Oh, I get it. Sometimes we’re all bad guys. Oooohhh.
by Thom Yee
“That looks stupid”, I thought to myself. “A comicbook about a group of people gathered together to kill themselves?” That was my first exposure to the weird little team called Suicide Squad. I didn’t buy it. Not that first time and not even years later after I’d either found out or figured out that the “Suicide” in Suicide Squad referred to the nature of the missions the team went on rather than each team members’ propensity for ending their own lives.
Suicide Squad is one of those rare “big two” (i.e., DC or Marvel) comicbook properties that I’m not very familiar with, probably because its origins lie squarely in the 1980s and almost definitely because it’s a book about bad guys. You see I’m one of those weird eggs that’s never found the bad guys more compelling than the good, and while that might be an odd thing to hear, at least for comicbook kids like me back in the ‘90s, it was only natural. The best-looking comics were always the superhero books rather than the supervillain one-offs and miniseries written and drawn by people I’d never heard of that were mostly filler-grade stories hastily slapped together to take advantage of the grim and gritty craze of the time. I mean, look at this lineup and tell me that looks like a team you’d want to read about:
That’s not really being fair, though, because under writer John Ostrander, Suicide Squad eventually became one of the more acclaimed mainstream comicbooks of the ‘80s, mixing action, espionage, and political drama, and it was probably my own fault for letting those kinds of themes go right over my head back when I was 5-10 years old. By the time I was really into comics, the Suicide Squad comicbook had ended and the [surviving] members of the Squad had become little more than bit players participating in odd events and crossovers that were mostly about other characters. That’s about all I knew about the Suicide Squad going into the movie. That and the current Suicide Squad book is mostly hastily slapped together filler-grade stories by writers and artists I’ve never heard of. But that’s okay, you were never going to read the comic no matter how the Suicide Squad movie turned out, right?
What’s it about?
We got lucky the first time a being with world-conquering power happened to be a good guy, but now he’s dead, so what are we going to do the next time a new superpower rises? Can we really afford to just hope that the next super-man will also be on our side? Luckily, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), government fixer, has a solution. Of sorts. The good news is that she’s gathered together an elite team with extraordinary abilities (one of them uses ropes and climbs real good!) to face the superpowered threats. The bad news is… they’re all bad guys… and mostly psychotics. Quick, find someone even worse for them to fight before they kill us all!
A lot of people got pretty hyped up about Suicide Squad over the last half year or so, especially after that first full trailer (above) debuted to the tune of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and with a level of humour seemingly denied us in the two previous DC Expanded Universe movies, but to be honest, a lot of things in that trailer felt like the DC people were overcompensating for something. In terms of DC vs. Marvel, Suicide Squad has basically become DC’s answer to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, a fair comparison in terms of group dynamics — a forced teamup of strange outlaws that don’t belong together — but it’s also a comparison the marketing people at Warner Bros. probably wanted as they, no doubt, were screaming “music and funny, music and funny, music and funny…” over and over at whatever production company they hired to make that first trailer. Believe it or not, there is a big difference between the two groups, and that’s that the Guardians of the Galaxy are people who would usually do right given the chance while the people on the Suicide Squad have to be forced or paid (or both) to ever do the right thing.
The Squad’s very existence relies on an understanding that the world is never going to be right, not unless you force it to be, and at its heart, it’s a concept that relies on a deeply cynical and desperate worldview for its story to have relevance. Fortunately, cynicism and desperation are two things rarely in short supply in our world, so it’s not that hard to believe that someone would plant a bomb in the necks of our least trustworthy but coolest-looking supervillains and force them to do the things the heroes can’t or won’t. Unfortunately, that type of premise doesn’t exactly make for the most uplifting or virtuous yarns, and the potential depravity of these types of stories make them kind of hard to put together for a PG-13 audience. Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that words like “studio interference” and “weird editing” and “multiple cuts” come up so often when you look into what this movie went through before making it to theatres.
Is it any good?
For a lot of prospective moviegoers, the story of Suicide Squad’s critical worth probably begins with its Rotten Tomatoes score, 26% as of last count. That’s not a good score. That’s verging on Transformers territory. It’s a score so low that it’s even inspired a Change.org petition against Rotten Tomatoes by some of Suicide Squad’s more dedicated, less self-aware fans. I’m certainly not going to tell you that Suicide Squad is a great movie. I don’t think anyone here is trying to say that. It’s not really even good and it doesn’t really even qualify as okay. But that doesn’t mean you can’t like it. Really, it’s okay if you liked Suicide Squad. I did.
When it comes to big, blockbuster, tentpole movies, the score a movie receives on Rotten Tomatoes has become increasingly important in shaping our perception of that movie’s quality and whether or not we’ll see it, and even when movies arrive with more than enough pre-release buzz to sell out theatres in their first weekend, a low Rotten Tomatoes score may keep a movie from becoming the full-blown Chernobyl of a multi-sequel, expanded universe franchise its studio was looking for, instead relegating it to burn out like a mere Three Mile Island. Suicide Squad did more than fine in its first weekend, earning $134 million and breaking August box office records previously held by Guardians of the Galaxy, but its 26% score will probably keep it from its full financial potential. The thing to understand, though, is that with Rotten Tomatoes, the 26% score isn’t the same as getting a 26% average in a class (indicating that you’re a nearly worthless student), it’s more like three out of four of your teachers don’t like you, but one of them still believes in you, and that’s an important distinction, one that I don’t think a lot of people understand. In other words, you don’t have to hate Suicide Squad. I didn’t.
For the most part, Suicide Squad doesn’t require a lot of critical analysis. Its strengths and weaknesses are mostly all on the surface. On the good side, they get the attitude right, some of the humour is much sharper than I expected, there are a lot of interesting characters and pretty much every actor does a good job in their part, the action is better than in most movies, and some of the characters get some really strong scenes and beats, particularly Amanda Waller, Will Smith’s Deadshot, Margo Robbie’s Harley Quinn, and, unexpectedly, Jay Hernandez’s El Diablo. Even less central characters like Captain Boomerang and Killer Croc get their moment to shine, and character deaths (which are a natural part of suicide missions) are handled in a sudden and abrupt manner that, for me, were disarmingly funny if only for their stupidity. On the bad side, Suicide Squad is as big a mess as its greatest critics have suggested, and the first half in particular feels more like an extended series of trailers introducing and sometimes reintroducing characters and concepts rather than telling a coherent, logical story that leads naturally to where the movie ends up in its second half. There was one scene in particular where I thought to myself, “Don’t we already know this? Didn’t they already tell us this? What’s happening?”
Suicide Squad is just a really weirdly edited movie, sometimes making it disjointed and hard to follow, sometimes preventing it from finding any real flow, and almost always keeping it at a level of superficiality that can make it hard to settle into the story. Especially with the Joker-Harley Quinn scenes exploring their lovingly abusive relationship, things almost always feels like a case of style over substance, and that’s probably because the movie is so chopped up that the (admittedly striking) visuals of the characters seem to take precedence over actual emotional beats. The same goes for the Joker himself, where Jared Leto’s portrayal of the character feels so overdone partly because his big moments were never preceeded by the scary, backstory-building moments that we got with the Heath Ledger’s version when he killed a guy with a pencil or told people, at knife point, how he got his facial scars. Also, for those of you who care, Katana was easily the most overlooked of the Squad members, and the one dramatic moment she has in the movie almost made the people in the audience laugh because it was such an overwrought moment and a complete tonal shift from everything else going on.
Granted, those are all serious, foundational problems… but it’s a fun movie. Yes, Suicide Squad is a mess, yes, it doesn’t add up or make as much sense as we’d like, and yes, it’s a movie you might feel like you need to make excuses for, but its best moments are good and actually feel genuine, and for me, those moments counted for a lot, whether it’s Deadshot teaching his kid math, The storytelling is all over the place and really out of order, but the spirit is there, the performances carry it, it’s good looking and fun to watch, and in a different era, maybe 10-20 years ago, it probably would have stood out as one of the better comicbook movies.
So should I see it?
A lot of what you’ll get out of Suicide Squad will depend on you more than what the movie actually is, and I think a lot of people went in prepared to hate it. It’s flaws are undeniable and myriad and enough to infuriate, but I liked it for its strengths and it wasn’t full of things that actively bothered me. For me, the only truly frustrating thing about Suicide Squad is that, from the way it’s edited and the things that we’ve heard about it’s production, it’s obvious that there’s a much better cut of this movie somewhere. It might not be a funnier cut and it might not be a cut full of pop music cues, but it’s probably a better movie. As in this movie’s story and the machinations of Amanda Waller herself in getting this team together, it’s looking more and more like the real problem with the DCEU lies less with the talent involved than the people in charge. In any case, as it stands, Suicide Squad is a tough movie to give a very good review, but it’s not that hard of a movie to like. Right now I’m not even sure how much of my final score is a reflection of the movie itself rather than an inverse reaction to all of the negativity surrounding it, but I’m recommending Suicide Squad, and I don’t feel bad about it. I might even have liked it more than Deadpool.
Thom’s Suicide Squad final score
On the Edge
- John F. Ostrander Federal Building? That’s on the nose.
- Seems to me like forcing your henchmen to wear big, mascot-style panda suits would be a recipe for disaster. I mean, it’s hot in there, it’s hard to see, their mobility is restricted, your just making your hench army easier to beat.
- Man, those chemical vats looked pretty small from so high up. I was much more worried that Harley would miss them entirely rather than if she would survive falling into one.
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