A group of rogues, thieves and general ne’er-do-wells are forced together against their will, and while they initially bristle at each other’s presence, they eventually form a family of sorts, uniting to battle a common foe. It’s a venerable story, and with the right handling — as in, for instance, “Guardians of the Galaxy” — the results can be exciting.
Such is not the case with “Suicide Squad,” the latest entry in the onscreen DC Extended Universe, which launched with Zach Snyder’s “Man of Steel” and “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” and will eventually enfold the upcoming “Justice League” and beyond. Writer-director David Ayer (“Fury,” “End of Watch”) tries hard to make this dirty not-quite-dozen into an engaging band of misfits, but the results feel undercooked and overstuffed, with 10 pounds of supervillain backstory being crammed into a five-pound bag.
The film begins with the mournful, climactic events of “BvS,” which lead high-level bureaucrat Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) to pitch her idea for Task Force X, a group of expendable villains (some “metahuman,” some not) who will act as a line of defense against the “next” Superman to come along, particularly if that entity winds up being less friendly than the Man of Steel. Her squadron, under the command of military man Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), includes lethal hitman Deadshot (Will Smith), who never misses; Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the sexy, unhinged and deadly girlfriend of the Joker (Jared Leto); flame-summoning gang chieftain Diablo (Jay Hernandez, “Bad Moms”); Australian jewel thief Boomerang (Jai Courtney); escape artist Slipknot (Adam Beach); half-man-half-reptile Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, “Trumbo”); and evil ancient mystic Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), who’s currently occupying the body of archaeologist Dr. June Moone.
Throw in Flag’s sword-wielding sidekick Katana (Karen Fukuhara), and “Suicide Squad” can barely get all of these characters onto a billboard, much less a movie. The ones we get to know in the slightest — Deadshot, Harley Quinn and Diablo — are assigned one overwhelming character trait each. (Respectively: wants to be reunited with his daughter, wants to be reunited with the Joker, haunted by regrets over the misuse of his power.) Everyone else just sort of pops up to be useful to the story (which winds up being another let’s-all-team-up-and-save-the-world saga). You’d be forgiven if you completely missed Boomerang; poor Jai Courtney is given nothing to do, and minimal screen time in which to do it.
When the third act rolls around and these bad guys start referring to themselves as “friends” and even “family,” you have to wonder where all that footage went. Apart from one scene where they regroup in a bar before facing the final conflict, there’s barely a moment where they talk to each other about anything but their mutual desire to escape (something they can’t do easily, because Waller and Flag have implanted nano-explosives in their bodies that will be detonated the second they step out of line). No doubt, like “BvS” before it, “Suicide Squad” will eventually have a much-longer Blu-ray cut that fills in this movie’s many blanks, and that longer edit will feel somehow shorter because the lack of characterization and motive in the theatrical version means that the film commits the deadliest of superhero movie sins: It’s boring.
The film’s ubiquitous posters are psychedelic and outrageously designed, but none of that aesthetic makes it into the final product, which offers your standard rainy nighttime urban center under attack with a swirling-clouds finale reminiscent of the climax of the original “Ghostbusters.” And if those posters led you to believe you’d be getting a lot of Leto’s Joker, think again: he’s a tertiary presence here, designed to attract ticket buyers and, presumably, to act as a placeholder for future DC movies.
What you will get is a parade of the most on-the-nose music cues since “Forrest Gump.” When we first see Belle Reve, the Louisiana maximum-security prison where most of the Squad is incarcerated, the soundtrack plays “House of the Rising Sun.” For the first shot of Harley Quinn, it’s “You Don’t Own Me.” When the villains get to suit up and grab their weapons, it’s the “Guess who’s back” portion of Eminem‘s “Without Me.” And so on.
The talented cast is mostly spinning its wheels, although you can tell Smith and Kinnaman are doing their damnedest to provide heft to barely-there characters. Akinnuoye-Agbaje, buried in latex, gives Croc both menace and humanity, making us wish the movie were more interested in digging beneath the scales, while Delevingne gets saddled with some incantations (and pagan-goddess headdresses) that even Maria Montez in “Cobra Woman” might have found a touch excessive.
On the plus side, there’s Viola Davis, who’s charged with some of the film’s lengthiest information dumps. (Watching her pitch the idea of the Squad over dinner, listing out villains while chomping on a rare steak, you get the feeling someone had to have this same conversation with executives at Warner Bros.) In the comics, Waller is presented as an imposing block of a woman, the female equivalent to Marvel’s Kingpin character; Davis doesn’t need size to be intimidating. Her force and her capacity to do damage is all there in the actress’ eyes, and she makes the character an indelible one.
So does Robbie, making the most of the opportunity to bring this psychopath-sweetiepie to life in big, bright colors. For all her come-hither looks and babydoll mannerisms, Harley is no man’s fool — except the Joker’s — and her ability to inflict pain and suffering is so readily apparent that we never question her presence on the Squad. There’s probably already an entire section of Hot Topic devoted to her look, and this movie’s version of Harley Quinn will no doubt dominate Halloween celebrations from coast to coast.
There’s already talk of a Harley solo spin-off, which is exciting not just as a vehicle for Robbie but also for the idea of a movie that doesn’t have more people than it knows how to handle. “Suicide Squad” plays like a TV pilot that puts forth the sketchy outlines of several characters, with the promise that the series will fill them in later. If the idea was to have future DC movies do that instead, then those films have their work cut out for them.