There are lots of reasons to dislike Suicide Squad. It shamelessly fetishises guns, for instance, which in the current climate feels pretty distasteful. There are guns emblazoned with “love” and “hate”, guns made out of gold, guns that fly through the air in slow motion.
It shamelessly objectifies women, particularly Margot Robbie and more particularly Margot Robbie’s bottom. Her buttocks are on-screen for approximately two thirds of the film, twin globes colliding again and again in a galaxy of neon and sequins. In one scene an entire military base ogles as she gets changed, and we’re invited to ogle along with them.
Then there are the uncomfortable racial stereotypes: a hispanic gangbanger, a silent Japanese lady, an apparently unironic 70s blacksploitation crocodile.
But even if you put these issues aside, Suicide Squad fails for the simple reason that it’s not very good. It has terrible pacing, shambling along under the weight of too many characters and a jarring dichotomy of styles, unable to commit to either the irreverent glitter and gunfire that might lure fans of this year’s surprise hit Deadpool, or the relentlessly bleak existentialism of Batman v Superman.
It’s a shame, because every so often the chaotic energy promised by the set-up – employing super-villains to fight even worse super-villains – breaks through, resulting in scenes that genuinely crackle, lurid hard candy that hints at what this movie could have been.
Most of these moments involve Jared Leto’s Joker, the butt of innumerable jokes for his “method” approach but indisputably the best thing about this film (while still falling some way short of Heath Ledger’s chillingly psychotic turn). Leto plays the character as a sinister sexual predator, hideously disfigured but also strangely alluring, with a believable, ghoulish chemistry with Robbie’s Harley Quinn.
It’s a devastating blow to the film, then, when he abruptly departs halfway through. The studio no doubt wanted to keep its powder dry for a forthcoming installment; Suicide Squad never recovers.
Instead we’re left with perhaps the least memorable antagonist of any super-hero film: Enchantress, played by a hamstrung Cara Delevingne whose stage notes can’t have extended much further than “witchy dancing”. She ambles about in a bikini spouting lines of appalling dialogue such as “join me or die”, babbling about building a “machine” that will destroy mankind, which turns out to be a big swirly cloud. Delevingne will take a lot of the flack but I don’t think Cate Blanchett could have done it any better.
Most of the actual fighting is done by her CGI big brother, who looks neither scary nor convincing. How have we not learned by this stage that the most successful villains aren’t computer generated monsters but human beings: the Joker and Bane in the Christopher Nolan trilogy, Magneto in the X-Men films, other super-heroes in Captain America: Civil War.
All of this creates a hopelessly inadequate arena for the talented cast, some of whom perform minor miracles with the material. Will Smith breathes life into Deadshot, an otherwise two-dimensional hitman with a heart of gold, while Robbie is charismatic enough to ensure Harley Quinn isn’t just eye-candy.
At least half a dozen other characters, however, could have been cut without any impact on the narrative, not least Karen Fukuhara’s Katana, who serves literally no purpose. The same could be said of Jai Courtney’s Boomerang, a drunk Australian whose super-power appears to be stabbing people after drinking cans of special brew, although his performance is just about lively enough to warrant his inclusion.
As with Batman v Superman, I feel there’s probably a decent film hidden somewhere within the chaotic depths of Suicide Squad, desperately trying to wriggle free from the strait-jacket of studio-control and universe-building. If there are positives to be salvaged from the annus horribilis DC’s cinematic franchise has endured, it’s the success, against the expectations of many, of Ben Affleck’s Batman and Jared Leto’s Joker. How these characters interact in the upcoming Justice League film could decide the fate of their entire universe.
First published in City A.M.