Suicide Squad Proves There’s Poison in The Water
Everything wrong with the DC Expanded Universe can be explained by The Dark Knight.
In order to understand everything that’s wrong with David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, we have to look outside the rest of the current DC Expanded Universe. No, we’re not talking about Marvel movies. While the films of Marvel Studios often exhibit the same qualities and problems we’re going to address in looking at Squad, it’s another DC Comics adaptation that will best illuminate this point. You see, the problem with Suicide Squad isn’t that it doesn’t have action and energy, it’s not that it doesn’t understand its characters or know how to deliver fan-service moments, it’s that it is made entirely without the benefits of confidence and clarity.
On the other end of this spectrum is Christopher Nolan’s 2008 comic adaptation masterpiece The Dark Knight. There was something that Nolan inherently understood about the adaptation of beloved comic characters that has escaped both Ayer and Batman v Superman director Zack Snyder. It’s simply not enough to put the Batsuit on a talented actor, or The Joker’s make-up on someone with a good laugh. You have to dig into these characters and find the thematic heart of their stories. Then with clear authorship and as little studio interference as you can manage, you build a story from that emotional core. A great comic book movie is a great story that includes characters we already love, not just the gathering of said characters.
In The Dark Knight, Nolan and his brother Jonathan built their story around the arc of Harvey Dent, as played by Aaron Eckhart. They understood that Harvey’s story would be the emotional core as he’s pushed and pulled by two sides: Batman on the side of order, The Joker on the side of chaos. In the end, the movie was about the battle for Harvey’s (and in a larger sense Gotham’s) soul. The Joker’s thesis: All it takes is one bad day to drive someone into the abyss of madness. Batman’s counter: True goodness is the resistance of chaos, something that lives within the hearts of even the most down-trodden Gothamites.
When you pull it apart, The Dark Knight is about so much more than Batman, The Joker, and Harvey “Two-Face” Dent. It’s about order and chaos. This is something that Warner Bros. and DC haven’t been able to quite nail in the years since. In fairness, it’s something that Marvel struggles with at times, especially when they’re trying to find the emotional core of a story about 6–8 heroes all at once. Their best efforts are movies like Captain America: Winter Soldier (a 70s-ish spy thriller that includes Captain America, Bucky, and Hydra). Their worst efforts get lost in less coherent, flashier efforts like Avengers: Age of Ultron. While there’s plenty of style and plenty of things happening, these movies are often ground into paste by the weight of what they are trying to do.
The two 2016 entries into the DC Expanded Universe suffer from these flaws, but there’s also something deeper and more poisonous at work. Between Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, we now have two movies that feel hurried in an effort to both serve a core audience and catch up to the Marvel machine. From an executive-level view, DC is constantly chasing their next high even though they forgot to stock up on needles. Everything feels rushed, pieces don’t fit together elegantly, and there’s no time to sit down and explore these characters. They are simply throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. And so far it’s only sticking for the diehards – the most avid comic readers – because they don’t need time to explore these characters. They are already familiar. And they’ve waited long enough to see them on screen that just having a movie that involves Harley Quinn might be enough. It doesn’t matter that it’s incoherent (Suicide Squad is) and it doesn’t matter that characters aren’t fleshed out in a way that delivers on their potential (many aren’t).
For its first 30 minutes, Suicide Squad yada-yada-yadas an excessive amount of backstory in a clip show. As Amanda Waller (played deviously by Viola Davis) explains how she came into possession of the worst of the worst, we see little tidbits of who they were before they were in prison. The most time is spent with Deadshot, played by Will Smith. It’s not just that Will Smith is the biggest name on the metaphorical marquee, but Deadshot ends up being one of the few Squad members with anything resembling a story arc. He’s a contract killer – the man who never misses a shot – who simply wants to provide for his Honor Student daughter. He’s the one with the most to lose among our antiheroes, the one with the most motivation to see their mission through and maybe get to see his daughter again. It’s all further proof that the story of Deadshot is a useful one, though I suspect he’d work better in a simpler movie – perhaps as an antagonist in a solo Batman movie.
Then there’s Harley Quinn, the heavily marketed star of the show. Margot Robbie is an undoubtedly talented actress and seeing Harley Quinn come to life in a live-action movie is a big moment for fans of the character. But her inclusion – and her side-story with Jared Leto’s Joker – is evidence of another sickness that exists in the DC Expanded Universe: these filmmakers clearly want to make different movies than the ones they are releasing. My great takeaway from Batman v Superman is that Zack Snyder really wanted to make a gritty Batman movie in the vein of Frank Miller. But he was forced, mostly due to this high-chasing machine, to wedge his vision of Batman into a brooding Superman sequel/Justice League setup movie. In the case of David Ayer, it’s clear from Suicide Squad that he’d much rather be making a story about Harley and Mr. J. It’s the only reasonable explanation as to why The Joker is in this movie to begin with. Beyond the desire to tell their origin story – which Ayer does in the most limited possible way – you could take The Joker and Harley Quinn out of this movie and it might actually be more coherent. As much as she’s fun, she doesn’t quite match with the military value of Deadshot (an expert marksman), Killer Croc (a man-crocodile who can survive underwater and rip dudes in half), El Diablo (who literally sprays fire from his hands), and Captain Boomerang (whose real value is never explored – he drinks a lot and has boomerangs). Harley Quinn gets the best one liners, but when the fighting starts it’s more of a “wow, she keeps surviving despite the fact that she’s only got a baseball bat” than a “yes, she clearly belongs in the middle of this military operation.”
The problem that Ayer and his team run into at every turn is that characters are either undercooked or they are microwaved into stereotype territory. Harley and The Joker are evidence of the former. The film doesn’t shy away from showing how she was victimized by The Joker, pushed over the edge of madness into a state of subservience. She’s the ultimate study in Stockholm syndrome and emotional abuse. But Suicide Squad tries to perform this study in all of about 2 minutes of screen time. It simply doesn’t work. El Diablo’s story represents the microwaved stereotype. It’s not just the movie’s problem, but one that often exists in comics when dealing with characters from minority backgrounds. He’s ultimately your stereotypical Latino gangbanger who (pun intended) got too close to the fire and burned himself. There’s an interesting character in there somewhere, but the movie never takes the time to go looking for it.
Suicide Squad has plenty of problems. It has a villain problem (inasmuch as it’s hard to know who the real villain is – my pick is Amanda Waller); a pacing problem (it’s rare to find a movie that feels like a 1 and 1/2 act story, rather than 3); and a marginalization problem thanks to a crowded roster of characters (Adam Beach plays Slipknot in this movie, blink and you might miss him). But its greatest fault is that there’s no authorship or confidence at any level. There are moments when it feels like a chaotic, close-quarters David Ayer shoot-em-up, but only a few. There are moments when it feels like a Harley and The Joker origin story, but in small indiscernible pieces. There are moments when it’s a story about humanity worshiping machines over the mysticism of the gods, but only briefly. And there are moments when it’s about a group of bad guys who dream of simpler, happier lives that don’t involve guns and rock music, but that’s literally only explored for 90 seconds.
The result is an incoherent mess of a story that includes a few solid character moments that it never really earns. Incoherence that ultimately overshadows what should be a bunch of fun performances. It does weird things – like double down on racial stereotypes and sexism – almost as if it’s pandering to a vocal minority of its online fanbase. This is one reason why DC’s movies (this one included) do well on their first weekend, and are then likely to flatten out as only the most diehard fans go back for a second helping. There are plenty of opportunities to deliver fan-service moments, but a good story has to be the backbone. And the production has to know who it wants to serve. Is it serving its diehard audience? Is it trying to reach out to mainstream audiences? Is it trying to build an expanded universe? Is it trying to introduce a bunch of characters that will show up elsewhere in said universe? If DC’s efforts in 2016 have proven anything, it’s that you can’t do all of these things at once no matter how hard you try.
Suicide Squad is likely to be good enough for some, but it’s by no measure good. It’s a smattering of recognizable faces and costumes in an otherwise incoherent, listless story. Where the Tao of The Dark Knight – arguably the greatest comic book adaptation of all-time – preaches confidence and clarity of a singular vision, Suicide Squad sprays a hail of narrative gunfire into the dark, cold night. Whether it hits any target will depend on your willingness to sacrifice coherence for simple existence. It’s great to see Harley Quinn and The Joker finally get their moment on screen, but they deserve so much better than this.