Monday, September 5, 2016

'Suicide Squad' Is Awful, But Probably Not For the Reason You Think


It shouldn't come as any surprise to all of you that I didn't particularly care for Suicide Squad. In a summer of divisive movies, this one has been up there with Ghostbusters in its ability to tear the nerd community apart. On the one hand, lots of diehard DC fans clamoring for a movie about their favorite characters who aren't Batman or Superman, and on the other hand, lots of offended moviegoers who want to know what the hell they just paid fourteen dollars to see.

There are a lot of really problematic things in this movie that deserve criticism, but I can see why the DC fans like it. It's a lot more fun than anything else the DCU has put out lately, and it's refreshing to see a film set in that universe that isn't just the same two origin stories rehashed over and over. I get it. I don't like it, but I get it.

Alternately, though, while I see all the rightly criticized problems with representation in this film, that's not what bothered me most about it. I want Suicide Squad to suck because it's misogynistic, plays into all these racist stereotypes, and has the emotional depth of your average pigeon, but that's not why I dislike it. I dislike it because it's just plain not a good movie. Like, at all.

This film is bad not because of the content but because there is literally no way it could have been set up the way it was and been good. At the end of the day, Suicide Squad isn't bad because of the tired cliches, the aggressive stylistic choices, or even the lukewarm leftover villain, but because it doesn't know how movies work.

Look, I don't want to play into the whole Marvel vs. DC thing going on right now, but the easiest analogue for this movie is Avengers

Like Suicide Squad, Avengers is a movie where the imposing, African-American, vaguely governmental badass in charge brings together a bunch of anti-social superpowered weirdos and demands that they save the world. At first the weirdos refuse and fight amongst themselves, but ultimately they do end up saving the world with the power of friendship, punching, and headshots. That's the same premise for both movies. The difference of course being that in Avengers these are the good guys and in Suicide Squad they're aggressively not.

That's not the reason why Avengers works and Suicide Squad doesn't, though. In fact, that comparison actually makes Suicide Squad sound a lot cooler than it is, like a dark mirror of Avengers. The same movie only they're all supervillains and if they make one wrong move, female Nick Fury will blow their heads off? Kind of great, when you think about it.

So the reason why Suicide Squad failed where Avengers succeeded isn't the basic concept. It mostly failed because it didn't set up the story or characters ahead of time. That's really the heart of it. While Avengers is a big team-up film, we'd already met all but one-and-a-half of the main characters* in previous films. All they had to introduce was the actual plot of the movie and the reason these characters are now being asked to team up.

This cuts out a lot of time in the movie. We're already in the universe, we're already familiar with the characters, we just jump off the helicarrier and go. That's what makes Avengers such a fun and happy movie. Because we're already familiar with and invested in these characters, we love seeing them interact. We get a little thrill about them discovering things about each other because we enjoy already knowing those things. It's fun.

Suicide Squad, on the other hand, fails in large part because it tries to introduce every single character in the movie - and there are a lot of characters in this movie - before the end of the first act. So instead of the thrill of the audience getting to see characters we already know and love interacting with each other, the audience is treated to an endless tyranny of flashbacks and backstory to underlay the character interactions of a bunch of people we only met five minutes ago. 

Unless you're a diehard enough DC Comics fan to already know these characters by heart (difficult because some of them are damn obscure), the first act of the movie leaves you too emotionally drained to give two craps about anything that happens after. And that's a problem.

Obviously it's a problem when the audience doesn't care about the characters in a movie. But it's a bigger problem here because the emotional arc of the film is about this ragtag group of villains becoming a loving, dysfunctional family for each other. If we're too burnt out to care about these characters, we won't care if they care about each other, and we won't care if they die. This turns a potentially fun movie into a two-and-a-half hour death-march to the final credits.

The biggest moment when this becomes clear, the moment where I finally realized why this movie just wasn't working, comes at the very end of the film when (SPOILERS) Diablo (Jay Hernandez) goes into his final form of flame-covered skeleton in order to fight the evil sorcerer-god person. As he transforms, he basically spouts a line about how he "already lost one family" and he's not about to lose another.

This should be the emotional crux of the movie. We should be watching this with our hearts pounding, terrified that he'll be hurt or even killed in this battle, and touched that he is so moved by the other characters as to consider them his family.

Instead, I just sat in my chair and completely emotionally disconnected. This new family? Are you kidding me? This character literally met these people three hours ago. Not an exaggeration, by the way. Three hours. He has had precisely one meaningful conversation with them, and it lasted for about five minutes. The rest of the time they've been vaguely bickering and plotting to escape while he stood in the back, brooding.

And yet this movie is telling me to care about him, to care about his great sacrifice, because these people are his family now. Have I no heart?! Am I made of stone?!

Well, possibly. But more to the point, it's just not good writing. It's like this movie was written by two twelve year olds who really like superhero movies and wanted something "edgier". I'm not offended by the idea of a movie based around the bad guys, and I think there's a really interesting film buried in here somewhere. I just also think that considering how Suicide Squad was designed as a standalone film with like twelve main characters all introduced in the same movie, not using any real existing mythology from the DCU, and set in a city that's not even shown up in the movies yet, there was basically no way for this movie to work.

It's a shame.

It's a shame because there are actually parts of this film that hint at the potential for a much more interesting story. Viola Davis is, of course, stunning as Amanda Waller, and I could watch a whole movie about her unapologetically dominating her defense contracts at the Pentagon. You could have made a much better movie that was actually about her and her side of this story. We get hints here, of who she is and why she's doing this, and the philosophical underpinnings of her motivation are fascinating. But ultimately, this isn't her movie. Which sucks, because that would have been awesome.

Also on the acting side of things, the chemistry between Will Smith's Deadshot and Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn was good enough to make me wonder if I should actually go back and watch their previous film, Focus. It also made me ship it, not going to lie, but really it made me interested in the character dynamic between two people who, to my knowledge, don't interact much in comics. Again, there's a really cool movie here that's centered on the two of them and their relationship. 

Or, arguably, it could have been a great movie if done specifically from either one of their perspectives. Half of this film feels like it's trying to be a Harley Quinn origin story anyways, and Will Smith actually feels like he's breaking out of his rut by playing Deadshot. They both have cool perspectives on the story, but tragically the film is so stuffed with secondary characters that we don't get to explore it fully.

By and large, the acting is on-point in this movie (Jared Leto being the obvious exception). Karen Fukuhara is amazing as Katana, bringing that character to life and totally committing to the role. Hell, her character deserves her own movie, because this iteration of Katana is a fascinating and bizarre mesh of comic book stereotypes who somehow resolves into a wholly original-feeling story. 

She's a vigilante who fights with a soul-stealing sword, only the sword was used to kill her husband, and now his soul is trapped in it, and she's fighting criminals in order to get vengeance for her husband's death. Also she talks to the sword sometimes because she thinks her husband's soul can hear her. And she only speaks Japanese. And she's not overtly sexualized.

I'm just saying, I am totally here for the Katana movie.

Anyway, there are a lot of good cinematic nuggets buried in this movie, but the overall film just doesn't work. Even if Jared Leto had magically turned in a good performance as the Joker, it still wouldn't be a good movie. It was never going to be a good movie. Sad, but true.

I know there are a lot of people who really liked Suicide Squad, and I'm not here to tell them that they're wrong and have bad taste. But I don't think I'm wrong either, and I don't think I'm being harsh and judgmental when I say that from a storytelling perspective, regardless of how you feel about the social and cultural implications of this movie, Suicide Squad is poorly written. It's just not well done. That offends me on a professional level. It bothers me that a movie with this big of a budget, this many great actors, and this much potential, could be so undone by such a glaring and obvious problem.

Did no one on this film stop and ask, "Hey, don't you think this movie is kind of confusing? Like, do you think we have too many characters? What if we made some stand-alone films first? They'd be cheaper, and then we'd have a built-in audience for this movie. Why aren't we doing that?" Or maybe they did ask and got shot down. I have no idea. I just know that somehow Warner Bros. spent hundreds of millions making a movie that any first-year screenwriting student could tell you was going to fall apart. 

The saddest part, and arguably the biggest sign of this movie's failure to succeed on even a basic story level, is that I got this far into the review without even mentioning the villain or the plot of the film. I could have ended the whole review here without saying that the half-baked villain motivation, when combined with the already crammed character introductions of the first act, made for a climax that barely registered. Cara Delevigne does perfectly fine work as Enchantress, but no amount of writhing and aggressive voice modulation can save her character from the same problem everyone else has: too little screentime to develop an actual emotional arc.

Look. I don't hate DC. I genuinely want them to make good movies because I really love a lot of DC's characters. And right now they are absolutely crushing it with Supergirl and The Flash. I just can't help feeling like the whole movie studio is being run by people who don't know how movies work. And that bothers me.

Katana. Standalone. Movie.
*I mean, Hawkeye had a cameo in Thor and Bruce Banner both was and wasn't part of the MCU already.

5 comments:

  1. The film has a big behind-square-one from me, because I only know Enchantress from Shadowpact, where she's a good guy.

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    1. That's fair. I think we all have those "gimme" movies.

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  2. Another clueless critic writing on something they do not understand. More useless drivel from the pen. 1. You don't compare this film to the Avengers
    2. There are different ways to tell a story and setting up characters using minimal time is not a bad thing and actually fits into the story of most Suicide Squad depictions whether in animation of comics.
    3. Because the characters were set up we could interact with them outside of seeing them just as villains and as human beings
    4. The focus was placed where it ought to be on the squad and that is what the audience now knows about.
    5. While the antagonist was a bit rushed it was still wonderful to see the antagonist be found out and have the squad pull together to eventually discover the main antagonist's intentions and also stop her.

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  3. I wouldn't really compare this film to Avengers. Honestly, the film I thought of while watching this was Guardians of the Galaxy. A bunch of criminals who don't get along at first must team up to save the world, they become friends in the end, it's based off an obscure team, and the soundtrack consists mostly of other artists' songs. Except Guardians did all those elements better; I believed it when Drax told the others "you are my friends," I cried more over Groot -- whose dialogue was limited to "I am Groot" -- more than I did for El Diablo and his pages of backstory, the world they're saving doesn't have Earth's plot armor and thus there's more tension, and the songs' placement in the movie make more sense as they're often diagetic and flesh out Peter Quill/Starlord's character and his relationship with his mother. Guardians is far from a perfect movie, but it still had more heart and soul than Suicide Squad did.

    Also, a criticism of the Squad and its characters I should bring up is that their recruitment makes no sense. In the comics, the Squad is made up of villains because 1) they're sent out to do the government's dirty work while officials could claim no responsibility and 2) if they die, no one will miss them. So including people like Captain Boomerang and Harley Quinn isn't a huge stretch. In the film, however, they're supposed to be a contingency plan in case someone like Superman comes around and they're not as nice. Realistically, only two members -- El Diablo and Enchantress -- could stand up to someone on that power level. Deadshot, if given the right equipment like a kryptonite bullet, might also stand a chance, but the rest of the team, especially Boomerang and Harley, wouldn't last five minutes. So this assembly makes Waller look pretty stupid (no offense to Viola Davis; I completely agree that she's one of the best parts of this film).

    A better way to do this film would be to wait until the Justice League is established, have these villains already appear in the films, and then get them together to do a black-ops mission. But now that can't happen.

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  4. Fantastic review. Despite its flaws, I actually enjoyed a lot of Suicide Squad, but I couldn't help but think about how much potential this movie had while watching it.

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