The Suicide Squad (Review)

After an abysmal attempt to get this franchise on screen in 2016, the Suicide Squad are back, this time helmed by the director they were trying to imitate in the first place. The previous film was a clear attempt to capture what Guardians of the Galaxy did for Marvel, and was an overt failure (on every level). So, now we reboot it, keeping the actors that held their own in the original (Viola Davis and Margot Robbie continuing to give impressive takes, in spite of variable writing) and getting that Guardians of the Galaxy man to write and direct it.

James Gunn certainly brings something to the film, feeling less restricted than with the Marvel fare – for good and for ill – and the result from all involved is an entertaining enough film. There are some striking sequences, some fun running gags and a handful of really interesting characters (the characterisation is uniformly broad but this is in keeping with what the film needs to be, the bold outlines carrying impact). Alas, the film is hindered by really poorly articulated politics that have it always, and very purposefully, never going for enough one way to upset conservatives while including enough references to progressive sentiment to try and get the leftists onboard. Though it is tempting to give it credit for trying to say something, it botches the attempt so badly that it would have been better off leaving it alone.

Let’s get the political mess that is this film out of the way. The Suicide Squad uses a bare bones narrative structure – deniable US elite team sent on a mission to a fictional South American nation to stop the ‘regime’ from having a powerful weapon – to make a vague almost-criticism of US interventionism. The fictional nation is ripped from the comics but the shield of the fictive is already indicative of how much of a statement the film wants to make. This is a film which goes out of its way to show revolutionary changes in leadership as cycles of sameness: here comes the new boss, same as the old boss. There was a nasty regime, now there is a new nasty regime. The idea of uprising and struggle, and self determination, is stigmatised from the beginning; the overbearing ideology here is a centrist shrug of extremism on both sides. What this means is that this nation, in the film, becomes one of inherent corruption, and one in need of saving. There is an interesting undercurrent where we see actual freedom fighters from the nation trying to take it back, but they are only ever side-lined to focus on our main characters: a group of US interventionists.

The film is happy to criticise our interveners, it points out how they accidentally murdered a whole group of people actually on their side out of ignorance, but it will not stop focusing on them. They still own the perspective and even this criticism towards the start is played off as a silly joke: those chuckleheads! The group aiming for self determination largely leave the narrative and are entirely reliant on the actions of our interveners. To keep things vague, the ending movements show a victory of interventionism in which a country is then allowed to seemingly determine itself because of this. Yes, the film is against the US messing places up (but also does not engage with how this happens; nothing about destabilising governments, just about doing its dirty work offshore) but it also succumbs to presenting these places as inherently messed up.

The central irony, and it cuts very deep, is that the film tries to be a criticism of how the US offload conflicts onto other nations (destabilising them while keeping their hands clean) while the narrative of the film just does that same thing. The fictional nation here is just a backdrop. It is a place for violence and destruction to happen as the film somewhat critiques US policy while relishing in the aesthetics of it. We will watch the whole place fall down in lively, and made to be entertaining sequences – with no thought to the people or the nation itself – while paying lip-service to anti-interventionist politics. The film gets even more egregious, gesturing towards a point where the people of a place will be the ones to ‘save’ it, not those who are very much invading it for their own interests, but then goes a completely different way. I cannot say more without spoiling a key moment, but the way it is framed is very distasteful. Ultimately, this nation is just a playground for destruction. The dialogue may point us one way but the actual film is hilariously unaware of its hypocrisy, showing some key misunderstandings and revealing the actual depths of its politics.

Outside of this, there is fun to be had. There are some really fun characters here with unique voices, especially Ratcatcher, Polka-dot Man and King Shark. It leans a bit too far into sympathetic backstory – a problem throughout the film where the tone is mismanaged – but there is a freshness to these figures that makes them a joy. Each opens up a lot of possibility for the film and they are, when they are used, nicely deployed. Alas, the vast majority of the characters all speak in the same voice. That voice being snarky James Gunn characters. Most characters are just overtly voice boxes for contrived gags and crude punchlines, most of which are just trying too hard. This film wants to be edgy and R Rated. It wants you to know it knows a lot of dirty words. Sometimes, there’s a puerile joy here; most of the time it is like a middle-schooler that has learnt some swear words so will use them instead of actual punchlines. There is a smothering voice to the film, the quips are predictable and the characters that exist in the same register get most of the screen time. And there’s a lot of screen time. Clocking in at almost two hours and fifteen minutes, this film feels its length. This is a sensibility that would benefit from snappiness but it is just over indulgent – again, it is trying very hard.

Visually, the film is a tad bland. The filmmaking is very functional, the shot choices all merely sufficient rather than interesting or intentional (it is the filmic equivalent of a sequence of declarative sentences), and we are left with the realisation that James Gunn is a lot better at thinking up wild things than he is putting them onscreen. The direction does not give the madness enough impact, nor does it feel mad enough. It is a very conventional, nuts and bolts film with some wackiness that stays entirely inside of it. The script has the potential for an anarchic and counter-cultural edge but the execution dulls it (the repeated needle drop moments are also ineffective; juxtaposing pop-song cut to violent sequence is a bit played out). It is just remarkably unremarkable as a piece of filmmaking. Though, there are one or two sequences that display a greater imagination or creativity – a fight scene involving Harley Quinn is the standout moment. Overall, the approach is similar to Guardians of the Galaxy: a palatable weirdness that will fit mainstream sensibilities. Never too weird to challenge an audience.

This is fine. It is all fine. This is a very traditional work with some untraditional elements. There is a palpable sense of risk to a lot of the characters, which is fun, but the main characters still have overt plot protection. But, it is more unpredictable than its genre contemporaries. What we are left with is a film that will entertain and do enough. It gestures at things to please one crowd, backs away from them far enough to please another and ultimately says nothing of merit. It is a corporate creation that believes in the power of changing systems from within them. Here, the politics do make internal sense, as this ideology is true of the filmmaking too. Rather than making a more challenging or atypical film, the same approach is used to soften atypical content. Again, this is fine. It is better than the films around it, even. It just is not much. Yes, it is a full on violent spectacle, but it is all CG gore that lacks impact. And that’s the work as a whole. There is no bite, no sting and no staying power. It is, quite simply perfectly fine.

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