Suicide Squad is one of those movies that audiences like a lot more than critics do. It’s gotten terrible reviews–its Rottentomatoes.com score is 26, and even the positive reviews have tended to be of the ‘ah, it’s not so terrible’ variety. I guess I’m in a critical minority; I rather liked it, and certainly thought it was an interestingly political movie, and not in some metaphorical sense. It’s quite specifically and directly about the War on Terror, and about the American prison system, and the moral ambiguities of our age. It’s a zeitgeist movie, a movie that captures something about our age. Superhero movies often are.
It’s basically The Dirty Dozen. Remember that one? Lee Marvin, Jim Brown, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes? The government recruits an army of bad guys to fight a particularly dangerous enemy? Well, that’s Suicide Squad, except the bad guys are superheroes. Or, you know, people with enhanced powers.
We’re introduced to each of the characters’ backstories in a series of opening vignettes. Deadshot (Will Smith) is a professional assassin, deadly with any firearm. When we meet him, he’s got a bead on a target, but refuses to pull the trigger until his client ups the pay. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is a former psychiatrist who grows infatuated with The Joker (Jared Leto), who then tortures her out of love, leading to her Stockholm Syndrome-type reciprocal love for him. Diablo (Jay Hernandez) has the ability to set things on fire, which he doesn’t control very well–he accidentally killed his family, and now refuses to use his powers. Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Adbaje), appears to be half-human, half crocodile. Boomerang (Jai Courtney) is an expert with blades. Katana (Karen Fukuhara) has a sword that stores the souls of the people she kills. There were a few others, less well defined. They’re all deeply damaged, deeply troubled people, hostile to authority and with agendas of their own.
The US government is represented by a bureaucrat and a soldier. Viola Davis plays Amanda Waller, who brings the Suicide Squad together as an elite anti-terrorist unit because she’s afraid of what might happen if America’s enemies should find gifted/troubled superhero types of their own. She has recruited Colonel Rick Flagg (Joel Kinneman) to lead her motley force. He’s got his own demons. He is in love with an archeologist, June Moone (Cara Delevigne), who is possessed by an evil witch spirit. But no worries–Waller has her heart–literally, she found it in the cave–and therefore controls her.
A number of critics disliked the movie because, as several of them put it, its plot is incoherent. But it’s not. The plot is perfectly coherent, just a trifle busy. Ordinarily, in a superhero movie, you’ve got your good guys and your bad guys; it’s all pretty clear. It isn’t here. Col. Flagg is one of the good guys, but he’s also in love with the main bad guy–the witch who has possessed his girlfriend. And that character, that evil spirit witch thing, wants to conquer the world, and may have the power to accomplish it. Among her skills is the ability to capture people and turn them into mindless killing monsters. That ability forms the basis for the first army the Suicide Squad has to contend with. Meanwhile, The Joker has allied himself with the Witch, and keeps texting Harley Quinn to join him/them. And Waller is hardly on the side of the angels. Davis plays her as an amoral pragmatist, perfectly willing to murder innocent people if it will advance her interests. Granted, she’s trying to protect the United States, but she also has a career to look out for. And the only reason the Suicide Squadders agree to help her is because she has bombs implanted in their heads. And she controls the phone app that will set them off.
Well, doesn’t all that seem familiar? In order to defeat the forces of terrorism, the US uses unmanned drones, and can kill bad guys remotely–though we do try to keep collateral damage down. And one of the two major party Presidential candidates currently running thinks this isn’t close to enough. He wants to bring back torture. Viola Davis’s brutal amorality in this doesn’t seem remotely overstated.
All these characters are damaged goods. All are traumatized and violent. The most extraordinary among them is Harley Quinn. Margot Robbie’s performance dominates the movie. She’s constantly smiling, but we never trust it; this is a violent woman, not the sexpot cutie-pie she affects. And under that is abuse, horrific abuse. And under that, some kind of deep seated insecurity. Check out Robbie’s IMDB page, and you’ll see a series of extraordinary characterizations. She was the best thing in Tarzan, the best thing in Focus, the best thing about Whisky Tango Foxtrot, the best thing in The Wolf of Wall Street. She even pulls off a feat that seems quite impossible. She convinces us that her character is genuinely in love with Jared Leto’s Joker. Leto’s a fine actor, but he’s just unwatchably bad in this movie. (There’s a moment where we think The Joker has died, and I realized how much I hoped it was true).
But everyone else was excellent. Will Smith brought the film some gravity, and Jay Hernandez, a conscience and some heart. Even Delevigne is good, in an impossible part–the archeologist/Witch character never really does make a lick of sense. And Viola Davis scared the wee out of me. Superheroes don’t actually exist. Bureaucrats willing to murder in order to combat terrorism? I wish I didn’t think they do.