SUICIDE Squad was supposed open a new front in the war for the hearts and minds of comic book fans.
The spoils have until now gone to Marvel Studios and its witty, humane adaptations of Iron Man, Captain America, et al.
Huffing and puffing in second place are DC Comics and its parent Warner Brothers, which plumbed the depths with this year’s Super v Batman: Dawn of Justice, two and a half hours of adolescent sulking masquerading as a summer blockbuster.
With Sucide Squad — essentially the Dirty Dozen with super villains — DC, we were promised, would change the narrative. Nietzschean portentousness was to be replaced by a lightness of touch and knockabout derring do. But expectations of a Marvel-esque DC film have proved to be overstated with director David Ayer replicating Superman V Batman’s cobbled together plot.
The ‘Suicide Squad’ of the title is a rag-tag of comic book villains wrangled by Viola Davis’s ruthless government functionary Amanda Waller into filling the void left by the death of the Man of Steel at the end of Dawn of Justice.
Even among comic aficionados, the characters were quite obscure — though the same could be said of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, so you can see why DC gave the green light to the project. On the heels of $250 million Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad certainly represents another considerable investment, with a $175m budget and a further $10m on reshoots to bring more “humour”.
Will Smith is Deadshot, an assassin with a heart of mush (he’s doing it all for his little girl) whose superpower is shooting people in the face at point blank range. The only other properly fleshed out protagonist is Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, her performance hamstrung by the short-shorts Ayer has insisted Robbie pour herself into and by the actress’ wandering accent, which can’t decide whether it wishes to reside in Brooklyn or Brisbane.
There was some controversy in the run-up over Harley Quinn’s costume, which fans regarded as overtly sexual. And while Ayer certainly invites us to luxuriate in her underdressed state, a bristling Robbie pushes back against titillation, imbuing her Harley Quinn with a gonzo nobility that rises above the material.
As with Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad positions itself against basic storytelling convention. Davis’s Waller sets out to assemble a team of bad guys to protect us against the “next Superman” – but, in the process, prompts Cara Delevingne’s Enchantress to go to war against humankind. The movie is thus trapped within its own internal loop of anti-logic: the Suicide Squad exists to battle an evil that would not have come into being had these anti-Avengers not assembled in the first place.
Ayer also grafts on a deafening soundtrack. So the White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’ booms out as the Suicide Squad suit up and go into action, Eminem’s ‘Without Me’ blasts the eardrums as Headshot is reacquainted with his weapons stash (and can you guess what Rolling Stones anthem is exhumed? Hint: it has “sympathy” and “devil” in the title). The contrast with the lightness of touch with which Marvel introduced us to the (equally obscure) Guardians of the Galaxy shows how far behind DC remains.
A rare bright point is Ben Affleck’s Batman, who swings into action in several key scenes.
There are other positives. Smith is commanding as the de facto hero and the rogue’s gallery of introductions that takes up the opening hour is zippy and fun. It’s when it moves beyond the preliminary scene setting and tries to weave a meaningful story, that Suicide Squad falls apart.
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