Thursday 29 July 2021

From the archive: "Suicide Squad"

Suicide Squad was DC's reactionary response to Marvel's inclusive, wipe-clean, family-friendly universe: bust a rogues' gallery of antiheroes out of the back catalogue, then splatter them across the screen in a film that casually badmouths North Korea and Iran, leers at its one lissom blonde character, and just loves its knives and gunplay. (Trump right-hand man Steven Mnuchin served as an executive producer, as he has on several DC projects.) It's an origin story, so Viola Davis - as the Government employee handed the fool's errand of rounding this Squad up and putting them to work - gets to deliver seven comicbooks' worth of exposition and a collectors-card briefing on each of the main players, before pitching them forward into urban action sequences, patched together in the edit with variable skill, relentless soundtrack cues, and a lot of gaffer tape. The film has been framed as a notable flop (albeit one of those very modern flops that succeeds in taking $746m at the international box office), but a postmortem reveals there were elements here you'd perhaps have paid to see, and which suffered in the attempt to squeeze a baker's dozen of protagonists (and putative franchises) into the same two hours. Will Smith demonstrates a measure of his long-AWOL star power in the role of no-nonsense assassin Deadshot, although it's a sign of his reduced circumstances that he has to share screen time and space with a talking crocodile-man-thing no-one on this production quite knew what to do with; a sparky Margot Robbie makes the mocking Harley Quinn - beloved, I'm told, of fanboys and girls alike - more than the walking Halloween costume she first presents as.

Other elements, however, got exactly what they deserved. You can tell Jared Leto's emo Joker, all preening pose, was meant to be the breakout character/franchise banker from the way in which the first hour points towards some climactic confrontation between him and the Squad, but he's so annoying to watch you can hardly blame the producers for effectively grounding him and thereafter bringing in Joaquin Phoenix to have a go in the forthcoming standalone Joker. (It'll be your turn next week.) Really the only performer who doesn't appear to be at the mercy of postproduction is Ike Barinholtz as the skeezy prison guard making flailing attempts to keep everybody here under lock and key, but that's because he's an accomplished second banana who's realised he doesn't have to angle for a spin-off or meet frothing fan expectations, and is therefore free to do his own reasonably funny thing. It remains a critically underacknowledged fact that, with select exceptions (Logan and Thor: Ragnarok spring to mind), these new-wave superhero movies are almost all working from the same narrative playbook, so Suicide Squad didn't feel any less of a timesuck to me than, say, the first Avengers movie; its second half is visibly more assured than its first, thrown together as that seems in blind panic at the thought of having to get a multi-million dollar franchise on the road, although it still winds up with two vast conglomerations of pixels bashing seven bells out of one another. Whenever it stops to concentrate on anything even vaguely human, it's just ugly people, with especially ugly tattoos, doing mostly ugly things: hardly super, only fleetingly heroic.

(October 2018)

Suicide Squad is available on DVD through Warner Home Video; a reboot, The Suicide Squad, opens tomorrow, and will be reviewed here next week.

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