If you’re going to make an entire movie about the United States government deciding to release a loose selection of murderous psychopaths into the wild, you should probably come up with a good goddamned reason for them to do so. There are many problems with Suicide Squad, all of which unwind from the fundamental fact that the movie is so half-assed, it never even bothers to justify why all these terrible bad guys are together in the first place. The movie opens with a twenty-minute sequence in which a shady government honcho (Viola Davis) introduces each individual villain in front of a large table of skeptical looking military men. Suicide Squad spins off from the events of Batman v. Superman, with Davis’ character deciding that in a Superman-less universe, we need a supergroup of villains to protect us. The military brass can’t figure out why she would propose bringing them together and releasing them into the wild, a bafflement that doesn’t stop them from going ahead and letting her do it anyway. Hell breaks loose immediately. The only mission the Suicide Squad undertakes is to attempt to fix the mess that began when they were released. Still, no one stops to think, “Man, this was a horrible idea.” No one even nods to it. We’re just off and running, from one nonsensical plot point to another. The movie’s middle third is a Marx brothers routine of dipshit plotting, with everyone running around screaming for 45 minutes only end up right back where they started. Suicide Squad movie runs in circles, chasing its own nonexistent tail.
A movie like this—one more interested in sensation and fanboy wankery than a coherent story—is always going to have some plot holes here or there. But the problem with Suicide Squad is that its haphazard storytelling decisions are indicative of the total lack of a steady hand on the tiller. It is astounding, when you think about it: Warner Bros and DC are attempting to build an entire DC Universe, multiple movies with countless characters and intersecting storylines, without at least laying down the basic trackwork of a justifying plot. They really are just winging this. Marvel has had enough trouble integrating its ever-widening universe into a manageable set of movies, but they’ve thought all this through. The DC Universe, as set down by Zach Snyder in his ruthless and deadening Batman v. Superman, doesn’t bother: It just bludgeons you, over and over, before walking absent-mindedly off a cliff. These two-hour-plus monoliths are such complicated machines, they both need to spin off from previous films and also construct whole planets for future films. But the filmmakers of the DC Universe treat them like a child banging rocks together. The result thus shouldn’t be surprising: A cacophonic, senseless disaster.
Suicide Squad is an assortment of monsters led by Deadshot (Will Smith), an assassin who loves killing as much as he loves his estranged daughter, and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) a former protégé of The Joker now locked away and tormenting her captors. There’s also a part-crocodile-part-man, a character whose only trait is being Australian, a former gang member who discovers he has pyrotechnic powers, and one guy who gets killed before we get a chance to learn his powers, I’m sure they were awesome. They’re led by a military commando (Joel Kinnaman) who is love with an evil witch named Enchantress, who complicates his repeated attempts to wrangle the team together. If that weren’t enough, there’s the Joker (Jared Leto) skulking around, trying to rescue Quinn and sow whatever chaos he can. Oh, and Batman! He’s there too. The movie is so overstuffed with new characters that there’s not only not enough room for all of then, there’s not even any room for plot. By the time we’ve met everyone and moved them from one point to another, the movie’s almost over. The big set piece at the end isn’t so much a logical endpoint of the movie as it is something to do now that we finally have everyone together in the same place.
Writer-director David Ayer is a skilled constructor of brawny, masculine dude-bro films including End of Watch and Fury. Theoretically, he should work in this universe: Ayer makes war films, where disparate groups of people come together to fight a common enemy. But he is completely overwhelmed by his surroundings here. The movie essentially runs in place for two hours, with occasional flashbacks to give us shards of backstory. Characters change their motivation mid-scene, giving the film a shifting, confused landscape, unable to cater to the fan fiction these characters were designed to satisfy. I really don’t want to understate this: Suicide Squad has honestly one of the most nonsensical plots I’ve ever seen in a movie. It’s impossible to figure out where characters are, where they’re going, what their objective is. These are simple problems to solve, but the movie doesn’t bother. You’ve got hundreds of millions of dollars on the line and this is what you came up with?
Suicide Squad isn’t the endless slog that Batman v. Superman was, if only because it allows its charismatic actors to occasionally smile and charm. Harley Quinn is a ridiculous sexist stereotype—a beautiful psychiatrist seduced to insanity by the madness of the Joker, now sucking lollipops and wearing tight-cut “Daddy’s Little Monster” T-shirts—but Robbie, defying the laws of gravity, somehow finds a soul deep beneath the grotesquerie. She continues her impressive run of being the best part of lousy movies. Will Smith seems to be relishing playing a ruthless killer, albeit one with a daughter he can’t live without; it’s a relief to see him unleashing his movie star power rather than tamping it down. Jay Hernandez has some good moments too as the flame-thrower El Diablo, coming as close as anyone can to giving this movie a heart.
But my, oh my, Jared Leto. His Joker is a nightmare—in a bad way. His lame poses and frantic giggling are meant to convey madness, but they more accurately convey the nervousness of a man who realizes his performance isn’t working, and there’s no one there to stop or help him. This is precisely what happened to Jesse Eisenberg in Batman v. Superman, but Eisenberg had the advantage of not having to pivot off one of the greatest villain performances of all-time. After Heath Ledger’s leap into the void as The Joker in The Dark Knight, Leto’s Joker, like everything else in this movie, seems poorly thought through, empty schtick meant to impersonate an actual character. It’s a deeply embarrassing performance, but if you’re playing The Joker after Ledger, you’re sort of asking for it. But that’s the problem with Suicide Squad: Everyone started making a movie before they really knew what they were doing. You need adults in charge, and there are no adults in charge here. The result is, yet again, a total shitshow.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site