DC Comics is failing to emulate the cinematic success of its rival, Marvel Comics. DC is generating some box office numbers but they are not Marvel numbers. Batman vs Superman – DC’s flagship title – did not do as much business as the latest outing of Marvel’s Captain America. Actually, it did not even do as much business as Batman’s own previous cinematic appearance. Meanwhile, Marvel is turning its comic book water into wine. Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool are hardly bestselling books but they are great films and box-office hits.
So it made sense for DC to tap into the one advantage it is generally considered to have over Marvel: its villains. Growing up reading DC books, I would find myself almost rooting for the scheming of Lex Luthor, human and fallible, unlike that obscenely powerful extraterrestrial who could never figure out how to put on underwear.
Enter Suicide Squad, an anti-hero team of villains that has been around in DC Comics since 1959, giving director David Ayer a rich history of characters and plot lines to choose from, which naturally raised expectations. Expectations that are ultimately unmet.
The film starts with what seem like a series of trailers set to random musical hits from yesteryear — The Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath, Eminem. The songs stop and start with choppy editing as we are introduced to the three main protagonists of the film: Deadshot (Smith), Harley Quinn (Robbie) and too much exposition. Everyone gets a sob story. With all those back stories to plough through, they might as well have sat around a campfire swapping tales.
The floating circle of debris, the hordes of faceless human-shaped boils, the siblings from CGI hell, the lovelorn colonel — they all end up looking redundant.
Intermittently, we are introduced to the three main antagonists of the film as well, Suicide Squad comics stalwart Amanda Waller (Davis), a witch from another dimension called Enchantress (Delevingne) and extremely generic computer-generated imagery (CGI).
Waller runs covert operations in the name of national security. Her chief interests are metahumans. The witch has taken over the body of a doctor who is also the love interest of Waller’s right-hand man, Colonel Rick Flag (Kinnaman), who serves as a point man to the eponymous squad. After Enchantress reanimates a brother of hers who has been dead for centuries, she starts building a machine to take over the world. What this machine does, other than making a circle of floating debris and requiring her to move like a Zumba instructor, is not clear. But it is bad news. In the face of uncertain doom, the villains are employed, first to rescue Waller from the epicentre of the witch’s spell, then to rescue the Colonel’s girlfriend, but unfortunately never to rescue the film’s muddled plot.
The film is too bogged down trying to tell a conventional superhero story to realise the potential of its unconventional cast of characters. They are not meant to be heroes who save the world; they are not meant to seek redemption. They are villains in the service of one autocratic woman’s morally compromised idea of the greater good. By making them fight hordes of faceless CGI henchmen, that moral compromise does not really come through.
Colonel Rick Flag is resoundingly dull – Kinnaman displayed more emotional range playing a machine in RoboCop – but it is not the actor’s fault; it is the screenplay. There are a few funny one-liners, mainly for Deadshot and Harley Quinn, but everyone else has to work with dialogue so flat you could roll dough on it.
Most of the villains are tame. The scariest things about Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) are his Australian accent and trucker moustache. Killer Croc does does not kill anyone. He is also too small to be scary. There have been many interpretations of the character in the comics, as a scaly anthropomorphic crocodile, as an extremely large black man with filed, razor-sharp teeth who enjoys chewing on raw meat. Even the Arkham Asylum video games depicted him as a hulking beast. The makers of the movie had all these intimidating design inspirations and they went with what looks like a West Coast rapper with a skin rash. El Diablo is visually interesting with his plethora of tattoos but only serves as a plot device, not a character.
The Joker (Leto), the elephant in every villainous room, is also visually arresting – he looks like he is ready to open the stage for a particularly chic Ska band – but he too undergoes little characterisation. It is evident from Leto’s past work that he is a good actor so his awkward depiction of an iconic comic book villain can be put down to the poor writing and minimal screen time he gets.
The film is too bogged down trying to tell a conventional superhero story to realise the potential of its unconventional cast of characters.
The Joker has several small cameos that inspire neither thrill nor terror. There is a beautiful shot of him lying down inside a circle of knives looking up at the roof and laughing but there is no reason for that shot to exist. It has no context, it tells no story and serves no purpose.
That is what most of this film is like — some nice looking imagery loosely connected by a wafer-thin plot. Robbie and Smith do brilliant jobs with the only two characters well-written and given enough screen time. Everything else is forgettable. The floating circle of debris, the hordes of faceless human-shaped boils, the siblings from CGI hell, the lovelorn colonel — they all end up looking redundant.
The CGI show in Suicide Squad is also a tame affair compared to what Marvel has already done in that department. The thing that made Deadpool successful was that its protagonist remained true to his anti-hero nature throughout the film while DC’s gallery of rogues make martinis and threaten to add each other on Facebook. Guardians of the Galaxy also nailed the hilarious buffoonery of mercenaries and criminals coming together to save the day, but Suicide Squad’s attempt looks clumsy by comparison.
An animated movie called Batman: Assault on Arkham, released two years ago, deals with the same characters in a much superior way. They are engaged by an odious Waller to retrieve dirty state secrets, not to swing baseball bats at extra-dimensional entities as they do in Suicide Squad. They remain villains, they kill, they maim, they fight among themselves — as they are meant to do.
Suicide Squad disappoints on all those fronts.
This article was originally published in the Herald's September 2016 issue under the headline 'Dead on Arrival'. To read more subscribe to The Herald in print.
The writer is a staffer at the Herald and tweets @haseebasif