Lukewarm Takes # 2: Suicide Squad
Lukewarm Takes is a column where former film critic Nathan Rabin (that'sa me!) writes about big movies that have come out since he stopped being a film critic
For the second entry in Lukewarm Takes, I once again let my Patreon followers choose what I wrote about. This time they seemed pretty evenly split between Lady Ghostbusters and Suicide Squad. I’m not about to honor a mvie that brazenly defiles my sacred childhood memories of ghost blow jobs so I decided instead to go instead with Suicide Squad.
Like the first entry in Lukewarm Takes, DC’s Batman Vs. Superman: Everything Is Extreme Now, Suicide Squad serves as a vivid and oddly encouraging reminder of something I’ve almost forgotten: during my 18 years as a film critic, the vast majority of the movies I saw and reviewed were fucking terrible. Just god-awful. And they generally weren’t bad in a weird, interesting, challenging ways. No, they’re terrible for the same reason Batman Vs. Superman and Suicide Square are terrible: they are very transparently exercises in cynical commerce and brand extension unconvincingly masquerading as entertainment.
For over a year the majority of the hype focussed on the “crazy” things Jared Leto was doing to get into, and then stay in character as The Joker. These famously, (or should I say infamously!) ranged from grave-robbing Heath Ledger’s grave so he could eat his heart and gain his strength, to poisoning the New York water supply to give him a sense of what it’s like to kill a bunch of people, to sending Viola Davis a dead pig as a chilling illustration that, as a good-looking white heterosexual man, he can get away with just about anything.
Then the movie came out and the finished cut was a terrible shock for Leto and a wonderful surprise for people like me, who consider Jared Leto the worst actor alive. I know that’s not fair but Leto inspires a level of visceral hatred in me relatively unique among big name actors. On more than one occasion, I’ve left a Jared Leto movie (Chapter 27, the 30 Seconds To Mars documentary) and thought, “Not only did I hate that movie, but I’m overcome with a strong urge to punch Jared Leto right in his smug fucking face.”
What enrages me about Leto? Some of it is undoubtedly his “suffering artist” persona. Some of it comes from my irritation at Leto’s overacting and part of it is attributable to Leto being given the highest honor in acting for an an absolutely dreadful performance. During an interview with the BBC, Leto hypothesized that his role in Suicide Squad ended up getting cut because, "I brought so much to the table in every scene that it was probably more about filtering all of the insanity, because I wanted to give a lot of options, and I think there’s probably enough footage in this film for a Joker movie.”
So there you go: Leto’s role was reduced to an obnoxious cameo because Leto was too good. By Leto’s reasoning, if audiences were exposed to the full force of his awesome intensity and intense awesomeness, their brains would explode and they’d be unable to process the movie.
I suspect that the real reason Leto’s performance as the Joker was slashed to ribbons is because Leto, being the artist that he is, somehow got it into his head that he was simultaneously playing The Joker and longtime Howard Stern affiliate Jackie “The Joke Man” Martling. So he decided to improvise “Baba booey, Howard Stern’s penis, Baba Booey, Howard Stern’s penis” in every scene he shot.
Leto is uncompromising, so no matter how often writer-director David Ayer begged him to stop saying “Baba Booey, Baba Booey” and/or “Howard Stern’s penis” he refused to break character and would instead cackle with maniacal delight. Ayer eventually lost the will to fight after a certain point, and rumors persist of a 147 minute long “David Ayers Gives Up” cut that features seventeen straight minutes of Jared Leto hollering, “Howard Stern’s penis! Howard Stern’s penis!”
Leto’s other idea for the worst Joker ever entails re-imagining Jim Carrey’s motor-mouthed, rubber-limbed goof from The Mask as a Goth lady’s man, a psychotic Casanova who swoops in every twenty five minutes or so at random for some hammy shenanigans. So there were probably a few deleted scenes as well where Leto got way too into character and would yell, “Smoking!” or “Somebody stop me!” over and over again, to the point of madness.
For you see, The Joker isn’t even part of the movie’s conception of Suicide Squad, which is supposed to be an all-star aggregation of DC super-villains but instead plays like a sorry allotment of also-rans and never-weres.
The team is assembled by Amanda Waller, a cynical and malevolent boss played by Viola Davis. Davis is universally respected as one of our finest actors. She’s the first black woman to win a Tony, Oscar and Emmy for acting and Waller is one of the deepest and most compelling characters in the film.
So of course Suicide Squad saddles Davis with some of the worst dialogue ever committed to film, most notably, “And have you heard of the Pyrokinetic home boy?” which is the film’s exquisitely clumsy way of introducing El Diablo, a character who may be one-dimensional and hokey but at least has the advantage of also being pretty racist (more on that later). It says a lot about the surreally terrible dialogue the film saddles Davis with that when she says, ““I have the witch’s heart” (Suicide Squad’s plot centers on an all-powerful witch’s heart that may be the single stupidest MacGuffin ever committed to film) it’s actually one of her more dignified lines.
The Suicide Squad is like a crazy clown car of suckiness. Each new member of the Squad is somehow even less impressive than the last yet Davis is compelled to pretend that The Suicide Squad are badasses the likes of which the world has never seen. These aren’t worthy heirs to Heath Ledger’s Joker or Tom Hardy’s Bane: they’re overgrown Garbage Pail Kids, but less bad-ass, and with a worse feature-film vehicle. Don’t believe me? Here’s an early character design sketch of Killer Croc. The finished version ended up being nowhere near how scary, however.
Ah, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Who are the Suicide Squad, you ask? Since Suicide Squad is primarily an exercise in commerce, let’s introduce them in order of box-office power. We’ll start with Will Smith as Deadshot/Floyd Lawton.
The theoretical appeal of making an icon of All-American wholesomeness like Smith part of a gang of deranged super-villain lies in casting boldly against type. Don’t worry, though! Smith is not about to play characters other than the ones he’s played throughout his career. So in this incarnation of Suicide Squad, Deadshot, cold-blooded mercenary and professional assassin, is pretty much the usual Will Smith character—cocky, quick with a smile or wisecrack, irreverent and brash but with a heart of gold—only with a substantially higher body count. Imagine Smith’s character from Hitch if he was more concerned with killing white people than helping them loosen up and have fun, and you’ve got the film’s Deadshot.
Next up is Harley Quinn, who the majestic Margot Robbie plays as a demented burlesque version of Laverne from Laverne & Shirley. Robbie is a true movie star who has mastered the art of separating herself from the dross she’s in through detachment and irony. Robbie’s performance here—the film’s sole, semi-redeeming facet—implicitly says to the audience, “I know how stupid and ridiculous this all is, and you know how stupid and ridiculous this all is, so let’s have some fun with this nonsense.” When Robbie wisecracks, it feels like she’s heckling the movie from within more than she’s trying to make anyone else laugh
The film famously and relentlessly sexualizes and objectifies the character, most notably in the many close-ups of her ass, yet Robbie alone seems to understand what the movie’s tone should be. The only downside to her performance is that she’s asked to spend the movie mooning over The Joker, and honestly, a girl like her could do so much better.
Then there’s the aforementioned “Pyrokinetic homeboy”, otherwise known as El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), who accidentally burnt up his family house, and has been paying a terrible mental price for the destruction ever since. There’s also Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a mutated crocodile/man hybrid the movie finds so thoroughly uninteresting that it literally handles his entire origin story (Davis says something along the lines of “He looks like a monster so he acts like one! Crazy!) in 46 seconds.
Killer Croc doesn’t have much to do in Suicide Squad but the movie nevertheless feels it needs to establish that this sub-human freak of nature is definitely African-American, to the point where his big wish is that he be allowed to watch ass-shaking videos on BET. Suicide Squad seems to be learning from the Star Wars prequel that if a supporting character can’t be interesting or likable, at least they can be stereotypical in a weirdly racist, old-fashioned way.
Killer Croc is dangerous beast who can seemingly devour small children whole yet Suicide Squad sees fit to pair him with Suicide Squad members whose incredible gifts begin and end with being good at stealing and throwing a boomerang (that would be Captain Boomerang) and Slipknot, who’s real good at climbing.
Slipknot’s introduction and death beautifully illustrate what makes Suicide Squad such a boondoggle. He’s very tardily introduced, in what is clearly a post-dubbed line, as “Slipknot, the man who can climb anything.” Before he has an opportunity to climb much of anything, however, fellow Suicide Squad member Captain Boomerang tells him he should test out whether the bombs planted in their necks are duds and advises him to make a run for it. Slipknot takes Captain Boomerang up on his suggestion and boom, no more Slipknot.
In a movie that knew what it was doing, this might register as shocking, powerful and unexpected, a real mind-fuck. It’d be the film’s way of establishing that no character is safe and that death could come to any one at any time, with the exception of Will Smith because he’s such a huge star. That’s how it would play in a good, intentional movie. In a movie this slipshod, however, Slipknot’s introduction, life and death all feel hilariously half-assed and random, like the filmmakers couldn’t figure out anything to do with a character that limited and one-note other than kill him off immediately. He does, however, go through quite the emotional and spiritual journey over the course of his two and a half minutes onscreen, from guy who can climb ropes good to guy who can no longer climb ropes good on account of being dead.
This leads us what we are told is the most powerful “meta-human” in existence, an archeologist (who somehow managed to rise to the top of her field while still looking like a high school gymnast) named June Moone who becomes possessed by a witch-goddess known as “The Enchantress” who builds an army of the damned to do her bidding.
Davis particularly has her work cut out trying to make The Enchantress seem like a worthy villain for a movie devoted almost exclusively to flamboyant super-villainy when she instead suggests what would happen if one of those spooky ghost girls from J-horror movies wandered past a radioactive poster of The Craft.
The Suicide Squad are supposed to be the worst of the worst as well as the best of the best when it comes to being bad. There is supposed to be a tawdry, transgressive thrill in being encouraged to root for a motley aggregation of, in the film’s words, “Witches, gangbangers and crocodiles”, yet they come off like your typical band of gritty anti-heroes, only slightly more colorful.
Like Batman Vs. Superman, Suicide Squad cost hundreds of millions to make, market and distribute and was in production for years yet it feels like it was hastily improvised on the spot by people motivated by a queasy mixture of desperation and greed. Characters are introduced willy-nilly, then forgotten about or abandoned.
In the film’s most pained attempt at cross-promotion and world-building, Bruce Wayne himself shows up periodically in a cameo that alternately screams, “Contractually obligated”, “My agent couldn’t get me out of it”, “I really tried to get out of this”, "I have multiple Oscars, why am I in this?" and “I’m seriously considering getting a new agent. There are panicked videos of hostage victims anxiously reciting the demands of their captors who seem to be having more fun than Affleck here.
Like Batman Vs. Superman, Suicide Squad is a movie that seems to exist primarily, if not exclusively, for the sake of setting up subsequent movies. The Flash, for example, pops up briefly in a way that, along with his equally fleeting, equally pointless Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn Of The Justice cameo, is supposed to whet audience’s appetite for a Flash solo feature (and the Flash’s role in the upcoming Justice League feature) but I have a hard time imagining anyone being overjoyed about the prospect of a Flash solo movie on the basis of his two minute appearances in a pair of blockbusters just about everyone saw but that no one seemed to have liked.
Suicide Squad feels like a Roger Corman knockoff of a big-budget super-villain team-up movie whose budget accidentally got bumped up from 2 million to 200 million due to an accounting error. So instead of Alfonso Ribeiro they could afford Will Smith and instead of Skeet Ulrich, they could get a guy who recently won an Academy Award but is actually a much worse actor than Ulrich.
Is Suicide Squad worse than Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice? I’m going to be diplomatic and say they’re both terrible in their own special way, although watching them in rapid succession confirmed that I’m definitely a Marvel guy. I infinitely prefer Marvel’s house style and endearing, entertaining characters to the distinguished competition’s predictable dreariness.
Batman Vs. Superman aspired to Christopher Nolan-level pop art and failed miserably, a victim of its own pretensions and overreaching ambition. Suicide Squad, in sharp contrast, aspires only to be entertaining garbage, pulpy and vulgar, sordid and irreverent, and fails just as miserably.
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