This article originally appeared on VICE US
The heroes of Suicide Squad are the mallrats, Harley Quinn cosplayers, tween goths, and gamers that the latest DC comic-book tentpole is calculatedly aimed at. The villains of Suicide Squad are the cynical marketing campaign targeting that demographic and a studio so anxious to impress, it stoops to an on-the-nose soundtrack that uses "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Bohemian Rhapsody" as shorthand instead of building mood organically.
The premise of Suicide Squad is the same as most superhero movies with one big novelty: Instead of a benevolent government agency arming the likes of Captain America against the country's enemies, here a sinister government agency with a vested interest in overcrowded jails, military buildup, and disposable field agents does the initial legwork, and instead of one superhero, we have six nefarious villains to juggle. This is obviously a tall order, and the first half of the movie is ruptured with flashbacks, voiceovers, and a compressed exposition that actually introduces one character via an offscreen extra who informs us, "Look, it's Slipknot, the man who can escape from anything."
Will Smith fares better as Deadshot, an assassin who loves his daughter, at one point helping her with her geometry homework by imagining a bullet ricocheting along the hypotenuse, and who gets to fight Batman, if only in flashback, within the first ten minutes. Such is the cosmic niceness of the erstwhile Fresh Prince that you don't have to see the movie to know that no team with Smith as a member is going to be bad in a more-than-Michael Jackson quiddity.
For a movie featuring so many supposed "bad guys," it's telling that we're never asked to like anybody unlikeable or accept any moral compromises resulting from their actions. We forgive more daily. El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), for example, plays a pyrokinetic who has foresworn violence (his full-body tats are supposed to resemble the iconography of the Mexican Day of the Dead, but I kept hearing rapper Stitches inquiring as to what I was going to do with the brick he had so cordially put in my face), and Jai Courtney couldn't possibly have been much of a threat to world security as the Australian-themed villain of the Flash, Captain Boomerang. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje plays mostly mute gangster-reptile Croc, while a couple of minders charged with keeping the squad in line, golden boy Rick Flag and mystic samurai Katana, are lost in the mix.
Most important, there's Margot Robbie as Joker sidekick/love interest Harley Quinn, a fan favorite carried over from the Batman animated series. Shortly after their recruitment, the squad members are taken to a military camp where they're given a sack containing all their flamboyant costumes and action-figure accessories—Harley pulls out a baseball bat and a Donkey Kong mallet, which, sure enough, she will soon use to bonk to death an army of mold-zombies. But, outside of being a sexualized clown, does she have any powers? Her main function appears to be to deliver hit-and-miss one-liners and to shoehorn the Joker into the proceedings.
Making crazy eyes, wearing a purple trench coat with no undershirt, and having the word 'Damaged' tattooed on your forehead so nobody's confused can only take you so far in life.
You'll already have seen Jared Leto's pimp-stick rendition of the Joker (whom Ayer described to me as "a more battle-worn Joker"), with his zany tattoos and gold-capped grill, and heard how Leto stayed in character on set to the point of dropping a dead pig on the rehearsal table. I think that's an awesome thing to do. I wish this Joker did more of that, since making crazy eyes, wearing a purple trench coat with no undershirt, and having the word "Damaged" tattooed on your forehead so nobody's confused can only take you so far in life.
But one thing that's never in question is the sincerity of the love between the Joker and his henchwoman, and the idea of a Joker further unbalanced by the throes of passion (and the fact that they are, let's face it, a pretty hot couple) sustains the performance beyond its cackling obligation and relative irrelevance to the main action. Somehow, when they're allowed to be onscreen together, which is mostly through increasingly cluttered flashbacks, Harley and the Joker work beautifully together, a sort of graphically saturated Mickey and Mallory Knox. Even in the Insane Clown Posse getup, Leto still communicates some fit-to-burst emotional burden at the center of him, not so far from the halcyon days of My So-Called Life , when it was observed, "He's always closing his eyes, like it hurts to look at things."
If the Joker's crusade to free Harley motivated the main action of Suicide Squad instead of being relegated to a side-quest, we'd be in business. Instead, most of the movie is a slog of a military recon mission that reaches its climax with a battle against a CGI witch called Enchantress (a potential team recruit who bucked her programming) that resembles the original Ghostbusters' climatic showdown with Gozer, right down to the swirling death-hole that plays about the peaks of a skyscraper.
Since the Suicide Squad was presumably recruited to carry out black-site espionage, it's a shame to see street-level villains posed against generic frou-frou sorcery instead of, say, "disappearing" outspoken critics of party leadership, but there are germs of sweetness along the way to the inevitable cliffhanger and post-credits scene. A spacious bar scene, which Ayer described to me as his "bread and butter," establishes the director's trademark bonhomie between members of an "ad-hoc family"; Harley does some fetching aerial acrobatics while dangling from the Joker's helicopter; Viola Davis is excellent as the government official tasked with assembling everyone in the first place; and a scene where the witch tempts her adversaries and shows them how tranquil their lives could be if they returned their villainous duds to Hot Topic is earnestly affecting.
These hints of humanity, however, are buried in a machine that clearly doesn't trust us to do anything but consume prepackaged anarchy, only to let any potential for actual mayhem out of the box. Which, as all comic-book nerds know, reduces value to nil.
Recent work by J. W. McCormack appears in Conjunctions, BOMB, and the New Republic. Read his other writing on VICE here.