Suicide Squad is a slog of a movie. It’s the same piano key being struck at exactly the same volume, and exactly the same rhythm, for two hours. It’s a big bowl full of lukewarm gruel.
I think, if worse comes to worst, that I preferred Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice to Suicide Squad. At least that earlier film was trying to be about something. (Yes, it failed, but it was aiming for greatness.) Suicide Squad seems to mostly be aiming for the general demeanor of a 14-year-old boy who gets detention for carving the word "RAD" into his desk with his grandfather’s rusty old pocketknife.
This movie dearly hopes it can skate by entirely on attitude, but forgets to develop said attitude. It wants to stand out thanks to its team dynamics, but forgets that a team is made up of many individual characters. And finally, it attempts to lean too heavily on its actors, who are generally decent (save one glaring exception, and no, it’s not that black hole of human charisma Jai Courtney), only to give them nothing to play.
Lots of other reviews have talked about how misogynistic and racist the film is, and, oh, it is. And lots of other reviews have talked about how little sense the story makes, and you had better believe it makes no sense. But the real indignity is how poorly made Suicide Squad is.
Here are five rookie mistakes Suicide Squad makes that keep it from being anywhere near as fun as it could have been.
1) Suicide Squad is an unrelenting procession of close-ups
Around the film’s midpoint, I started counting during each shot that featured two or more characters, in focus, onscreen at the same time. I rarely made it to two seconds before director David Ayer had cut away to a series of close-ups of his actors.
This should probably go without saying, but in a movie about a team of supervillains, the most important task is to establish the team dynamics. Corralled by Viola Davis’s Amanda Waller, Suicide Squad’s titular supervillains must head into battle with a powerful force from beyond this dimension, all the while hoping their own internal conflicts don’t tear them apart. Sounds like fun, right?
I mean, maybe! There’s a ghost of something good here, peeking out between the otherwise poor storytelling decisions. But what ends up blowing up in Ayer’s face is how often he chooses to film his group scenes so that they begin with a quick shot of the characters standing in a circle, then cut between close-ups of all of them, which isolates them in the frame, with no real relationship with anybody else.
Putting your actors into the same frame — you know, so they can build chemistry and work off each other — is important in any movie, but it’s particularly important in a movie where team dynamics are the whole goddamn point. By seeming unwilling to do so, Ayer creates a situation where Suicide Squad’s story can never build momentum, because every shot seems to exist on an island, separate from every other shot.
Here’s a fun experiment to conduct if you go see this film: Check out how much more sense the relationship between Deadshot (Will Smith) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) makes than literally any other relationship in the movie. And then pay close attention to the only two actors who get to share the screen together for more than a couple of seconds at a time. Yep, it’s Smith and Robbie, and there’s a reason their characters are best-served.
2) The movie never varies from the tone it establishes early on
Suicide Squad’s numbing sameness extends well beyond its master-close-up, close-up, close-up shot sequences.
About a half-hour into the movie, after it had gotten through the interminable mini-origin stories for its many supervillains (though, curiously, not all of them, since a couple are dropped into the story, seemingly at random, later on), I suddenly realized just how bored I was. Stuff kept happening, but it grew harder and harder to care with every scene.
This is because Ayer and his crew offer absolutely no tonal variation whatsoever. It seems like half of Suicide Squad’s budget was spent on the licensing for an endless array of pop hits meant to tell the audience how to feel about scenes and characters. The volume level never sinks below ear-splitting. And all of the characters speak with the same world-weary patter (save for the reptilian Killer Croc, who alternates between Cajun and African-American stereotypes for unfathomable reasons).
The best movies, or, hell, even the simply adequate movies, feature emotional builds from scene to scene, or even from shot to shot. Quiet scenes might be stacked next to loud ones, and conversation scenes stacked next to action ones. Even when nothing is happening, something is happening, because the movie is giving you a chance to catch your breath.
You can sense in Ayer’s script (yes, he wrote this movie, too) the moments when we’re supposed to get a little pause from the action. One late scene set in a bar almost manages to pull this off. But because the filmmaking remains a constant assault on your senses, it’s impossible to spare a moment to think.
3) Really basic editing and continuity errors abound
Early in the film, as the villains are setting up their gigantic plot to destroy the world, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you whether it’s day or night at any given moment. The movie cuts between the two somewhat confusingly, and though I eventually figured out what I think happened (some scenes are set a day later, maybe?), it was unnecessarily hard to understand.
The same goes for the action sequences, which never offer a great sense of where characters are in relation to each other, and for the pacing, which is at once too-fast and too-slow.
I found myself simultaneously longing for a version of Suicide Squad limited to one reel of film (which would make its running time 40 minutes or less), or expanded over a 10-part miniseries. What’s here has no sense of how to build a story convincingly.
Add to that the movie’s supremely weird abundance of insert shots in which characters are holding or firing guns — not only are there many, but they’re handled with the sort of care most directors would devote to, say, making sure we know where characters are standing in relation to each other. What’s odd about this isn’t the seeming gun fetishism (which is present in lots of action movies) but how little these weapons of choice tell us about any of the characters beyond Harley.
The prominence of these shots are just another baffling editing choice, in a movie full of baffling editing choices.
4) Suicide Squad’s id seems to be a 14-year-old boy who’s too scared to shop at Hot Topic, so he checks out Spencer Gifts instead
And, hey, as a former 14-year-old boy who fit that description, I can almost conceive of a version of this movie that embraced the sweet dorkiness inherent to that sort of fear, with a side of weird, pent-up sexuality.
But Suicide Squad tries so hard to be seedy or lecherous or scuzzy that it somehow warps back around and becomes laughable. The film is a misogyny smorgasbord, from the way Robbie’s hot pants were apparently digitally shortened to cup her rear that much tighter, to the two(!) scenes in which a man punches a woman in the face for laughs. (In the second one, the guy says the woman had it coming because she had a mouth!)
And yet that misogyny never feels as darkly poisonous as it probably should, because it has all the conviction of the aforementioned boy, at the exact moment he realized he could use the word "bitch" to get a rise out of his mom. And it’s too bad, because Robbie is giving something of a brilliant performance amid the smoldering wreckage around her. Alas, it’s hard to tell how good that performance is because there’s nothing there to back her up, and the movie rarely lets her play off other actors.
The first glimpse most viewers got of Suicide Squad — via a photo released in April 2015 — featured Jared Leto’s leering Joker, laughing, the word "Damaged" tattooed across his forehead. The image was roundly mocked for being way, way too over-the-top and (dare I say it) emo, but the Warner Brothers marketing machine quickly shoved that down the memory hole in favor of far more stylish trailers and press stills.
But guess what? That was the perfect introduction to a movie that seems like it would probably miss the fact that Fight Club is meant to feature satire.
5) Despite all of that, the movie contains some good elements, which only remind you how much the rest of it stinks
In particular, Suicide Squad’s cast is quite good across the board. Smith still has more charisma than virtually anyone else in the industry, and he’s cranked it all the way up here. Robbie is more than an able scene partner, and every time Davis is onscreen, she makes a meal of an underwritten part.
But even the film’s more workmanlike performances blend into the overall ensemble. I don’t know that I would ever call Joel Kinnaman’s work as Rick Flag, the soldier assigned to watch over the Suicide Squad, anything more than "average," but he’s good when he needs to be and blends in on other occasions. Ditto for Jay Hernandez’s Diablo, who can spout fire from his fingertips.
And there’s some nice work in the technical department from composer Steven Price, who comes up with a memorable theme for the Squad, and cinematographer Roman Vasyanov, who ably suggests a city descending into chaos whenever Ayer gets out of his way.
But even these positive elements are often ground into dust by the movie’s overall "my foot fell asleep and now I have to rock back and forth until feeling returns to it" drudge.
For instance, the actors I just mentioned are all fine, until they have to share screentime with the cast’s glaring weak link — Leto’s Joker, who feels less like the greatest supervillain of all time and more like a Let’s Make a Deal contestant who’s gotten really into his costume. Also, considering how much the advance press for Suicide Squad has focused on Leto, he appears in it far less than you might expect, though more than you’ll want once you see him strutting around like he took all his performance notes from Jim Carrey’s work in The Mask.
That’s just par for the course for Suicide Squad and, increasingly, for the entire DC Cinematic Universe it’s part of. With DC’s comics-based films, the pattern appears to be one step back, then another three steps back, and then, for good measure, another five steps back.
Suicide Squad debuts throughout the country Friday, August 5, with preview screenings Thursday, August 4. There is also a movie where Kevin Spacey plays a talking cat opening this weekend, and, sight unseen, that might be a better bet.