Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Killing Joke

Year: 2016
Director: David Ayer
Cast: Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie 
Run Time: 2 hours 3 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

With three women (only one of them white), two African-American men, a Hispanic, and a Native American playing major roles, Suicide Squad is easily the most diverse Hollywood film of the entire year. Which is a damn shame, because Suicide Squad shouldn’t be the most anything. Obviously, I love that fact that DC’s other properties are challenging Zach Snyder’s faintly misogynist White Dude-iverse, and Suicide Squad is head and shoulders above Batman v Superman’s soul-sucking chaos, but it’s still – you know – not that good.

Shall I count the ways Suicide Squad is only OK?

Well, here’s the plot. Governmentperson Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has initiated a project that will team the world’s strongest supervillains (only one and a half of which actually seem to have superpowers) to defend the world from extreme threats against their will. This motley crew is Deadshot (Will Smith) a trigger-happy assassin whose one weakness is his love for his daughter, cue the orchestra; Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the unpredictable right-hand woman of The Joker (Jared Leto), who needs no introduction nor is he given one; Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), a ludicrous Australian stereotype who frustratingly turns out to be one of the best characters in the movie; Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a hot-tempered gangbanger who can shoot flames from his hands; and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who is a C.H.U.D.

Then the movie tosses in its two most racially offensive characters at the last second, hoping we won’t notice: the stoic Native American Slipknot, who is not affiliated with the shock rock band and is actually like a good climber or something who cares, and Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a Japanese swordswoman who is tasked with protecting Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), the soldier helming this operation.

And what is this operation, exactly? Stopping the Enchantress, an ancient being possessing the body of Flag’s One True Love, Dr. June Moone (Cara Delevingne), who slept late on the day God was handing out cool superhero names. Enchantress is supposedly creating a machine to take over the world, but she mostly just belly dances in front of a pillar of magic for an hour.

Does our team band together despite their evilness to fight through a series of video game levels until they reach the belly dancing endboss and learn a little something about friendship along the way?

You bet your sweet bippy they do.

While Suicide Squad is the most fun movie of DC’s pale shadow of the MCU thanks to its relaxation of the “absolutely no jokes” mandate, it’s a movie that essentially only serves to remind you of other, better movies. It’s like a slightly grimmer Oscar clip reel.

The quickest comparison that spring to mind is Guardians of the Galaxy, thanks to Suicide Squad’s constant pilfering from the classic rock songbook. Both films even feature Norman Greenbaum’s existentially irritating “Spirit in the Sky.” But Suicide Squad lacks GotG’s ironic sense of juxtaposition, landing more in Bratz: The Movie territory by slamming on a new record every time the mood shits, which is about every 12 seconds. It so desperately wants you to know how Very Very Cool it is, but it’s about as impressive as a junior high student in a Queen T-shirt.

I should know. I’ve been one.

When you dive deeper into the film, the comparisons get even bolder and more inscrutable. The flick I found to be most on my mind while watching Suicide Squad was Ghostbusters. Obviously, I’m not accusing it of ripping off a movie that came out weeks earlier, but the similarities are stunning and say a lot about the current state of studio cinema. First we have the poppy color scheme full of radioactive greens, reds, and blues that’s by far the most exciting visual element of the whole shebang. As the plot progresses, the palette becomes more muted, drab, and impossible to differentiate, but the intro is an eye candy sugar rush, full of comic booky and refreshing color extremes.

Then there’s the less kind comparisons, like the forced subplot about creating your own family that has the emotional resonance of a cinderblock, or the idiotic third act where the plan revolves around using a bomb to reverse magic because science(?).

You might have noticed a pattern here, in that everything good tends to degrade the closer we get to the finale. That’s because the third act is the film’s closest approximation of the Batman v Superman manifesto, meaning it’s drab, stupid, and all too full of itself. We’re treated to some suuuuuper slooooow action that attempts to hide its juvenile simplicity beneath a veil of keening orchestral grandeur. And the already spotty dialogue (“We locked him in a hole and threw away the hole.”) completely gives up the gun at this point, so characters shout the plot at each other in between winking comments about how EVIL and BAD they are.

That’s not to say the rest of the movie isn’t stupid. It’s very stupid. Will Smith is forced to attempt to pull sympathy out of a shot of him staring at a little girl mannequin, for crying out loud but it’s popcorn movie stupid, full of decent enough – if forgettable – action, and a bristling set of hard-nosed character dynamics.

Some harder than others.

There are a smattering of other similarities, including Ju-On (Enchantress’ emerging from Dr. Moon’s body is achieved in an elegantly creepy effect), Lights Out (Enchantress’ whole deal), and Deadpool (who knew we’d get two separate superhero movies this year that cover the difficult topic of unicorn fetishes?), but do you know one movie Suicide Squad DOESN’T want to draw comparison to? The Dark Knight.

Unfortunately, Jared Leto is here to remind us that Heath Ledger was really great in the role. Many people have played The Joker before and many will after, and they all bring something different to the role. Leto, however, is playing Heath Ledger. And not well. It doesn’t help that he’s asked to perform the film’s most dizzily inane  material in a series of grotesquely bad flashbacks that actively undo Harley Quinn’s character.

Luckily, he’s barely in it. And the people we do spend time with are actually pretty decent. Will Smith is far and away the best addition to the cast, wringing a wry humanity from a traditional badass role. Jai Courtney also makes a particular impression, packing so much personality into Captain Boomerang that it makes up for every other bland cypher he’s been asked to play in franchise pictures. And obviously the talk of the town is beloved character Harley Quinn, but while Margot Robbie brings a playful, electric charm to the role, she’s written with such grating insincerity that her relentless quipping is like being clubbed in the cerebral cortex. And there’s only so many times I can watch a hot woman kick ass while everybody gapes at her in astonishment. She’s a good fighter, get over it.

I think the character could blossom with a better screenwriter behind her, but for now she’s an abortive standout, trapped between her undeniable energy and the film’s single worst storyline. So, you take the good, you take the bad, you take them both, and there you have Suicide Squad. It’s not as bad as the detractors would have you believe, merely a little dunderheaded, but it’s certainly no argument for more DC comic book movies.

TL;DR: Suicide Squad is less stupid and more fun than Batman v Superman, but it's still no triumph.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1273
Reviews In This Series
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Snyder, 2016)
Suicide Squad (Ayer, 2016)

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