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‘Suicide Squad’ review

Like Leto's lukewarm Joker, 'Suicide Squad' is more sad than scary

Warner Bros. Pictures’ Suicide Squad feels like a make-or-break movie for the studio.

After 2013’s Man of Steel managed a decent (but not great) box-office take despite a polarizing response, then this year’s Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice fell short of expectations both critically and financially, Suicide Squad enters theaters this weekend with two strikes against the DC Extended Universe (the name the studio’s given its cinematic superhero franchise). It’s not a promising position to be in, but the first trailers for the film had many people – including franchise naysayers – believing that Suicide Squad could be just the sort of movie the DCEU needs to turn things around.

The notion that Suicide Squad would save the DCEU was dampened this week due to a wave of of early, scathing reviews, and although Suicide Squad isn’t nearly as bad as those reviews seem to suggest, the film also isn’t nearly good enough to save the studio’s superhero universe.

Directed by Fury and End of Watch filmmaker David Ayer, Suicide Squad features a team of villains from the DC Comics universe who are forced to undertake a dangerous mission for a secret government agency. The film’s villain cast includes Will Smith as the assassin Deadshot, The Wolf of Wall Street actress Margot Robbie as the unpredictable Harley Quinn, and Terminator Genisys actor Jai Courtney as the boomerang-wielding thief Digger Harkness, as well as Cara Delevingne (Paper Towns) as Enchantress, Jay Hernandez (Crazy/Beautiful) as the flame-hurling Diablo, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Lost) as Killer Croc, and Adam Beach (Smoke Signals) as Slipknot.

Watching over the team is tough-as-nails agency head Amanda Waller, played by two-time Oscar nominee Viola Davis, loyal soldier Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), and the lethal swordswoman Katana (Karen Fukuhara).

Suicide Squad also features the debut of Jared Leto as The Joker, Batman’s iconic arch enemy and the twisted love of Harley Quinn’s life.

That’s a lot of characters to pack into a single movie, and to its credit, Suicide Squad does a nice job of distributing screen time fairly without relegating anyone who isn’t Smith, Robbie, or Leto to background roles. Still, the film is clearly a vehicle for the three aforementioned actors to do their thing, so it’s no surprise that they’re given a lot of attention.

Smith and Robbie get the lion’s share of love from the camera, and they both make the best of it with some fun performances – particularly Robbie, who clearly understands the appeal of her quirky comic-book character and translates that appeal from page to screen surprisingly well. Although Smith never seems all that convincing as a lethal killer, he makes up for it with a steady flow of the tough-guy talk he does so well (and shooting – lots and lots of shooting) as a reminder that he’s not supposed to be one of the good guys.

In the lead-up to Suicide Squad hitting theaters, there’s been a lot of speculation about Joker, the film’s most likely candidate for a breakout performance – particularly among the supporting villain characters.

Sadly, most of the movie’s funniest moments have already been seen in the trailer.

Although Leto certainly tries to make his Joker memorable, Hernandez feels like the frontrunner in that regard with his portrayal of a fire-spewing former gang member, and he ends up being one of the only supporting villains whose story – both before his time in the Suicide Squad and possibly after it (no spoilers) – seems worth exploring. Where most of the other characters stick to doing what they do best throughout the film and don’t offer too many surprises, Hernandez’ Diablo has a visible evolution that starts well before the audience is introduced to him and is directly affected by his interaction with the other villains.

On the flip side, Leto’s take on the “Clown Prince of Crime” doesn’t leave you wanting to see more of him in Suicide Squad – or any other films, for that matter.

Leto’s off-screen obsession with getting into character as Joker has been well-documented at this point, but despite all of that preparation, he never quite manages to convey a real sense of danger lurking beneath the character’s outrageous appearance. The memorable moments that defined his predecessors’ portrayals of the character – Jack Nicholson’s museum dance or Heath Ledger’s “pencil trick,” for example – are conspicuously absent from Leto’s Joker, and all we’re left with is an attention-starved sociopath with a collection of random affectations and a raver’s sense of fashion.

Put it all together, and there’s very little sinister about Leto’s Joker, who frequently seems more sad than scary.

It’s the tone of the film, however, that’s the biggest letdown.

Back in March, reports began circulating that Warner Bros. had endeavored to reshoot significant portions of the film in order to inject more comedy into it – a response to the success of Deadpool that actually seemed to make sense for a project like Suicide Squad, which positioned itself as an edgier, looser adventure in the studio’s superhero sandbox. The reshoot report was denied by the studio, and the final cut of the film seems to confirm the studio’s response, as it’s decidedly light on laughs.

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Sadly, most (if not all) of the movie’s funniest moments have already been seen in the trailer, while the rest of the film tends to fluctuate wildly between trying to be a gritty, grounded action film and a fantastic spectacle layered with extravagant, digital-effects sequences. It makes for a frustrating identity crisis at times, but it’s also a pretty major shift from the universally dark, brooding tones of Man of Steel and Batman V. Superman that were so heavily criticized, so it could actually be a good first step in course-correcting the studio’s superhero movie-verse.

Suicide Squad also seems to grapple with the constraints of being a “PG-13”-rated film while telling a story featuring a cast of characters with an affinity for murder, torture, cannibalism, and other unsavory hobbies. The film is largely bloodless, despite its high kill count (both on-screen and off-screen). All of the implied violence happening on the periphery, and the total package, feels tame for a movie that claims to feature “the worst of the worst” from this cinematic universe.

Still, Suicide Squad does offer an entertaining adventure, and it’s far from the worst comic-book movie in recent years. There’s a strong case to be made that it’s a better movie than its predecessor in the DCEU, Batman V. Superman, as it does more with less when it comes to the popularity of its characters, and tries something new instead of repeating the mistakes of past films.

If Suicide Squad is guilty of anything, it’s that it tried to create something different than Man of Steel and Batman V. Superman and succeeded in doing so, only to discover that what Ayer and the studio created comes with an entirely different set of problems.