It’s a familiar pattern in this blighted era for movies, in which Comic-Con stands at the epicenter of Hollywood’s consciousness and woe to critics who aren’t fellow travelers — i.e. Comic-Communists. Last week, I (along with many critics) wrote that Suicide Squad was a shambolic piece of storytelling and, whoa Nellie, the abuse was swift, all of it coming from people who hadn’t yet seen the movie. Frequently posed by DC Comics’ adherents was this question: Are you on Marvel’s payroll?, as if I or anyone I know gives rat’s ass about one fanboy entertainment conglomerate over another. A plague on both your houses! But recent revelations of the goings-on behind the scenes at Warner Bros. make Suicide Squad an unusually interesting case study, even for those of us bored silly by the universe of superheroes and -villains.
It turns out, thanks to several reports and especially this more detailed one, that the Suicide Squad in theaters is not by a wide margin what was originally written and shot, and that David Ayer’s original idea was more consistent, more complex, and — important to me, at least — more in line with what I expressed was lacking in my review.
Permit me a digression about Zack Snyder’s clunkily titled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which sent WB into a panic as Suicide Squad was being edited. The studio believed BvS did not do as well as had been hoped (i.e., it made, like, a gazillion dollars instead of, like, two gazillion) because it was “too dark.” Wrong! A better reason is that BvS was a gorgeous (at times even visionary) mess. What never made sense was why the vigilante Batman would develop such a peculiar antipathy for Superman based on “collateral damage” caused by Superman’s fight over the skies of Gotham City against supervillains — damn peculiar given that he was apt to cause all sorts of collateral damage himself. Collateral damage comes with the vigilante territory. (Was his rage against Superman — seen in his dreams as a religious savior — some sort of homoerotic jealousy? Now that would be an interesting movie!)
In any case, people giggled when the superheroes fought for what seemed like hours and then bonded over the names of their mothers (which also happens to be the name of George Washington’s wife, “the mother of our country”) and started fighting together, which we knew they were bound to do eventually. Then Wonder Woman showed off her costume (contributing relatively little to the battle) and Superman died, but not really. There might be a Biblical allegory somewhere in there that you’re welcome to parse. Otherwise, BvS was a lot of CGI of people throwing one another around to no end. People didn’t like it because it was overblown and a muddle.
Suicide Squad (co-executive produced by Snyder) was subsequently recut and partially reshot in a way that made it less “dark,” but also turned it into an even bigger muddle than BvS. Ayer’s script apparently laid out the main narrative chronologically, opening with June Moon’s possession by “the Enchantress.” I don’t wholly subscribe to the screenwriting dicta of Robert McKee, but this conforms to his idea of an inciting incident, something that launches and gives a shape to everything that follows. Since everything finally comes down to putting the Enchantress out of business, it makes sense to frame the story with her emergence.
Instead, the movie proper opens with backstories of the future Suicide Squad members, all of them told in flashback as Viola Davis’s Amanda Waller explains her rationale for assembling the team. What we saw was sometimes entertaining but more often bewildering — and jokily underscored with rock and roll classics. It’s all past tense, like a sequel to a movie we never saw. As the film presented it, I didn’t fully understand what the hell was going on between the Joker and Harley Quinn — whether he meant to kill her by throwing her into a vat or to make her look like him or … whatever. (Please do not email explanations to me. That boat has sailed.) Her attraction to such a repulsive figure — especially when she was a “normal” therapist — was mystifying. As we now learn, scenes that were cut illuminated the relationship’s sadomasochistic undercurrents. Those scenes would have explained so much about Harley’s provocative affect. (In her cell, it’s clear she gets off on provoking and being beaten.)
This order of scenes — as my review complained — created further problems. If the story begins with Waller’s plan and the plan is bewildering (or plain dumb), then the movie plays even more confusingly. Waller, after all, ends up inadvertently liberating the chief villain. I compared this to the U.S. arming the Taliban and future Al Qaeda members in Afghanistan, a notion that would have made for a wonderful satiric jab — if it had been acknowledged within the film. Meanwhile, Waller never comes into focus. When she murders some of her own agents it comes out of nowhere: Is she the true villain? When she’s kidnapped, are we supposed to care? Ayer seems to be building toward something out of A Bridge Too Far or a John le Carré novel in which blinkered soldiers are sent to their doom by incompetent or malignant superiors. But again, there’s no acknowledgement of that onscreen.
Finally, my chief point might have been addressed in Ayer’s original cut. Unlike, say, the rapists and murderers in The Dirty Dozen, the “Suicide Squad” now stand as a bunch of vulnerable misfits — sweeties underneath. Their bar scene — which works on its own terms — would have been even better if we’d seen that they were genuinely vicious and destructive people who preyed on innocents, a revelatory change of pace instead of an extension of what we already knew. Will Smith’s Deadshot seemed an especially lame character to hang a story about bad guys on, given that the only person we see him assassinate is a Central Casting hood and that what fuels him is a love for his adorable daughter. Daddy Warbucks was edgier.
Fanboys used the reviews to point out yet again that critics are out of touch. That’s a charge that doesn’t particularly bother me, since I find their tastes limited. But I was pleased that not everyone now thinks the critics were off-base. I left a multiplex the other night behind a guy literally shouting into his phone: “It’s so good we didn’t stand in line Saturday! It’s the worst! We just tried to come up with five lines we liked and there was only three and even they sucked!” He didn’t name the movie but then he started railing about the Croc and I knew, I knew.
All this is speculative: It’s possible that the first Suicide Squad cut was lousy, too. But it would have made considerably more sense. And while the film will still make a ton of money, I can’t help thinking it would have made even more — it’s a fun premise, after all — if the studio hadn’t made a hash of it. David Ayer hasn’t publicly complained, but that might have less to do with his pain over the final cut than fear of ending up a pariah, like Josh Trank. That would be true suicide.