You know what, end-credits song? You’re right: you do torture me. Is that Imagine Dragons speaking, or the WB itself?
I imagine (buh-dum-tish) that after two reviews of me patiently explaining these DC movies to the apathetic and/or actively hostile, you’re expect me to do the same with Suicide Squad, the Also Ran of 2016. Well, too bad. And it is too bad, since I loved the very idea of the Suicide Squad as a kid. And I loved it’s spiritual successor, Secret Six, even more as an adult. In spite, or because, of this love, I recognize that my enjoyment is pretty much inseparable from my enjoyment of the wider DC universe. I also recognize, with the clarity of hindsight, that it was too damn early for the Squad to make any sense in the context of DC’s Cinematic Universe…without the movie going out of its way to patiently explain everything about them to the apathetic and/or actively hostile.
After all this is only DCCU’s the third movie, and it got hobbled right out of the gate by its long stint in Development Hell. The first rumors of it reached my ears back in 2009, and the gods only know what kind of vestigial plan this was supposed to be a part of back then. Hell, the WB were still trying to get Chris Nolan to tie his Batman into a wider world at the time, which he repeatedly refused to do…either because he saw the future, or (more likely) because one of a friend had just taken the Pain-Pills-and-Wine Express out of this mortal coil.
For whatever reason, it took seven years for Suicide Squad to get made. The result vexes me, and the vexing starts almost right off. It lulls me into a false sense of security before pulling out its knives, like a certain character with a flaky, mercurial persona. It is nice to see a DC company logo that doesn’t suck, though. Rather than a comic book page turning, the old one always made me think of those little pull tabs stickers they use to put on CDs that would never, ever pull off in one go, no matter how carefully you tried, so you always wound up having to go get a knife anyway. I remember thinking, over these opening three minutes: “Hey, maybe things are finally looking up, ya know…? Oh…oh, shit…”
The reason being, within those first three minutes, we cycle through three character introductions and three incredibly well-known pop songs. It’s like having someone with terminal ADD fiddle with your car radio. It takes me back to the bad old days, when every wannabe summer blockbuster would release a soundtrack with the subtitle, “Music From and Inspired By the Motion Picture.” Sometimes they’d even tack “Hit Motion Picture” or “Motion Picture Event” onto the end, there, if they really felt like tempting Fate.
It’s not that the song choices are wrong. It’s that the first three minutes of your film are super-duper critical to establishing overall tone. The key word being “overall.” What is this movie about? “House of the Rising Sun” is a great anthem for Belle Reve Prison, a blacksite that debuted in the comics decades before the rest of us even knew what the word “blacksite” meant. (We used to just call them “illegal torture prisons,” or “death camps” but whenever the USA does something, we always have to invent a cutesy new name for it, because branding is our only True God.) But the movie’s not about Belle Reve, now is it? Grace’s “You Don’t Own Me” is a nice enough anthem for Harley Quinn (especially since Guardians of the Galaxy already used “Cherry Bomb,” so there goes my first choice…), but is this the Harley movie? You’d certainly be forgiven for thinking so….except, what’s that title card I just saw?
Oh, right – Suicide Squad – a covert team of supervillains, threatened into doing the US government’s dirty work by the shadiest of its shady operators, and the little remote-control bombs she put in their necks. So by all rights, the one true kick-off point of any Suicide Squad movie must be with Amanda Waller. This movie could’ve opened with her pitching her crazy idea to the brass, backed by the Rolling Stone’s “Sympathy for the Devil,” the most appropriate Squad theme in this, or any other universe and it would’ve instantly improved the flow of the whole experience.
Instead, redundancy’s our watchword and countersign. After meeting two characters (the one who’s popular with comic readers, and the one who’s played by Will Smith) we spend 15 minutes on Waller’s pitch…re-introducing both Deadshot Smith and Harley, before getting to all the other Squad members who will prove to be important. (I don’t know anyone who didn’t immediately conclude Slipknot was going to be “the guy who’s gonna get his head blown off just to prove Waller’s super serial.” There’s always at least one. It was KGBeast in the 2014 straight-to-DVD animated film the WB used to gauge interest for this procjet, but they couldn’t use him here, since he just got barbequed at the end of Batman v. Superman.)
There’s a strange mix of the 1980s and the modern teams in this roster, and that’s not a criticism, just an observation. Deadshot, Captain Boomerang and Waller’s Number One Guy, Rick Flag, are all veterans of ’87; El Diablo and Harley didn’t get on board until after the company-wide reboot of 2011; Enchantress, Katana, and Killer Croc only squaded up after the company-wide reboot of 2016, in a deliberate attempt to get more people like me on board by throwing more peripheral Bat-characters into the mix.
Katana’s my favorite, despite getting a shorter fucking shift than anyone besides…that guy who got his head blown off. She immediately endearing herself to me by asking Flag if she should kill the rest of the team as soon as she sees ’em. And I got to spend the rest of the movie laughing my best Aku-laugh at her very presense: “HA HA HA! Foolish samurai, hooking up with Rick Flag and The Wall. Go to Gotham and find that nice Bat-fellow. He, at least, has some integrity.”
Croc gets runner-up status, filling out the “beast-man” slot previously reserved for King Shark. Why they didn’t put Sharky in here I’ll never know. He’s cool, cuz he’s a shark. No disrespect to Croc, though. He is obviously a crocodile, and when Harley calls him “ugly on the outside,” he gets one the film’s best retorts, (“Not me, Shawty, I’m beautiful.”) For all Waller’s talk about how “evolution took a step back with this one” (cuz that’s totally how that works) Croc also, eventually, gets a hoodie that looks…kinda, sorta…like a wrestler’s. His backstory as a failed semi-pro-heel-turned-Gotham City-muscle keeps receding further and further as he becomes more and more Lizard-like, so seeing even one element of it still hanging around is nice. Wish there were more of it in Waller’s dialog, though. Hell, I wish her pitch were anything other than meaningless platitudes…You know, Swamp Thing volunteered to take Croc off humanity’s hands all the way back in 1995…but that was two and a half reboots ago and nobody remembers the good stuff…
Where were we? Oh, yeah: redundancy. All the problems of Team Movies are in full effect here, especially the First and Greatest Problem: too many characters, not enough time. Worse, they’re all C- and D-listers (except Harley – but we’ll get to her), unknown to a less-literate audience, and some section of the WB brass was obviously terrified by that fact. So after Waller’s fifteen-minute dinner pitch-meeting we cut to…another pitch-meeting. Oh, but this one’s in the Pentagon, with the Joint Chiefs or the National Security Council or whatever. Great.
I can see why they kept it. Having Enchantress teleport herself to Iran and then pop back with a dossier full of nuclear secrets is a much better pitch than some dry recitation of everyone’s origin stories. For example, Enchantress is an archeologist possessed by the spirit of a neolithic god-monster, kept under control by the fact Waller has her mummified heart in a suitcase and Rick Flag staying very, very close to her human host. Too close for anyone’s comfort, in fact. Except Waller. Which leads to another one of the best exchanges, when Flag says, “They warned me about you. My dumb ass didn’t believe the stories.” The Wall responds with, “Nobody does,” and I responded with a hearty “hell yeah!” That’s the Amanda Waller I know. She’ll fuck you over just to stay in practice and then convince you it was actually your idea all along.
(Later on, after everything’s gone to shit, Deadshot asks Flag, “I never been with a witch before, what’s that like?” And Flag very much does not say, “You have no idea what you’re missing, Floyd. ‘Brain-meltingly wonderful,’ doesn’t even begin to cover it.” But he should have, cuz it’s the truth. )
I’m not saying they shouldn’t have kept this scene in the Pentagon’s bowels; it’s a good ‘un. I’m saying they shouldn’t have kept it, and the dry recitation that proceeds it. They should’ve picked one. Same goes for all the other characters. Deadshot – perennial top-shelf hitman of DC Comics – gets a long flashback at the start, showcasing what a badass marksman he is, but oh, he still loves his daughter, who’s already Wise Beyond Her Years, and oh hai, Batman…then, fifteen minutes later, he gets another scene. Showcasing what a badass marksman he is. But, oh, he still loves his daughter & wants her in all the best schools, and this one’s in the prison yard, set to Yeezie’s “Black Skinhead.” He calls it his “cheerleading tryouts,” and he’s right, but he already “tried out” for us, the audience, at least twice. What’s more important, from a movie-making standpoint? And why is this movie such a fucking mess? Hell, we don’t even get the important part of Diablo’s backstory until an hour and a half in. That is, 30 minutes from the end credits. Same with Katana, though at least Diablo gets a flashback.
The thing is, we comic book nerds have been reading this stuff for years, but there aren’t enough of us to make the kind of money the WB wants to make – which is, once again, all of it. All the money in the world. There haven’t really been enough of us to do that since the 1970s, when the comic book distribution system first started breaking down. The people in charge know this, and they have no faith in the ability of a general audience to comprehend anything. Nor should they. Hence the built-in redundancy. Which leaves the movie half-over before the plot even really starts.
Being an immortal “flying, spell-casting, making-shit-disappear witch” who was lording it over human beings when we were still figuring out that whole “crop irrigation” thing, Enchantress naturally balks at having her (heart-)strings pulled by a National Security bureaucrat. So she escapes, frees her brother – who is only ever called “Incubus” in text, but whatever – and the two begin tear-assing through Midway City. Which is sometimes the DC Universe’s version of Chicago, sometimes Detroit, sometimes Kansas City. Here, I vote Chicago, because Suicide Squad comic book writer John Ostrander is a Chi-Town native, and Our Anti-Heroes spend the middle hour of this film trying to get to the John Ostrander Federal Building and extract a high value target. “HVT-1.” That’s your MacGuffin. In my head cannon, Ostrander got his own Federal Building by either cleaning up this dimension’s version of the Daley family political machine…or maybe it was a bribe to get out of their way.
Regardless, Enchantress and Incubus turn a chunk of the population into mindless zombie minions (that remind me, as does so much else, of an old Japanese horror movie: Attack of the Mushroom People) and start constructing what Enchantress calls “a machine that will destroy them all.” Said machine consists of…a big blue lightning bold that comes out of the ground and makes a swirling wormhole of trash in the sky. Hey, just like in Avengers 1. And Fant4stic. And Transformers 3. What is it with big, swirly blue lights in the sky these days, anyway? Even General Zod’s forces (whom I should’ve named “the Zod Squad” when I had the chance) planned to Kryptoform the Earth by trapping it between two ends of a big, swirly blue light…
Everything I said about the World Engine applies here, too. Personal battles are good, because they’re personal. Big, abstract battles against swirly lights in the sky are bad, because they’re needlessly abstract. Especially when our antagonist can project illusions straight into our Anti-Heroes’ brains. Sweet Kansan Jesus, if you wanted to thematically link the shady, manipulative practices of the United States national security crowd to a superpower, I can’t think of a better fucking power to pick than illusion casting. But because Producer Logic mandates we must have an action scene every fifteen minutes, and because the PG-13 rating mandates the Armies of Evil must be made up of identical thugs who bleed any color but red, Enchantress doesn’t actually enchant anyone until the movie’s almost over. (Except for a tiny one she hits Flag with near the beginning, to escape his watch so she can free her brother and start the plot.) Which sucks, because showcasing your character’s fondest hopes and dreams can be a great way to reveal their essential core, especially to an audience who doesn’t know them from childhood. I’m pretty sure that was about half the point of Citizen Kane (the other half being a gigantic troll of William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his time).
But what the hell do I know? We could just have our Anti-Heroes constantly reminding us that they’re “the bad guys.” Here’s a fun party game: take a drink every time someone self-identifies as “the bad guy,” the way no one outside of a movie ever does, ever. “We’re bad guys: it’s what we do.” Yeah, Dr. Quinzel, we know. Presumably that’s the “hook” that got us to watch this in the first place. It was all over the trailers…
Time for Harley, then. Harley’s what happens when you create a new character for your established, omnicidal, misanthropic villain to talk at/to, and that new character becomes, arguably, more popular than the established villain. Seeing Harl in live-action was a rare and special treat (even before she put on those pleasantly distracting booty shorts) since I was present at her “birth” all the way back in 1992. Tracking her journey from Batman: The Animated Series, into the comics, and finally to the Big Screen, is a great way to give yourself crash-course in the genre’s entire modern history.
That process is aided by the fact Harley’s Defining Element of Tragedy remains her abusive relationship with an amoral mass murderer. It’s a great example of the kind of relationship that substitutes quantity of emotion for quality – that is, the kind of relationship that’s become an object of obsession for vast swaths of the population. Yes, Joker and Harley take it to ridiculous extremes, but that’s just Gotham City, motherfuckers. Recognize. If the isles full of Relationship Books with names like “Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay” are any indication, people are emotionally starving out there in the “real” world. When you’ve starved for long enough, even Jack in the Box starts to look good. And this is why someone can agree with every single point in your ten-minute explanation of how their favorite romance novel is actually a cult leader training manual and respond with nothing more than a breezy, “Yeah…but it’s still pretty damn hot. I’ve started bringing it into the bedroom.”
Screw up your face and go “ugh,” all you want – the fact remains these relationships speaks to people in a way few other things can, because the rest of the world is usually too busy talking down to them. I made the same mistake back turning the Twilight “Saga’s” heyday and now here I am – here we all are – completely unarmed in the face of the 50 Shades of Grey Trilogy. May the New Gods help us all.
All of which is to say, this easily could’ve been the Harley movie. Harley’s by far the most popular character on this team, Margot Robbie’s great in the role, doing a lot with not that much, and she’s the only one who gets an actual on-screen origin story. It’s a quick, cliff notes version – “extended” by a grand total of one, five minute scene in the “extended” home video cut of this movie – but it’s here. Nice as it is to see, it highlights how everyone else in the Squad has to make due with table scraps of attention. Deadshot sums up my feelings on all this with his line: “Ya know, for about two, sweet seconds I had hope.” You and me both, Agent J. This Willennium’s not working out very well for either of us, is it?
Of course, to make this a proper “Harley movie,” they would’ve had to leave in all the short-but-welcome scenes of Harley fucking with everyone else’s heads that currently only exist in the “extended” cut. (My favorites are when she tries to Psych 101 Katana and Katana refuses to take that shit, and when she asks Croc if he wants to eat her and he says he doesn’t need her crazy in his system. If I didn’t like Croc already, that would’ve synched it.) Also, they would’ve had to make the Joker the kind of main antagonist the trailers made him out to be.
I’m not saying that’s what they should’ve done. I’m as sick of Joker hogging the spotlight as anyone (aside from the few mental health advocates who think superhero comics unfairly stigmatize the mentally ill…as opposed to, say, the pharmaceutical, psychological and self-help industries that make billions annually off of keeping the mentally ill nice and stigmatized). Enchantress could’ve been a fine foil for the Squad and, as it stands, almost is. But in a field this crowded, she doesn’t get nearly enough time to make an impression on people with anything much beyond her midriff. Besides, Waller’s the true antagonist of any story she stars in…including this one. Oh, Waller’s “HVT-1,” by the way. Spoilers. And all of this destruction and death really is her fault, but you probably already guessed that.
What the fuck was Waller doing in Midway City anyway? “Studying your girlfriend,” she says to Flag and all the intel she gathered, she could’ve sat in a bunker under D.C. But of course, then we wouldn’t have the Shocking Surprise Twist of Waller being “HVT-1.” Or the scene where Waller shoots a room-full of her own underlings just to keep the Squad a secret. Or the following scene, where she intimidates a room full of super-criminals with nothing more then a cellphone app. That’s Amanda Waller, right there, and Croc speaks for both us when he says, “I like her.” More than enough to give Viola Davis this movie’s MVP award and congratulate her on the wonderful job. Shame about the rest of the movie, though. There are little bits of awesome scattered throughout. Like when Deadshot’s helping his daughter with her geometry homework. And that pink unicorn that is Captain Boomerang’s sole character trait (besides the drinking, of course). But here comes the Shocking Surprise twist you probably already knew, about why this movie is the way it is.
As with the previous two DC movies, everyone decided to hate this the moment they heard about it (don’t say you didn’t – you did). But then, like a beam of green light from a planet of blue people (who all love Bohemian Rhapsody), the Squad’s first trailer hit the internet, causing quite the sensation in my circles. Most just used it as a new stick to bash Batman/Superman with: “Oh, wow – DC’s making a movie that actually looks fun! With bright colors and everything! How novel!” But a few poor, unfortunate souls were actually swayed.
And I’ll give it this: it was a slick commercial, made by professionals. There are, in fact, multiple production studios all over the world who do nothing but make two-and-a-half-minute trailers. So Warner Bros., in their infinite wisdom, hired at least two of those companies to make at least two different cuts of this movie, and then focus-group-tested them against whatever director David Ayer and credited editor John Gilroy were already working on. After all, a two hour, fourteen minute movie is…well, shit, that’s just, like, 54 two-and-a-half-minute trailers all strung together…right…?
The results of that focus-grouping informed Suicide Squad’s final cut…so is it any wonder this film’s a Frankenstein’s monster of competing subjects, dropped threads, High Fanservice few (if anyone) even noticed, and barely-there characterizations? It shouldn’t be. This is the logical end result of a culture obsessed with teaser trailers and exclusive first looks behind behind-the-scenes. So obsessed, we’ve started judging films years before they’re finished, just like the corporate sharks who own them. It’s a shite state of affairs to be in, Tommy, and all the neon colors in the world won’t make any fucking difference.
Evil Me: Oh, my. Are you…mad, little brother?
Point is, if anyone had any clear idea of what this was going to be, they got overruled. Making this the Fant4stic of 2016. Except if anyone started showing up to work drunk, we haven’t heard about it yet. If you want to see the good version of Suicide Squad, find that animate film I mentioned a few hundred words back. It’s called “Batman -Assault on Arkham,” & I reviewed it when it came out, but here’s a capsul version: it’s the Suicide Squad movie this should’ve been. And you should all watch it.
Evil Me: And you should continue trying to spark a…shall we say…“civil war…?”
Let’s not and say we did.