Monday, August 8, 2016

Suicide Squad

2016, d. David Ayer

I think superhero fatigue has officially set in, at least among the critical community.  Suicide Squad -- which isn't as wrong-headed as Batman v. Superman, nor as unappealingly sloppy as X-Men: Apocalypse -- is getting lambasted by critics, and, as the tail end of summer blockbuster season, they're taking out all their frustration on it.

Let's get this right out, it's not a great movie, but it's also not as painful as its DC Comics Dawn of Justice predecessor.  The first act is a messy barrage of background details, overbearing soundtrack, and much unnecessary repetition.  Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) is provided with two back-to-back opportunities to introduce her cast of rogues to her various superiors and overseeing committee.  The first 20 minutes introduce us to these characters as they wallow in their prison cells, facing abuse from a power-tripping guard (The Mindy Project's Ike Barinholtz), and are then reintroduced to us by Waller as she sits down to dinner with a military general and, erm, that guy (Stranger Things' David Harbour).  She sifts though the pages of her dossier and introduces each bad guy character (who get their own flashy, Guy Ritchie-style title card and corresponding pop-song) and how they got captured.  It's a totally awkward way to provide this information, and it's a massive time suck, but I have a hard time saying it's not fun seeing Batman face Deadshot and the Joker and Harley Quinn, or seeing the Flash take out Captain Boomerang... I just think this type of flashback would have been better served as a part of the third-act starting bar sequence where the characters take a time out.  It would have been nice team building for them to relate their "how did you get captured" moment.

Waller goes immediately from her dinner to the Pentagon to sell the committee on the same prospect, repeating much of the same information, only having The Enchantress (a centuries old witch whom Waller has leverage over), prove the worth of having them under control.  It's sloppy transitioning.  As is the follow-up with Waller's arrival at Belle Reve Prison where she gets the individual characters to sign on to Task Force X, whether it's under of their own volition or under duress.  The point, which can get a little lost amidst this ramshackle first act is she needs this team to do things for the government on an unofficial basis, and she has bombs implanted in their necks in case they get out of line.  It's all a bad idea, but she's a badass lady, and she certainly inspires confidence that she can keep this situation under control.

Of course it's her hubris which causes the problem that they have to solve, as the Enchantress goes rogue, frees her brother and the pair set out to burn the world...or control it... their ultimate end game is a little dicey.  Once the actual threat is in place and the team are out into action at the start of the second act, the film moves along at a decent clip, with straightforward storytelling.  The obtrusive infographics and annoyingly trite soundtrack (with it's on-the-nose music cues) from the first act give way to an actual cinematic score.

There's been enough written about Suicide Squat to know exactly what went wrong.  The studio panicked over the negative critical response to Batman v. Superman's dire grimness and that led to reshoots to add humour and re-edits to inject more Guardians of the Galaxy-style sountrack cohesiveness.  The humour was fine (not too tacked-on, actually), but the problem with the soundtrack is a film like Guardians or any of Quentin Tarantino's movies is built around the soundtrack, and not retroactively fitted with one.  As such, every song (and I mean in the film is absolutely eye-rolling.  Cutting the film to make it more sountrack-friendly was a huge mistake.  I feel like Ayer had a specific tone for the film, something more like Escape from New York, a very action-heavy, alt-reality, eccentric character/team piece that was neutered by the nervous Warner Brothers committee.  Ayer has since claimed full credit over the final piece, but I can't help but suspect he's not entirely happy with his compromised vision.

Will Smith is in fine form as Deadshot.  Though the character is white in the comic books, the essence of who he is remains, just with some of Smith's charm and swagger added in.  He nails it, he looks good, and he's both believable as a hardened professional bad guy who kills for money and as a man with a few soft spots left.  Margot Robbie delivers a believably loopy, manic Harley Quinn, who feels *mostly* in line with her comic book and cartoon portrayals, *except* for costuming, which paint her as a sex object, and the camera is all-too-willing to ogle.  It was promoted by Robbie as empowering, the characters use of her sexuality, but with a man at the helm of the lens it feels far more exploitative.  Jay Hernandez rounds out the top line of the cast as El Diablo, who is the beating heart of the team.  He's a man whose life is full of regret, wielding a power that's sometimes beyond his control.  Hernandez personifies the character's pain eloquently and has the most rewarding arc of the film.

The second string of the cast is also quite solid.  Jai Courtney as Captain Boomerang is under-utilized, where he should have been the self-serving, somewhat inept, thorn-in-the-side-of-everyone comic relief, he's pretty much a background character.  Joel Kinneman is Rick Flag, the military leader of the Squad, running things directly under Waller's control.  Flag is in love with June Moon/The Enchantress, so when she becomes the evil they have to defeat, he's at a conflict.  The film could have done a better job at establishing his rapport with the team (it's very possible the raw material is there and it just wasn't edited properly).  Cara Delevigne gets put in similar skimpy attire territory as the Enchantress, but the camera doesn't ogle her in the same way as it does Harley Quinn.  Karen Fukuhara's Katana gets a tube top that her comic book counterpart doesn't wear, which again insinuates unrequired sexuality on the character, but Fukuhara's role is largely physical (most of her dialogue is in Japanese) and she's exceptionally badass.  Finally, there's Killer Croc, played by Lost's Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje.  He's got an insanely impressive make-up job and gets a couple of choice lines of comedic dialogue, but he's likewise underserved in the film.  It's a big, big cast, so obviously some characters have to take a back seat.  (If you've read the 80's Squad comic you already know what's up with Adam Beach's Slipknot, but even if you haven't the film totally bungles that character's arc).

I think this film has more posters than
any other film in existence

Jared Leto's Joker falls between the first and second strings.  By sheer proxy of being the Joker, he's an A-list character, but he's relegated to the background, to backstory and side interloping (he really should have been more of a presence)  Leto's Joker overall is...well...not great.  He has the voice down pat, but his wardrobe and make-up (tattoos and silver teeth) make it impossible to take him seriously.  Is he a clown to us? Does he make us laugh?  No, and that's the problem.  He's not scary, and he's not creepy.  He's slimy and gross and not at all charming.  He looks his best/most like the Joker completely covered up in a tuxedo.  I don't have a problem with Leto as the Joker, or really even his performance, but the aesthetic ruins it 100%.  El Diablo is already covered head-to-toe with tattoos which seems spot on for the character, which makes the Joker's (Mexican mafia-inspired) tats wholly redundant.  As well, Captain Boomerang sports a gold front tooth, which make's the Joker's full-metal grill excessive, and again, redundant.  The Joker can be reinvented, even with Leto still in the role, for wherever he appears next.  He needs to be more than what he is here though (and stylistically much, much less).  Also, to nerd out a bit, it's interesting that the film takes the tact that the Joker is fully in love and lost without his Harley, since in the comics and cartoons it's long been established that the relationship is abusive towards her and that he sees her merely as accessory or possession, only really caring when someone else is interested in her.  It's actually an interesting and kind of positive change, which is shocking.

As usual, I'm getting deeper and nerdier with this film review because this is a comic book property.  So some of my gripes about the film stem from being a long time reader and having been intensely invested in the characters and world for decades.  Yet, most of my complaints aren't about the characters, or how they're portrayed, or who portrays them, but falls back on film-by-committee decisions that made what seemed like it was a good, fun, retro-80's action film so much less.  The whole first act needed to be restructured, Amanda Waller needs more direct interaction with each and every character.  The sense that Waller is running the team is lost at points, where in (comic book) reality it is never, ever in doubt that she's the one in charge and has everyone by the balls.  She gets a great couple moments with Deadshot and Flag (perhaps her most important relationships in the 80's comics) but she needed more back and forth with the entire team.  Even her fateful meeting with Batman (in the closing credit sequence) was more tossed off and less cool than it really should have been.  The main threat (Enchantress and her brother), and her sky-lazer seem like they would have made better villains for the recent Ghostbusters reboot.

Just like that Ghostbusters reboot (and, somewhat, the latest Star Trek endeavor), what we have here is a very good team of actors playing largely enjoyable characters in a messy, messy movie, but showing a lot of promise for another go-around.  We've actually hit a point where sequels aren't just retreads of the first film, but vehicles to build and improve upon the launch, so there's actually reason to believe things can and will be better. The critics' hate towards this movie is misguided, but a lot of the criticisms are directed at the means by which these films get made are valid.  Entertainment like this is supposed to be escapism, and being a critic more often than not pulls you out of the escapist, passive viewing and into objective, active viewing.  Once you start seeing the seams, you start looking for flaws, and picking things apart... and although Suicide Squad has enough to pick at, there's also plenty to settle in and get down with.  The reality is, it's fine, but it could have, and should have (and probably was) better than the end result.