Into thin Ayer
At this point, even the most die-hard comic-book movie apologists would have to admit that the superhero genre is stuck in a rut. Audiences still dutifully attend every release, returning to theaters the way that the zombies in Dawn of the Dead returned to the shopping mall, as though keeping a muscle memory obligation to the collective unconscious. But people are also starting to catch on that they’re paying movie ticket prices to watch two-hour episodes in a series that will never provide any payoff.
The genre demands reinvention, but for all of the chest-beating swagger and style of David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, the needle hardly even flinches. A screenwriter turned director who excels at stories of violent group dynamics (Fury; Sabotage), Ayer probably squeezes the most disreputable fun into this PG-13 film as he was allowed. Yet all of the symptoms of the disease are still present: a surplus of origin stories, supervillains with nebulous motivations and a choppy plot forced to serve too many masters.
Less the DC Extended Universe answer to the Avengers series than the DCEU answer to Guardians of the Galaxy, Suicide Squad at least attempts to subvert the pompous morality of the genre, following a motley crew of criminals who exhibit more moral fiber than both Batman and the U.S. government put together. Suicide Squad piggybacks on Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman v Screen Direction universe, but it is not indebted to the thundering overkill or solemn tone of those films. In fact, most of the action takes place in Chicago-esque Midway City, rather than in Gotham or Metropolis.
The story opens in the shadow of Superman’s death, in a world terrified that the next alien god might not be so benevolent, where the government possesses expanded powers to brand mutants (ahem, “meta-humans”) as terrorists. Seeing an opportunity, cutthroat government operative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, more badass than any of the gun-toting superheroes) assembles a team of easily disowned villains to fight the next threat, including hitman-slash-single-father Deadshot (Will Smith), demented ex-psychologist Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and brooding pyromaniac Diablo (Jay Hernandez).
And then there’s like five others plus a special ops team and a rotating cast of antagonists, and you get a backstory, and you get a backstory, and you get a backstory. Everybody gets a backstory! Crazy thought: Have less main characters in this movie. The first half-hour of Suicide Squad crams in seven or eight origin stories, and every time the plot starts to build some momentum, someone else starts to explain their origin story.
All that and Ayer has to debut Jared Leto as The Joker, portrayed here as the skeevy, tattoo-covered bad boyfriend of Harley Quinn, and redefining the word problematic in the process. Suicide Squad spreads so thin that it only makes time for one layer of character development, even for the characters we actually come to care about. There is so much universe-building and overexplaining that the movie frequently forgets to have any fun.