It’s easy to pin down what works in Suicide Squad and what doesn’t. David Ayer’s DC entry wants to be all about psychopaths and freaks, barely contained by a system all too happy to use and abuse them. Dirty Dozen filtered through Ayer’s Sabotage. It’s there on the screen. Wrangled by black ops heavy Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), a group of super-villains–fronted heavily by master assassin Deadshot (Will Smith) and the Joker’s psychologically abused queen Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie)–are tasked with stopping an arcane something-or-other from bringing about the end of the world. Kept in line with explosives planted in their necks, each member of Task Force X nonetheless schemes and maneuvers for the way out. They mutter to one another as they walk torn up, abandoned city blocks, under SEAL escort and besieged by an army of zombies with pulsing, obsidian sacs for heads. Lurking around the edges is Joker himself (Jared Leto), looking to spring his love/plaything from the joint.
With these elements in play, the film repeatedly brushes up against, but never fully embraces, genuine danger. Bogged down in the front half with multiple introductions for each character and concept, scored to a rapid procession of classic rock (Warner Bros. clearly desiring some of that Guardians of the Galaxy audience), Suicide Squad starts sluggish, only to breeze over its central threat. The squad, for the most part, is rendered too sympathetic for audiences, without ever being shown as too monstrous. Their arc toys with dissolution and betrayal, while angling for a redemption arc (particularly Jay Hernandez’s El Diablo, who spends the film atoning for the accidental immolation of his family, before throwing himself at an equally fiery adversary). Deadshot and Quinn toy the most, orchestrating an escape plot as they protect el blando handler Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), but both are ultimately selfless (the former is a wannabe-good dad, the latter wishes for a quiet domestic life with her puddin’). Even the Joker, running up with his furry/cosplay-themed henchmen guns a-blazing (clearly intended to upset the film’s dynamic), never amounts to more than a nuisance, his showy hand gestures, Nouveau Riche excess, and mannered speech suggesting a Wall Street banker went to Hot Topic. By contrast, Davis’ performance as Waller is all calculation, ready to execute anyone who no longer meets her needs. She breezes in, keeping the nutjobs in line by being more dangerous.
Despite the unsatisfying handling of its conceit, Suicide Squad does, like the previous DCU films, have a sharper, better handle on comic book storytelling than Marvel’s Avengers mega-franchise. Where that series arrived at connected universe hysterics through regurgitation of the same blockbuster template, the DC films have (in desperation to catch up) barreled ahead, explaining only when absolutely necessary. Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice depict surrealism and violent, often cosmic horror intruding on the everyday, its superheroes almost unfathomable. Suicide Squad is more literal, even with candy-colored flashbacks and a late turn into wish fulfillment, but Ayer explodes Snyder’s template with high-tech master assassins, super-powered gangsters, crocodile men, sorcery, and grieving samurai women with soul-devouring blades, jumbled together like it’s nothing. It might have more in common with New 52’s continuity nonsense than John Ostrander and Kim Yale’s hyper-intense underworld, but the world it presents is appealing.