A post-Suicide Squad chat: the characters are its greatest strength and weakness

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Suicide Squad is a fascinating, funny, and above all, frustrating mess of a movie. With a weekend in theaters behind it, it made a temporary mark at the box office, setting a record for biggest August debut with $135 million domestic take ($268 million worldwide). But just like Batman v Superman, the film dropped sharply from Friday to Saturday, losing more than 40 percent of its box-office momentum. That brings the film’s long-term earning potential into question, and the blistering reviews don’t help. With one behind-the-scenes source claiming it needs to make $750 million just to break even, it faces a long, uphill climb — especially since it’s likely to be shut out of release in China, which is becoming a major financial factor for blockbuster success.

And actually watching the film rather than the numbers, it’s safe to say that Warner Bros. missed the mark when it set out to create its villainous take on Guardians of the Galaxy. Instead we have what’s at best a deeply flawed film that needed a lot more work, and at worst an ugly mistake that’s further proof of how broken the DC Extended Universe concept is.

Suicide Squad's bright spots are buried under bad filmmaking

Some of us at The Verge believe the former. Suicide Squad may not be great, or even good. But there’s enough there to hint at what, in more capable hands, might have been a solid effort. There really is a lot to like — it’s just that those bright spots are buried under bad filmmaking. So two of us got together today to discuss how this movie can be so bad, but still worth appreciating on some level. Ultimately, it came down to the characters.

Kwame Opam: I think Suicide Squad might be a master class in the worst things you can do to any blockbuster movie. It’s just broken on so many levels. The story doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The characters are all thinly written. The editing makes the overall narrative a choppy, confused mess. The pacing is all over the place. There’s a needless pop-music cue for just about everything.

But I just can’t hate the movie. That has everything to do with the core characters. Will Smith, Margot Robbie, and the queen Viola Davis put in incredible work despite what was given to them. They’re compelling in a way that makes the movie watchable, and I keep wanting to go back and fix the movie for their sake, since they’re so committed to their parts.

Tasha Robinson: I’m with you. The blistering reviews have clearly put a lot of people off this movie — friends who know I’ve seen it keep asking me for my take, in about the same tone one might ask, "So I hear you witnessed a really gory car accident. Did you see any severed heads?" So many of the people writing about the movie have been so toxic and dismissive, I’ve wound up defending it just to make sure the good parts get some acknowledgement. And while you’re right about how cluttered and disorganized the narrative is, there’s still a lot going on here that’s worth appreciating.

Let’s start with Viola Davis as Amanda Waller, the architect of the central "supervillains are forced to defend America or die" plan. There is so much potential in this character: she’s an ambitious, uncompromising black woman trying to sell her scheme in a world of white men who don’t acknowledge her authority. Writer-director David Ayer isn’t blind to the optics: there’s a scene where a white soldier just assumes her white male subordinate is in charge and talks right past her, and another scene where Will Smith as Deadshot appears to do the same, then proves he’s smarter than he’s acting by acknowledging her as the real boss.

Ayer also isn’t blind to what Waller needs to be to succeed: he undermines all his supervillains by giving them secret sentimental sides and soft hearts, but she’s the full-on murdering sociopath who’s colder than all of them, and she gives the film a spine and a dark edge that isn’t blunted by comic relief. At the same time, every major catastrophe in this film is a direct result of her schemes and her failures. I love Davis and her take on this character, but I’m not convinced that Ayer knew whether he admires or despises Waller, and the film doesn’t commit to whether she’s a visionary or a psychopathic fuck-up. She has a higher body count than the Joker in this film, including hands-on, personal murders of her own loyal subordinates.

KO: It’s remarkable just how much Davis does with the character, even as the story trips her up time and again. Waller manages to sell what’s fundamentally a capital-b Bad idea with sheer presence. It’s such a terrible idea that starts to break down in the first act, since Enchantress (Cara Delevigne) is a threat she can’t control. As a matter of fact, you can make a really solid argument for why Enchantress shouldn’t even be in the movie, since her powers far outstrip those of her Task Force X teammates. Ancient mystical powers against… bullets and a baseball bat? No chance. That’s a basic plot problem that the film is asking us to trudge through because you bought a ticket and we’ve got two hours to kill, so just go along with it. But honestly, I’d be damned if I didn’t admit that I wouldn’t follow Waller into a mission myself. When she speaks, you listen, and I was thrilled to see her on-screen. I mean, the fact that she shoulder checks Killer Croc of all people is just one little moment that shows she’s an uncompromising badass.

It’s also so perfect that you bring up her first interaction with Deadshot. Will Smith turned his charisma up to 11 for this part (I tend to think he had to), and to see him talk through a cruel guard to the real boss of the show was inspired. Polygon has it right when it calls out that one scene as probably the best in the entire film. It’s actors firing on all cylinders to give you a sense of place, the motivations, and the stakes in one moment. I never fully bought Deadshot’s inner conflict about his work when he so clearly loves killing for money, but it’s so clear Smith came out to play for this role, and was gonna sell this vision of the character. It’s a shame the rest of the film can’t live up to that.

Suicide Squad

TR: I’m not at all familiar with Deadshot from comics, so I don’t know how this version of him plays for fans. I’ve certainly heard a lot of complaints that he’s been rewritten as a standard-issue Will Smith character, and that seems legit: as soon as the film introduces Deadshot’s adorable 11-year-old daughter, his weakness and motivation and reason for living, Suicide Squad suddenly becomes Pursuit Of Happyness 2. The whole film was sold on the idea that these bad guys are cool, angry, and capable, but apparently it’s more important that they’re nice guys, family men, responsible parents, and swooning lovers. I find it hard to believe that the intended audience here would rather watch Deadshoot coach an 11-year-old in math than watch him straight-up kill monsters in cool ways. Ayer absolutely thinks otherwise.

But even though Deadshot is the film’s biggest sellout in turning villains into standard heroes — there have been versions of Punisher more morally compromised than Deadshot is here — he’s one of the film’s biggest assets. Suicide Squad has some great ideas, like the team slowly coming to respect and voluntarily cooperate with their field handler, Rick Flag, because he’s brave, competent, and helplessly in love with Enchantress’ alter ego, June Moone. But that plot, like all the others, is crowded and rushed, more like a set of plot bullet points than a believable human process. Smith still manages to help sell it. He has a way of making exasperated disgust hilarious (and a lot of his films take advantage of that, especially the Men In Black series), but he also does solemnity well enough to sell Deadshot’s growing respect for Harley, Rick, and the rest of the team.

Still, as with everyone else here, Deadshot is a hollow character. We know his soft side through his relationship with his daughter, but we know nothing about his hard side — how he became an assassin, why he’s so good at it, where his moral compass is. We learn really late in the film that he doesn’t kill women or kids, which might have been good to know up front. So is he just motivated by money? Who is he, really? Who is anyone in this film, besides a couple of tics and a couple of jokes? And who did you most want to know more about?

KO: Harley Quinn. Full stop. I think Harley steals the show more often than not, and it says something that she’s the marquee character in this film. She’s so much more than the Joker’s girlfriend, especially when you consider her history in DC canon. But Margot Robbie, as committed to the part as she is, can only give glimpses into Harley’s inner life, and that frustrates me more than anything else about the whole movie.

It’s hard not to bring up the Joker at this point (I’ve been dreading it!) since he’s so tied up in her origin story and Harley’s not-quite-arc in the movie. He’s awful, dull, and annoying — really the worst take on the Joker put to screen — but their relationship is fascinating. The CliffsNotes version the audience is given is that she’s an accomplished psychiatrist whom the Joker seduces, transforming her into a kind of clown-themed gun moll. There’s certainly abuse in this origin story — the Joker electroshocks Harley after breaking out of Arkham Asylum — but their relationship evolves into something closer to mutual devotion. You mention in your review that there’s a soulfulness to their pairing that isn’t present in other properties, particularly Batman: The Animated Series, where Harley made her first appearance, and I agree. What’s missing is the how and why.

Harley Quinn steals the show, but the movie mishandles her character

Early on in the film, Amanda Waller tells her government colleagues that Harley is crazier and more fearless than the Joker himself. It’s treated as a throwaway line, like, "That girl’s something else!" but it hints at something the movie never even attempts to address. Harley clearly has agency. Why did she freely sign up to be Mistah J’s girlfriend? Why leave her career behind to become a criminal? What’s actually driving her? Even stickier: is she even insane? During the climax, we get a vision of the life Harley wants with the Joker, and it’s the kind of suburban idyll you’d see in 1950s magazines. Knowing that, her talking about the voices in her head seems like performance. She wants things she can’t have. Suddenly you have pathos, only to have the whole thing undermined by repeated shots of her butt. It brings us right back to how the whole film just doesn’t know what to do with its characters to give them real arcs and make them feel human.

Suicide Squad

TR: That "crazier and more fearless than the Joker himself" narration kills me, because the next line is Harley wailing "I can’t swim!" because Joker’s about to drive their car off a pier and into the water to escape Batman. How does someone butt those two lines up against each other and not see the contradiction, or see that telling us a character has some quality isn’t remotely the same as having them show that quality? This is a problem the film has in general — it tells us the Suicide Squad is a bunch of terrifying badasses, then undermines that idea constantly.

Harley is so appealing in this film because she makes the DC Extended Universe fun again. She’s the epitome of what all the Suicide Squad lead-ups promised us: she’s cheerfully, recklessly amoral. She’s got some great quips. She spreads mayhem, and she’s gleeful about it. And as a bonus, she’s in a fantasy relationship that may be crazy and ugly, but is still characterized by pure wish-fulfillment dedication. Oh, and she’s super-cute. It’s frustrating that none of it makes much sense — what exactly about Joker appealed to Harleen Quinn, professional psychiatrist? How did vicious torture make her love him unconditionally? If what she truly, secretly wants is a suburban 1950s lifestyle with a sane husband and two kids, why does she love Joker? If that’s her inner life, what about her surface personality is real? But it’s still easy to understand why she’s so appealing. (Her skill at impersonating something lively and vicious while she has all these conflicts going on inside her may actually be part of the appeal.) Of all the characters here (except maybe Rick Flag), she gives us the clearest idea of what’s important to her, what she’d do to preserve it, and why she sticks with the team when things go south.

But would more information about any of these characters really help? We know so little about the other full squad members — El Diablo, Killer Croc, and Captain Boomerang — that their actions are mostly just plot conveniences. When El Diablo claims the squad as his family at the end of the film, it’d be a great touch, if the film had taken the time with him to earn it. That said, is there any way a two-hour film could have serviced this many villains enough to make them people? And do we even want them to be people, or is it enough that they’re (supposedly) scary and (I guess) doing bad-ass stuff?

KO: The whole notion of this group of people being a family was so bizarre and totally unearned. It felt like whole stretches of the plot were cut out of the movie. But here’s the thing: I wanted it all to work.

I would give anything to see a movie like this succeed. Guardians of the Galaxy makes me think that’s possible, because James Gunn handled his character work elegantly enough to make you care about a talking raccoon in space. It can be done. And the idea of a group of extremely diverse villains trying to do good isn’t a bad one! I would love to see El Diablo’s story fleshed out in an organic way. I would love to see Katana be an actual person instead of this cypher shoehorned into the movie. (Frankly, she deserves her own movie.) I would absolutely love for Killer Croc to not be reduced to a few "hood" lines before he literally scurries into a flooded subway. (Seriously, what was that scene?) But the execution just wasn’t there. I don’t know how anyone could fix all these problems. Maybe cut out a few characters and focus on the arcs that had a chance. Maybe change the villain outright, since Enchantress amounted to a lot of bad CGI and an utterly pointless final fight. Maybe have enough faith in the director’s vision to not edit the thing to the point of incoherence. But I truly believe there’s a good movie somewhere in what we saw that just got lost on its way to theaters. What do you think?

TR: Oh, agreed. It’s cheap and easy to armchair-quarterback art, but it’s also so tempting, especially with a film like this, where the problems are so naked and blatant: the whipsawing between Scary Badasses Movie and Wry Funny Meta-Hero Movie, the under-served characters, the story contradictions, the erratic pacing, the endless "But wait, given what we already know, why would she / he do that?" moments. I think if Ayer had settled on what it means to be a villain and stuck with it, he would have really had something here. These guys aren’t that different from the current round of dark, gritty, violent heroes like Batman. Unlike the Guardians of the Galaxy’s makeshift heroes, they never define what they stand for, so we can’t tell whether they change, and whether that’s hard on them, and whether it’s important. Guardians makes such a point of how a bunch of wacky, selfish, one-note characters find reasons to bond, and in the process, how they develop into something bigger, and what they get out of it. That feels like that’s what Ayer is shooting for here, except without any of the sense of personality or purpose, and with a million distracting inconsistencies. Guardians focuses on its core characters. The Suicide Squad story crowds in all sorts of extraneous teasers for potential DC properties in the making.

The film just isn't sure of what it wants to be

Time may help fix some of the problem. DC is clearly trying to jumpstart its own money-printing match for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and part of Suicide Squad’s problem is that it’s trying to service a coming franchise more than it is servicing its own story. We’ve got the seeds here for a full Harley-and-Joker movie, a full Deadshot movie, the first Justice League movie, and more. And maybe some of those eventual projects will give these characters room to breathe and explain themselves. But if DC follows that path, it’ll be rushing into Avengers without making Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger first.

Did you walk away from this film wanting a sequel, or more spinoff movies? Did it at least accomplish that job?

Suicide Squad

KO: Well, Warner Bros. is committed to the DCEU at this point, so I think it’s safe to say we’ll get more out of at least some of these characters. There’s so much to explore, and I think the future films would be richer if they touched on these characters in some way — particularly Amanda Waller, since she’s positioned as a kind of dark Nick Fury. A direct sequel? No. I just don’t think this take on the Suicide Squad works, and the plot makes it pretty clear that the whole thing was a boondoggle worth forgetting.

As for spinoffs, I would loved to see the Birds of Prey film Margot Robbie is working on. It’s clear she fell in love with Harley, and to have Batgirl in the mix would be a treat. It’s just a matter of handling the material well.

TR: Hopefully better than the new Killing Joke animated adaptation handled Batgirl, anyway. But I’ll admit, I’d be game for a Suicide Squad sequel where Waller learns from past mistakes, and the producers do as well. The big strength of big franchises is that they have the chance to build the characters over time and improve them in the process. It’s not too late for a film that treats this one as an origin story for Waller, one that lets her learn she has to keep better control over her charges, think about how they’ll work together, and recruit people with better skills than boomerang-throwing and wall-walking.

A sequel with more consistent characters could do well

I’d be into a sequel where the new Squad has to deal with Joker and Harley on the loose, and Harley has to choose between the personality she’s constructed for her crazy boo, and her actual real-life experience on the Squad, and how it changed her. These characters don’t need tons of depth to work, they just need to be consistent from one scene to the next, and enjoyable for an audience to watch. That doesn’t seem like too high a bar to hit. I’m hoping the DCEU will get there someday, and hopefully someday soon.


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