Suicide Squad is a total mess, with strange act structures, flimsy stakes, mediocre villain presence, and anemic character development. The world and people of Suicide Squad are defined so insubstantially that it’s hard to care about anything that’s happening to anyone within it, the only exception being Harley Quinn, and to a lesser degree, Deadshot. The lifeblood of the movie comes down to these two characters and their relationship but any meaning they bring to the story is buried deep beneath the chaos of the film.
The first act serves as exposition in that it clarifies the timeline (shortly after Superman dies in BvS) and explains that Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) seeks to set up a team of metahumans to fight other, potentially more threatening, metahumans. The catch, as we know, is that she wants to use incredibly dangerous criminals to form the squad. Her justification for this is that she can control the criminals through a combination of exploiting their weaknesses and plain old physical force. By promising them access to loved ones and reduced sentences, she peaks their interests enough to get them onboard.
Except, they aren’t on board, all of them are physically forced to join the team and implanted with explosive devices in their necks which can be detonated any time they step out of line. So already there is a bizarre contradiction. It’s not clear why Waller would choose to exploit insane criminals when there are plenty of other metahumans that could be similarly controlled. It’s also not clear why thirty minutes is devoted to Waller persuading the criminals to join the squad, when she ends up forcing them anyway. The only reasoning that’s offered is that the criminals can be blamed should anything go wrong on the streets- which of course can apply to any non-criminal metahuman just as easily.
Act two is a boring faux climax where the squad, led by Joel Kinnaman’s Rick Flag, fights faceless monsters with no conviction because none of them want to be there. A handful of the group have been given backgrounds but nothing strong enough to invest an interest in whether they live or die. A few more flashbacks flesh out some more members of the squad, but it’s too little, too late. Halfway through the life-threatening action is a bit late to provide any real stakes.
The final climax similarly fails in building conceivable consequences. Suicide Squad follows the superhero movie trajectory of unimaginable damage and destruction. Buildings collapsing, random debris flying around, jolts of energy slicing through satellites and streets. We’ve seen it all before and it’s no different in this iteration. The only remarkable thing is the apathy towards the outcome which is caused by both the lack of investment in the characters and the weak threat the villains pose.
The villains are one of the most disappointing elements in Suicide Squad. Cara Delevingne’s Enchantress is interesting enough as a character. An ancient witch possessing archeologist Dr. June Moone’s body, she escapes Waller’s clutches and summons her brother, Incubus, a powerful entity who helps Enchantress build an undefined weapon of mass destruction in which to enslave/ruin/conquer the world. To complicate matters, Dr. Moone and Rick Flag are in love, giving Flag the incentive to lead a suicide mission to try to stop Enchantress/save Moone.
Though in theory, ancient superhuman beings should make great villains, Enchantress and Incubus are so ill defined, it’s hard to be frightened by them. Incubus is just a grunting being who barely has a physical form (swirling lights and electrical charges) and between him and Enchantress, they have the absolute power to do anything (destroy anything, turn people into monsters, infiltrate people’s minds). This is such an incomprehensible danger that it becomes meaningless.
The stakes aren’t high enough because we aren’t thoroughly invested in the squad. Half of the team is introduced in a compelling way, giving each character a background and enough information to develop an idea of their identity beyond being a maximum security criminal. For some reason though, the other half of the team is introduced nonchalantly as the group assembles for their first mission. Slipknot just walks off a chopper and lines up and Croc never gets more than a hint of a backstory (please just explain to us why he’s a crocodile human).
Most unfortunately, Katana is thrown in with a vague explanation about revenge for her dead husband and she literally serves no purpose in the squad. At one point she’s caught whispering to her dead husband’s soul trapped inside her blade which I would have loved to know more about, but instead of fleshing out members of the squad, time is wasted on meaningless fight scenes and rambling exposition. The movie works towards the idea of a team of dangerous outcasts banding together in solidarity to save the world but the connection to the characters never forms and the expected feeling of unity falls flat.
Two characters stand out and carry the emotional interest in Suicide Squad. Will Smith’s Deadshot and Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn are both granted extensive backgrounds and they are the only characters that demand attention and audience investment. A former assassin and dedicated father, Deadshot’s main motivation for joining and succeeding within the squad is his daughter. Every decision he makes is for her and you can chart his judgements based on his backstory. His paternal weakness is endearing and it creates motivation where it is lacking (partially or wholly) in almost every other character.
Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn is easily the most compelling thing about Suicide Squad. Robbie takes lines that would otherwise be too cheesy for the undefined world of the film and makes them shine- “I love your perfume. What is that, the stench of death?” Her cartoonish performance is perfect for the character and the backstory that she’s been driven insane by the Joker. She’s the only one worth watching when the squad walks on screen because she’s the only character with any sort of remarkable personality. Sadly, she’s wasted in the world of Suicide Squad, where motivations are muddy to non-existent.
The worst aspect of the Harley Quinn character is her connection to the Joker, which unfortunately is paramount to her identity. Jared Leto’s Joker is as messy as the film itself. His look is cartoonish like Harley’s but his mannerisms are overly theatrical. Leto performs like a person trying to walk the line between Ledger and Nicholson, and not in a good way. Harley waits for the Joker like a lost puppy, and her motivations center around him, marring her otherwise headstrong character.
When the Joker’s not around, Harley Quinn and Deadshot have the chance to interact and it offers glimpses of what the film could be, had it been more character driven. Deadshot forms a paternal soft spot for Harley and she treats him as a colleague and friend. They banter and have each others’ backs and basically form the only authentic bond on the team. Had the remaining half a dozen squad members been treated similarly- with proper backstories and character developments- the outcasts-become-a-team schtick could have succeeded.
Suicide Squad flirts with the idea of exploring the meaning of good versus evil, and the gray areas that arise in superhero worlds, but it fails to make any meaningful insights. In the DC world especially it’s been a subject of tension- who defines good and bad, how clearly do the ends justify the means. There are many instances where the “good guys” in the movie behave badly and the “bad guys” behave heroically. Deadshot even broaches the subject with Rick Flag momentarily, but the moment passes and it’s never ironed out. A movie about criminals saving the world is the ideal setting to pose these ideas but they aren’t presented strongly enough and Suicide Squad misses the mark once again.
There is a lot of potential for a film about outcasts seeking redemption and the definition of heroes and villains but Suicide Squad does not live up to it. The structure is messy and a lot of time is wasted on superfluous fight scenes and tangents that could have otherwise been devoted to character development. The world feels thin and false and the only sincere motivations come from Deadshot and Harley Quinn. As a platform for their relationship, Suicide Squad offers a glimpse of lost opportunities, otherwise everything lumps together in sloppy confusion.