scene from Suicide Squad

Image courtesy Atlas Entertainment/
DC Comics/Warner Brothers

Suicide Squad

| published September 3, 2016 |

By Maggie Nichols, Thursday Review contributor

It may come as something of a shock to the sensibilities of many TR readers, but this summer’s big winner at the box office—so far—is Suicide Squad, the massive, $175 million Super Hero and Anti Hero action adventure yarn based on a dozen or more characters in the DC Comics universe.

That the movie has done better than most analysts expected, and that the film has essentially surpassed long awaited epic adventures like the dazzling Star Trek Beyond and the elaborate and expensive remake of Ben Hur may tell us something about star power, as well as the apparent popularity of comic book character incarnations on the big screen.

Out more than four weeks now, Suicide Squad has already taken-in more than $320 million in the U.S. and another $310 or more in other countries, meaning it is poised to end the summer more-or-less on top, though this is more the result of weaker than expected earnings by a dozen other big budget movies, including Independence Day and Jason Bourne, not to mention Star Trek Beyond. The high front-end cost of Suicide Squad also shows that big name stars still count: Will Smith alone cost the filmmakers somewhere north of $13 million; Jared Leto (as the Joker) took in a cool $7 million. Ben Affleck (as his now signature character, Batman) took in at least $9 million, plus a slice of the film’s profits). Many analysts suggest that Ben Hur’s relatively poor box office score is due in part to an all too obvious absence of big name stars (other than Morgan Freeman’s supporting role), and reliance instead on special effects and technical power.

Suicide Squad is this summer’s third major comic book big screen serial play, after Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse, both of which did well at the box office, and both of which showed that the cash power of comic book character and graphic novel franchises is still going strong.

So the government concocts a scheme in which a team of mega bad guys and super hardened criminals—each with their own special skill sets, and most of them already inside maximum security prisons—are assembled and trained to form the core of a new crack team of special ops under the command of the U.S. military. Their presumed missions will be so dangerous that it is understood that some of them, or all, could die. Thus the name “Suicide Squad,” though officially they are known as Task Force X.

This new mercenary team is made up of rogue hit men, explosives and kinetics experts, a murderous psychiatrist, mutants, former mobsters and other assorted semi-reformed badasses. Predictably, most members of the squad team have some small soft spot deep inside for doing the right thing, just as predictably, they all have some weakness which can be used as leverage for their cooperation as they convert from criminal hooliganism to government-sponsored semi-hero.

Directed by David Ayer, the film is colorful, noisy, and bloated with special effects and large explosions, not to mention an abundance of paranormal powers on the part of the genuine bad people. It is also entertaining enough to keep viewers transfixed, even as some of the plot twists and turns seem all-too-easily contrived. The cast is also well-deployed, with Will Smith as Deadshot, Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, James McGowan as Panda Man, Jai Courtney as Boomerang, Jay Hernandez as El Diablo, and Jared Leto as The Joker. Ben Affleck reprises his celebrated role as Batman/Bruce Wayne (though I have to admit strong preferences for Christian Bale and Michael Keaton in the role of the Dark Knight).

The short version is that the team must battle an evil enchantress who is in the early stages of enacting her complex and grand scheme to destroy humanity. In other words, their fight is for the future of the world, and this gives us an opportunity to watch as our disparate team of convicts and incorrigibles cooperate for the common good of the same people who want them to remain locked up for life. It is all a very nice idea on paper, and it must have looked good to the studio execs when the concept was pitched.

But the movie’s principle problem, as many critics and millions fans have pointed out, is that the plot is not only confusing and murky in many places, the film it is also poorly edited. Adding to those already formidable problems, there are too many subplots and entirely too many peripheral characters, making the already disjointed narrative even more fractured and murky. All of this flows together toward and ending which has been regarded as unsatisfactory to many fans, even those who otherwise liked the movie for its overall sizzle and pop and bang. In my humble moviegoer’s opinion, Suicide Squad simply tries to do too many things in one film.

Having said that, don’t accept my negative view of the plot problems as reason to dodge it altogether. Suicide Squad is worth a yuck, and is certainly worthy of seeing at the theater (as opposed to just waiting long enough until it pops up on your cable or satellite schedule or is available on Netflix) for its big screen effects and impressive action sequences. The question for hard core fans of the latest reboot series (which is to say after the retirement of Christian Bale as Batman, Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon, and the tragic death of Heath Ledger, who played a truly wicked Joker) is will Suicide Squad’s weaknesses sour the advancement of more installments in the new series.

Also, in my opinion, Jared Leto fills the role of the Joker so well that he just may establish himself as the ideal Joker, as effective in the part as his celebrated predecessors Jack Nicholson (a guy almost born to play the role of the demented troublemaker and purveyor of chaos) and Heath Ledger, who managed to make the part his very own.

I don’t believe in spoiling the plot, but suffice it to say that the bad-good-guys win the big epic fight at the end, which results in their peaceful returns to prison albeit with 10 years taken off their sentences and a variety of special favors granted for the heroic efforts. The Joker clearly has his own agenda, which means if he remains cast in that role we will see much more of him in the future.

The film also has a nugget at the end, a few minutes into the credits, in which Bruce Wayne encourages one of the key political officials to “shut down” the program in favor of letting the real heroes—like himself and his “friends”—handle the ugly business of battling evil. As likely a segue into the next sequel in the franchise as anything the writers could have ended with. Perhaps, too, a way to refocus the energy of the franchise and set us up for a future film in which Batman confronts The Joker in a less complicated plot.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Star Trek Beyond: Better Than its Slow Box Office Numbers; Maggie Nichols; Thursday Review; August 15, 2016.

Ben Hur: Revenge of the Digital Remake; Maggie Nichols; Thursday Review; August 24, 2016.