's equivalent to the long con that opens Rian Johnson's The Brothers Bloom; Ayer creates a solution, then creates the problem caused directly by that solution, then uses the solution of that problem to prove he needed the solution in the first place. The internal logic of this could go in circles forever. We created the Suicide Squad for a covert mission. That covert mission was to stop a member of the Suicide Squad.

As a particular type of gambit on Waller's part - perhaps one that speaks to the hubris and overreach of governing and military bodies - I can theoretically see it. But only if I'm being really charitable - and even then, it's still a bogus excuse for a story. It also reinforces the failure of the characters themselves as supposed villains who supposedly need to be summoned in the first place. When it comes down to it, their villainy is beside the point. Sure, they all have particular skills that make them useful in certain circumstances, but not such particular skills that they're essential to this mission. Why did we need bad guys for this again? Seems like all of their roles could be filled by garden-variety mercs. Let Blackwater Academi handle Enchantress. If you need some really nasty shit done that you can't tell anyone about? Fine, bring in the bad guys. (Not these ones, though. These bad guys are all way too soft. So soft that, I kid you not, the film eventually attempts to sell us on a "they all learned how to be a true family in the end" angle. Suddenly, these villains - the worst of the worst - become deeply loyal to one another for reasons that go unexplained. Let no one say there is no honor among the world's most dangerous criminals.)

Amid such a mass of larger failures, the unfortunate side effect here is the way Suicide Squad wastes the efforts of Margot Robbie, who gives such a gleeful comic-book performance as Harley Quinn. She seems like the only one truly in on the joke, the only one of the group truly willing to embrace her inner madness. The softening of the squad itself still dominoes down on her, of course - but she escapes it mostly unscathed. In fact, she makes it work for her - her Harley is both the most unpredictable of the group and the most affable, the remnants of her sanity taking over when it needs to. Will Smith, meanwhile, is stealthily the perfect embodiment of the film's internal contradiction. He signed on for a role as one of the world's nastiest, deadliest men. But Smith being Smith, he has neither the edge nor the menace to ever come across as genuinely bad. Which, as it turns out, makes him a perfect fit for this movie ... but only because the role - and indeed the roles of all of these bad-guy protagonists - is so poorly conceived.

Suicide Squad is the third entry in DC's movieverse, and the worst of the three by a wide margin. Here's the thing, though - among superhero films, I'm rooting for DC. It has openly tried to establish itself as a filmmaker-driven outfit - with each chosen director meant to bring his or her unique vision to each project - as opposed to the aesthetic continuity that Marvel has gotten down to a successful but banal science. I far, far prefer the former approach, and yet here we are. I suppose it's simply a matter of putting the wrong filmmakers behind the wheel? Ayer has directed terrible films almost exclusively (Harsh Times, Sabotage, and yes, even the well-regarded but ineptly directed End of Watch). He has made one film of passable quality (2014's World War II epic Fury) - one film that suggested he was capable of taking on a production like this. Please understand, I mean this as a compliment; despite my issues with various elements of Fury, it convinced me he could do something like this.

He couldn't. For someone whose work is so overtly defined by masculinity, his take on Suicide Squad is notable only for its absence of balls. He was handed a concept ripe for a subversive, dark, nasty edge, and he delivered a safe, sentimental, thoughtless, artless, witless heap of disconnected images and hackneyed musical cues. ("Sympathy for the Devil," REALLY?!) He's been examining the complicated machismo of antiheroes for a decade, and now that he has a whole roster full of them, he cowers, insisting that these so-called villains are really just nice guys who want to be loved. His goon squad is nothing more than a bunch of rowdy pranksters. There is no bigger picture that reveals itself in Suicide Squad; it's just a two-hour waste of time - and not even the pleasant kind. I would hate the movie intensely if it offered any convincing reason to feel anything about it one way or another. But it's too empty even for that - too awful to earn the visceral hatred it deserves. It leaves me numb.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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