Suicide Squad: Style Over Substance

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Image: DC/Suicide Squad

Genre: Superhero

Synopsis: Worried about their ability to defend against an attack by powerful Superman-like threats, the government decides to build a squad of criminals to do the job for them. Conveniently, a threat arises as soon as the team is approved.

Verdict: It can theoretically be enjoyable, if you want to see action without deep character work and are able to ignore the offensive parts. Wasn’t worth it for me.

I wanted this movie to be good so badly. And it’s not that it was bad–it was above average, I guess, not that that’s a high bar. But I wanted it to be really, really good. Instead, it relied too heavily on its gimmicks and struggled with juggling its (admittedly huge) cast. Character development fell by the wayside–the movie tried, but ultimately most of the character moments fell flat due to rushed and overly shallow development.

The task was made harder because the movie focused less on the protagonists’ relationship with each other than it did on their relationships with other people–people who only matter in the story through their impact on the protagonists, instantly forcing their characterization to come off as more shallow. (The only exception to this is Joker, but that’s because Harley–despite being a main character–is the one who’s defined by her relationship with him.)

Spoilers.

The plot didn’t feel urgent–it was urgent, with the bad guys liable to destroy the world at any time, but it didn’t feel that way. Most of the mission had the characters fighting to get to the main villain, while the bad guy prepped the bad thing. But there were no milestones in preparing the bad thing. It was conveniently almost-ready just as our protagonists finally arrived, and the villain’s situation remained static through most of the movie. The main team didn’t act like they felt the press of time, and there wasn’t really anything driving them forward faster.

For a plot that revolved around one short mission instead of a series of related missions or a single extended one, a sense of urgency was necessary. To make us feel like the things that were happening mattered, and like there was a psychological pressure for the characters to bond to each other. But that didn’t happen.

The movie was overambitious, and it overextended. It mainly functions as a series of action scenes, barely glued together by plot, and character moments, and one-liners. Every character ends up being underutilized and underdeveloped. We don’t end up getting enough conflict between the characters, or justification of their bonding.

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Deadshot

Deadshot is by far the most developed character in the movie–though again, that isn’t a high bar. The only other character who comes close is Harley Quinn. We get the picture of a man who wants to be in his daughter’s life and wants to be someone she can be proud of, but learns that being an assassin doesn’t let him have those things. He’s stuck between that professional assassin persona and almost wanting to change, but it’s hard to get a sense of where he leans at any given time. His best two scenes are when he single-handedly holds off an attack despite the squad leader thinking he’d be a flight risk, and when he’s trying to teach his daughter trigonometry.

But even though he gets the most characterization and interaction with other characters, there isn’t enough time for most of it to be profound. His growing friendship with Harley was rushed to the point where they met and decided to be besties the way that kids might. We learn a little about his daughter as a person, that she’s principled and brave enough to tell her father when he’s wrong, despite her young age. But it’s hard to do any complex character work when one of the characters is only there as motivation for the other. Then Deadshot’s animosity with his squad leader (Flag) was set up and resolved, then re-set up and resolved again, without allowing any tension to grow from the conflict. In fact, this is how Suicide Squad treats all conflict–quick setup, then quick turnover to resolution. It isn’t satisfying.

Also, Deadshot never kills women and children. He actually says that. The movie is set in 21st century America, and he actually says that.

Harley Quinn

Harley Quinn as a character had the potential to be anywhere from really good to really bad. She’s got the whole chaotic neutral thing going for her–unpredictable, eccentric, and hedonistic, she could have made for a really interesting character. But then, she’s also an extension of Joker more than she is her own person. The Joker was the same before he and Harley met, but he changed her completely–or maybe she changed for him, it’s hard to tell. She adopted his mannerisms, and to some extent his fashion sense. He functions as her boyfriend, her mentor, and her abuser all in one, holding all the power in the relationship in his hands. She’s shown to be willing to do anything for him, anything he says at all. It’s super creepy, and it makes her feel like less like her own character. Everything about her is dependent on him.

(And we learn that the one thing she really wants in life is for her and her boyfriend to have the white picket fence and 2.5 kids, in a settled and conventional lifestyle–which only reinforces the idea that her current unconventionality is about the Joker and not about herself.)

That isn’t even going into how the camera treats her like eye candy or how Batman has now canonically committed sexual assault by making out with her when she’s unconscious (seriously WTF?) Or of how every single female character in the story excepting Deadshot’s kid has been the target of something inappropriate at least once–and often from protagonists or even heroes. This movie has issues.

Rick Flag

Another of the main actors in Suicide Squad, he’s the soldier put in charge of these miscreants. He’s fairly straight-laced, he’s involved with the woman possessed by the Enchantress, and his boss (Waller) is using that to force him onto this mission. He doesn’t want to be there, he doesn’t want to be working with these people–and that’s it. That’s literally all we know about him. We don’t have any deeper insight into his distrust of the Squad. We don’t get a full sense of the differences in perspective or conflict between him and Waller. We don’t even know a single thing that he actually likes about his girlfriend.

Amanda Waller

Waller is unapologetically brutal and devious. She manipulates everyone where she wants them, she emotionally blackmails her subordinates, and she’s perfectly willing to murder her own people if they witness something above their clearance level. (Is the government allowed to do that?) She never shows a moment of remorse or hesitation. That makes it really hard to get a sense of her as a character, because she has no obvious motivations. Deadshot is motivated by his daughter, Harley is motivated by chaos and tentative bonds of friendship, Flag is trying to save his girlfriend. Waller had shown no compunctions about sacrificing anyone. So why is she working for the government? What does she actually care about? We don’t know, because we’re never shown anything deeper about her.

Captain Boomerang

I think I vaguely recall this guy being in the movie. He might’ve had a few one-liners, and was in general portrayed as kinda uncool, but that’s about all he got to do.

El Diablo

He actually had a pretty interesting premise, for all that it wasn’t much explored. He’s powerful and destructive, and he’s the only member of the Suicide Squad who doesn’t want to hurt anyone anymore. He shared the same problem as the rest of cast, where his supporting cast mattered way more than his interaction with his teammates. But for him, it worked better than for anyone else. It added to that sense of aloofness, that idea that he was the only one who really believed in not being that person anymore.

That contrast between what we see of who he was, and who he becomes, makes him one of the more promising characters in the movie. But much like everything else, he doesn’t get much development. 

Killer Croc

Another character that didn’t get to do much, except for a few cool lines.

June Moone

Possessed by an immortal witch, she’s the ultimate damsel in distress, serving as motivation for her boyfriend to push the Suicide Squad forward. We know that she was an archaeologist, we know that the Enchantress is seriously messing with her head, and that’s it. We don’t know anything about her as a person, and she’s got no agency in the story. Meanwhile, the Enchantress uses her body to take revenge for her past imprisonment and prance around wearing almost nothing–and her characterization is also pretty bare bones.

Katana

A non-criminal recruit who’s there of her own free will, all we know about her is that she wields a soul-eating word–which took the life of her husband. She still mourns him in a way that comes off as…excessively devoted. 

Slipknot

Another barely used character, and possibly the member of the main cast with the least screen time.

So yeah, Suicide Squad didn’t use its large cast effectively, which makes it unclear why they chose to have such a large cast in the first place. A good half of the cast rarely got to do anything at all. And it had its other problems. So while the movie wasn’t terrible, it was a mess. Overall, it wasn’t worth it for me.

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