David Ayer’s Suicide Squad is an uneven, overstuffed, ugly film punctuated by individual scenes that actively held my interest. That isn’t much of a compliment, I know, but it’s the best I can manage for a comic book adaptation that, despite its warped undercurrent of humor, shows little interest in the “comic” part of the equation, since many of the characters and situations are so noxious that the intention seems to have been not to entertain, but to make one’s skin crawl. Given its IMAX 3D presentation, it also seems purposely designed to assault your eyes and induce headaches; computer generated effects repeatedly fly into your field of vision, and far too many shots, mostly flashback sequences, are altered to appear hazy and dreamlike.
The film will likely be the latest to ignite debate over the MPAA’s questionable ratings criteria. Despite scene after scene of relentless violence – body slams, taserings, slicings, explosions, crashes, and a hell of a lot of shootings – it has been rated PG-13, which means that it will draw in not just comic book fans and action buffs but kids and parents as well. To say that this film isn’t family fare would be an understatement; apart from the violence, it touches on themes that are not only mature but also morally ambiguous. Sometimes, they’re not so ambiguous. When I think that 2010’s The King’s Speech, a wonderful film about the friendship between two middle-aged men, got slapped with an R rating because of exactly one scene of swearing, it makes me want to rend my hair out.
The plot can basically be described as a comic book version of The Dirty Dozen, in which a series of imprisoned villains with varying superhuman abilities: Floyd Lawton/Deadshot (Will Smith), Harleen Quinzel/Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Digger Harkness/Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Chanto Santana/El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and Waylon Jones/Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) – are recruited by the American government to carry out superhero-like missions in exchange for clemency. They’re all under the thumb of official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), whose ruthless ambition and complete lack of scruples make her worse than all of the villains combined. It’s just one thing after another as the villains try to stop an ancient witch (Cara Delevingne) from building a machine and taking over the world.
With the exceptions of Deadshot and El Diablo, who have both done bad things and yet are redeemed by their need to do right by the people they love (or loved in the case of the latter), there isn’t a single likeable or engaging character in the film. Topping that list is Harley Quinn’s beau and offscreen plotter, the Joker, who really isn’t the Joker at all but rather a sadistic psychopath who just happens to have white skin, green hair, red lips, and metal teeth. Played by Jared Leto, his performance is likely to be overshadowed by his reported behind-the-scenes antics, all fueled by his method approach to acting. Say what you will about the process, there’s no justifiable reason he had to give a live rat, a dead hog, bullets, and worst of all, used condoms as “gifts” to his castmates.
Another part of the problem is that there’s just too much going on and too many characters to keep track of. I attended the film’s screening with my friend, actor and writer Joshua Moore, and he summed it up perfectly: Imagine seeing Marvel’s The Avengers without first seeing Iron Man, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Incredible Hulk. Those films gave us a chance to know who those characters were before they joined forces. There are a mere handful of characters in Suicide Squad that we actually get to know; the rest, to the best of my ability to analyze them, are either uninteresting, rotten to the core, utterly insane, or some combination of all of the above.
While we’re on the subject of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Suicide Squad, along with the awful Man of Steel and the equally awful Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, follow in its footsteps and are a part of their own interconnected universe, this one based around DC Comics characters. There are more films on the way, of course, including next year’s Wonder Woman and Justice League. I was with the Marvel films for a time, but I’ve grown weary of them, in great part because the installments are so intertwined that it has become impossible to keep track of details and characters. The absolute last thing I need is another comic book franchise to keep tabs on. I just don’t have the mental energy for it.