Suicide Squad is an ugly, shapeless, and noisy pileup of bad ideas and sloppy execution for so long it’s almost a relief when it gives up the pretense of doing something remotely new with the superhero genre and collapses into the same predictable CG autopilot required of every movie of this kind. The concept sounds terrific on paper: a Dirty Dozen made up of lesser-known villains from Batman’s rouges gallery. A tough security adviser (Viola Davis) gets permission to recruit the worst of the worst from a maximum-security prison to send on certain-doom longshot missions against supervillains. Who can say, her reasoning goes, if the next Superman will turn out to wish us harm? And who, if that happens, could stop him? That’s a clever hook, theoretically able to look at a superhero world from a different angle. And yet this movie can barely figure out how to tell its story, loaded up with false starts and weak characterization, roping in endless exposition and tonal whiplash until finally it just turns into a CG shooting gallery.
There’s trouble right at the start as the movie introduces the Suicide Squad haphazardly and repeatedly. First, there’s a prologue tour of the prison where we meet a few of the big stars, including Will Smith as preternaturally accurate hitman Deadshot and Margot Robbie as mentally unbalanced crime jester Harley Quinn. Then we follow Davis to a dinner meeting where she pitches her idea for a team of super-powered criminals. She reads their names and describes their abilities, which are repeated in on-screen text popping up next to freeze-frames in extended flashbacks. There’s a guy who’s really good at throwing boomerangs (Jai Courtney) and a firestarter (Jay Hernandez), and a guy who looks like a reptile (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Then we’re with the squad’s military leader (Joel Kinnaman) meeting the bad guys all over again, even repeating some footage we’ve already seen. Yet then we’re still finding out about new people – a witch (Cara Delevingne), a masked woman with a sword (Karen Fukuhara), a guy who is really good at climbing (Adam Beach) – with a tossed off explanation or belabored flashback as they show up. Surely there was an easier way to establish the ensemble than all these convoluted repetitions.
Writer-director David Ayer’s previous film, World War II tank actioner Fury, was also a men-on-a-mission ensemble effort, but it allowed its cast to build a rapport in a plot that had a streamlined sense of purpose with real weight. Suicide Squad feels hacked to pieces and carelessly stitched back together with whatever bits were easiest to pick back up. It’s airless cacophony, sloppily constructed out of competing impulses, less a movie, more a collection of moments indifferently assembled. It’s badly lit bad behavior trying very hard to be adolescent edgy, casually dropping PG-13 profanity and endless rounds of gunfire, random murder, and police brutality. The movie trades on images of cruelty and smarm, sexualizing or tokenizing its women and stereotyping its characters of color. It revels in unpleasant violence and mayhem, carrying on with machine gun assaults and squirmy intimidation, eventually introducing an army of faceless zombified citizens with craggy rock faces blown to bits in headshots and decapitations lovingly displayed. This may be the most violent PG-13 I’ve ever seen, not only for its explicit nastiness, but also for the general nihilistic spirit.
The heroes are villains – one of the intended Suicide Squad is the arbitrary nonsensical Big Bad – and the villains are heroes. And yet it’s a muddle with no true north on its moral compass. Good and bad don't mean anything. It features an assassin we’re to like because Will Smith is charming, and Viola Davis – our rooting interest, mind you – ruthlessly murdering innocent colleagues. Good guy Batman (Ben Affleck, making a stop between Batman v Superman and next year’s Justice League) briefly appears to punch a woman in the face. And Thirty Seconds to Mars’ frontman cameos as the Joker (surely among the most breathlessly overhyped performances in movie history), massacring dozens, but we’re supposed to go easy on him because he’s doing it for love (of the woman he’s abused). Some of the characters’ origin stories are so horrific – like Harley Quinn, a psychiatrist tortured to insanity by an inmate – that it’s sad to see them ground under the movie’s flippant approach. Robbie, a fine actress, is tasked with playing Harley as a walking quip in hot pants objectified in every frame, a difficult thing to reconcile with the coy references to her trauma. Yet still others go entirely uncharacterized, like the boomerang thrower who has a gargling Australian accent and that’s where his character traits end.
Because there’s no clear perspective beyond rank “ain’t I a stinker?” self-satisfaction and the whole thing grinds to an inevitable, if indifferently set up, conclusion of metropolitan carnage with a CG creature summoning apocalyptic beams of light shooting into the sky, nothing connects or makes an impact. There’s no sense of shape or momentum to the story. The team never makes sense as a unit, and the characters never come to life beyond whatever fleeting moments of personality the better actors can manage. In the early going, scenes are placed next to each other in what might as well be random order. By the time it settles down it’s dreary and predictable. It certainly doesn’t help how misjudged it is on every aesthetic level. The dialogue is flat and half-aware. The smeary cinematography is dim. The production design is like an explosion at a Hot Topic. It’s scored with a busted jukebox puking out snippets of obvious tunes (a bad attention-deficit copy of the Guardians of the Galaxy mixtape). The whole thing is one futile attempt after the next to make boring or baffling or distasteful moments something like entertainment. So loud and obnoxious, overstuffed and undercooked, it’s ultimately just tiring. It definitely puts the anti in anti-hero.