“The world changed when Superman flew across the sky,” Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller says early on in Suicide Squad. “And then it changed again when he didn’t,” she continues, over somber images of the Man of Steel’s funeral following his (non-)death at the end of Batman v. Superman. Luckily, that bit of poetic portent is among the very few sops to shared-universe franchise-building in this otherwise gleefully nihilistic movie. David Ayer’s film may not always work, but when it does, it’s a perverse delight.
Waller is a tough-talking, ruthless intelligence officer who has decided that the emergence of meta-humans — “flying men and monsters” — calls for a new kind of weapon. What if, she asks, the next Superman isn’t a do-gooding All-American space alien but a terrorist hellbent on destroying humanity? So she assembles Task Force X, aka the Suicide Squad, a top-secret collection of psychos, assassins and beasts housed in a kill-you-if-I-tell-you secret prison in Louisiana, who are to be coerced into fighting for the good guys.
Supervillains as superheroes is, admittedly, a pretty fantastic hook. But the dutiful little vignette introducing each character shows that levels of villainy can vary. Deadshot (Will Smith) is a cold-blooded assassin for hire, but he still loves his daughter and won’t kill women or children. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is a shrink who got seduced by the Joker (Jared Leto), lost her mind and became a soulless murderer in hot pants. “Pyrokinetic homeboy” El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) is a former gang-banger who can instantly incinerate half a prison yard if he gets too angry (think the Hulk meets the Human Torch), but he’s renounced his fiery past and now just wants peace.
There’s also Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), a sociopathic irritant and professional thief who can’t miss with the weapon he's named for; Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who is half-man, half-crocodile with cannibalistic tendencies (it's unclear whether that means he eats people or crocodiles, but I’m guessing both); and Enchantress, aka June Moon (Cara Delevingne), an archaeologist who accidentally unleashed the soul of an ancient witch and can now pass through dimensions and cast spells. Heading up the team is the decidedly un-villainous Special Forces officer Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) — a straight-arrow tough guy, only he’s fallen in love with Enchantress, which, uh-oh.
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Phew. Got all that? For a movie with an almost comical amount of backstory to get through — almost ever member's introductory scene comes complete with a classic pop song — Suicide Squad clocks in at just over two hours. Unfortunately, the seams show. After the bravura intros, the story leaps into a quick, montage-like action sequence in which Enchantress' demonic brother (a golden, flaming, god-like being who can slice through subways and turn ordinary people into pustule-covered super-lizard warriors) takes over a sizable chunk of a nearby metropolis called Midway City. Then he liberates Enchantress, who promptly announces that she will build a machine to destroy humanity.
How will she do this? What will this machine actually do? Who the hell are these demons? Why do they even hate humanity so much? Bah, details! At least X-Men: Apocalypse allowed its awakened-ancient-mutant-villain to air some grievances before he began laying waste to mankind. There are so many gaps and dodgy edits in these parts of Suicide Squad that the movie sometimes plays like a trailer for itself. (Meanwhile, the Joker — who in this iteration is more a slick, flamboyant mob boss than the deranged anarchist of The Dark Knight — is working to free Harley Quinn, a subplot we lose for vast stretches of time.)
But the film recovers, in part because Ayer, a director whose previous work has mostly been cop dramas and war movies (he wrote Training Day and directed End of Watch, Harsh Times and Fury), makes this comic-book stuff play to his strengths. He has a feel for the ways that people handle desperation — for high-pressure situations in which flawed men and women are forced to live up to their responsibilities. So he builds up the team's differences and the fact that each member has private reasons for seeing through the mission. His dialogue is sharp and tight: Even as these antiheroes banter and jaw and distrust one another, they reveal who they are. Suicide Squad is one of the rare superhero movies in which I actually found myself wondering about the characters’ inner lives.
The actors help. We know the film would never dare to make Will Smith a true villain, but he adeptly handles the hard edge of his ultimately valiant character, convincing us of his ruthlessness. ("You're just a serial killer who takes credit cards," Flag tells Deadshot, and the line stings.) Robbie is clearly having the time of her life as the gyrating, acrobatic, utterly nutzoid Harley Quinn, who balances batshit cruelty with a kind of mundane bubbliness. (“Ooh, look at the pretty lights!” she exclaims as they approach the giant flashing, swirling laser and fire-show that is the Enchantress' … well, whatever the hell it is Enchantress is creating.) Still, it’s Davis who gets most of the best lines, as the ball-busting, no-nonsense Waller. A wise choice: Viola Davis dropping one-liners left and right buys a lot of audience goodwill.
Ayer isn't really an action guy. When the Squad leaps into the fray, we get a generous amount of slo-mo beheadings and thousand-bullet shootouts, but it's all functionally violent — just gritty and loud enough not to lose us entirely, but rarely inventive, surprising or exciting. And while the film has plenty of action scenes, I can’t help but suspect that the director understands his own limitations: The best part of the third act is a random, chatty interlude in an abandoned bar, an unannounced pit stop sandwiched between two big face-offs. It makes very little narrative sense. You might even argue that it stops the action dead. But it feels like the movie’s true climax — and the sign of a filmmaker asserting himself over the anonymity of his material. I’m glad it’s there.