How early will the fanboys who flock to see Suicide Squad — smug in the knowledge that they’ve won the day, that Hollywood is now desperate to cater to their tastes above all others’ — admit that they’re watching the year’s most muddled piece of storytelling? Will they say, “Enough!”? Or will they vent over the damage to their favorite characters and promptly move on to debating who should direct the next stupid, overblown Suicide Squad movie?
The premise does have possibilities. Suicide Squad centers on a secret government entity that blackmails “the worst of the worst” — all those costumed psychopaths and “meta-humans” that superheroes like Batman and Superman have labored to put away — into fighting against future unspecified enemies of the planet. It’s not that outlandish an idea. At least one wing of our government is happy in places like Iraq to let borderline-psychotic private contractors do their worst, collateral damage be damned. Meanwhile, our war movies — and Suicide Squad belongs in the war genre along with most recent superhero films — have proven that audiences can be easily seduced into rooting for immoral characters, provided that they think the ends justify the means.
But the makers of Suicide Squad can’t fully commit to their premise because they’re afraid that the mainstream PG-13 audience can’t handle it. The “worst of the worst” turn out to be rather sweet underneath, and the “suicide” part of the title means zip, nada. Many of The Dirty Dozen and The Magnificent Seven die in the course of their “suicide” missions, but DC and Marvel can’t bear to part with copyrighted characters that have the potential for multiple spinoffs. So the climactic battles are just CGI in a void — sound and fury signifying nothing.
Viola Davis plays the government mastermind Amanda Waller, who’s actually meant to be more hateful than the villains she coerces into fighting. Her actions are inexplicable, and you can’t tell if it’s because of hidden motives or the ineptitude of script. Her reason for assembling the team — that it could be the last best defense against the “next Superman” — is a “huh???” on its face and even dumber underneath, given that one of the villains she liberates, Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), turns out to be the planet’s biggest threat. If the writer-director, David Ayer (working from the comic by John Ostrander), had underlined that absurdity — if he wanted to recall how the U.S. armed the Taliban and the future al-Qaeda against the Soviets and so empowered a new deadly enemy — Suicide Squad might have been a howlingly suggestive satire. As it stands, it’s hard to know what it’s meant to be.
A great showcase for Margot Robbie, certainly. Apparently driven insane by her lover, the Joker (Jared Leto), her Harley Quinn taunts her male captors and giggles obscenely at their obvious inferiority. (The movie uses the tried-and-true technique of winning sympathy for its so-called villains by making their lawful guardians the real sadists.) Yes, Robbie looks amazing. In her pink and blue pigtails, hot pants, and Raggedy Ann makeup and carrying a baseball bat, she’s like something out of The Warriors, and she also recalls the tee-hee-hee-ing psychopath played by Rob Zombie’s wife, Sheri Moon Zombie, in The House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects. But she’s undone by a Brooklyn accent that’s broader than what she used in The Wolf of Wall Street. There’s also something icky about her ardor for Leto’s uncharismatic Joker. Part James Cagney, part Heath Ledger (who also had a touch of Cagney), Leto doesn’t seem so much unhinged as unhygienic, like a crazy Method actor with no safe word. When he paws his little blonde thing, you wonder how she can stand his rotten breath: Is that why she’s swooning?
The nominal star is Will Smith as the supposedly remorseless hit man, “Deadshot.” Waller describes him as one bad hombre, and, in flashback, he’s seen shooting a Central Casting hood under heavy guard. Some loss. What comes through strongest is his love for his little daughter, who throws herself between him and a certain Caped Crusader. He goes squishy-soft so fast that his performance is indistinguishable from most of his other roles. Speaking of indistinguishable, the other members of the squad are barely one-dimensional. One of them — an Aussie — is known for his boomerang. Another is a lovable lug under pounds of rubber. Another is a guilt-ridden flamethrower who’s like an X-Men reject. I’d forgotten all about Joel Kinnaman’s lovelorn G.I. Joe type until I checked the cast list again.
As they fight off hordes of blob monsters while (I think) trying to rescue Waller and fight the Enchantress and her mostly CG brother, Suicide Squad loses its narrative compass altogether. Ayer has no evident feeling for battle scenes — or anything else besides the saturated color scheme and those moments in which our antiheroes lock and load and trade meaningful gazes, as in The Wild Bunch. The visuals in the final battle have some charm: They reminded me of early Tsui Hark Hong Kong extravaganzas like Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain and A Chinese Ghost Story (which he produced). But there was passion in those HK pictures, along with acrobatic wire-work. Promiscuous CGI makes even the miraculous seem ho-hum.
It’s worth repeating that Suicide Squad, X-Men: Apocalypse, and Captain America: Civil War are paramilitary movies, having far more in common with World War II films than, say, the first Batman and Superman pictures. But for all the gestures towards realism (like the guilt over collateral damage in the Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), the lack of real consequences in these movies (no hero does anything really bad, none of the good guys ever die) makes for explosively boring climaxes. As storytelling, Suicide Squad is the worst of the worst, but it’s no different in kind from the best of the best. This is all just high-priced junk.
*A version of this article appears in the August 8, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.