The high ideals of the Bush-era War on Terror included plunging our hands into the filth of rendition and “enhanced interrogation techniques,” usually carried out by foreign contractors at black sites outside the United States’ jurisdiction. Today, the U.S. is part of an uneasy confederation of foes with the shared aim of defeating ISIL, a terrorist group armed with American weaponry seized after the U.S. pullout from the Iraq War, an occupation initiated to topple a dictator once propped up by American treasure.
Relying on bad people to do our dirty business is the fulcrum for Suicide Squad, the third entry in an unfurling DC Extended Universe. Following the events of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, American military officials remain increasingly fearful of metahumans they can’t control—”the next Superman.” Their countermeasure, proposed by national security heavy Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), is leveraging the services of those they can control, even if they're imprisoned supervillains. Exhibit A is a 6,000-year-old feral witch named Enchantress, who Waller controls using her captured heart (à la Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean). Waller’s sociopathic resolve makes her the film’s most dangerous, realistic, and compelling figure.
Dangling partial clemency and an explosive charge implanted in the cervical vertebrae,Waller and skeptical soldier Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) trawl federal penitentiaries to assemble a reluctant rogues gallery, code-named Task Force X. But when Enchantress escapes with her host body—Flag’s main squeeze, Dr. June Moone (Cara Delevingne)—she frees her mystical brother, Incubus, who decides it’s time to destroy the puny humans. It falls to the rest of Waller’s miscreant antiheroes to save themselves and the world.
Scored by a sampling of hits both ubiquitous (“Sympathy for the Devil”; “Seven Nation Army”) and misapplied (“Fortunate Son,” “Bohemian Rhapsody”), Suicide Squad’s uninspired antagonists amount to faceless cannon fodder and a towering beam of light, although few seem to mind when the Avengers movies roll out Orc knockoffs, Infinity MacGuffins, and Loki on repeat.
What Suicide Squad does accomplish is fleshing out a menagerie of villains, some lasting, to conceivably fold into the ongoing DC movie milieu. The squad’s de facto leader is Deadshot (Will Smith), a hired assassin who never misses and a longtime Batman nemesis (the Caped Crusader makes a few brief appearances). Smith reminds us of his capacity for onscreen charisma, and his dialogue crackles with more wit mainly because much of it sounds ad-libbed.
Deadshot’s principal partner is Harley Quinn, née Dr. Harleen Quinzel (Margot Robbie), a former Arkham Asylum shrink who let the Joker (Jared Leto) get into her head and heart. Quinn is now criminally crazed and crazy in love, wisecracking her way ahead of her minders until she’s rescued by her homicidal honey.
Not enough time is devoted to Quinn’s metamorphosis, which is shown in flashbacks. A better narrative choice would have been to incorporate her gradual psychological and ultimately physical descent into the primary story, perhaps as part of her effort to recruit a jailed Joker into the task force. Of course, that would have sacrificed Harley Quinn’s screen time for Harleen Quinzel—something director David Ayer and the bean counters probably wouldn’t want, with Robbie dusting off her Wolf of Wall Street Brooklyn accent and sporting pigtails with Raggedy Ann makeup to accessorize her short shorts.
While not nearly as iconic as Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning Dark Knight portrayal, Leto’s much-discussed interpretation is a modernized take on the Joker’s comic book gangster origins, a menacing, tattooed kingpin lording over Gotham City’s underbelly. His screen time is limited, and while a little of Leto’s version—which I found audacious and captivating—may go a long way, it does allow for further character development in an eventual stand-alone Batman reboot.
The rest of the recruits suffer deficits common to any comic book movie mashup. El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) can shoot fire, but his personality and conflicted backstory are lukewarm. Same with Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who isn’t given much to do besides spout sporadic, garbled slang. And the skills of Flash foil Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) get eclipsed alongside his superhuman cohorts.
Ayer (Fury) doesn’t snuff out the inevitable plot holes, some more gaping than others. Never mind how Quinn manages to procure a cell phone to text the Joker and a collar to block the signal triggering the bomb in her neck—why doesn’t the rest of the squad take similar preventive action? A baddie impervious to firearms, swords, and infernos is ultimately derailed by an underground IED. A satellite broadcasts images of a satellite system being destroyed. And I have no idea why Waller isn’t dead or at least soaking wet following a campy final act straight out of Ghostbusters (you’ll see).
Yes, the throwaway plot is thin. But a mid-credits scene nails down Suicide Squad’s guiding purpose: effectively expanding the DC movie universe. Accompanied by some welcome levity, the new characters flesh out DC’s neo-realistic landscape, where we’re still not above making deals with the devil.