Squad Goals: A Review of “Suicide Squad”

So here’s the thing… I can sit through a movie and be hyper critical of every little detail, expounding at length on how unhealthy X relationship is or how statistically impossible a particular action sequence is. I’ve got two degrees that prove I know how to rip apart the meaning of a given text and present my own interpretation; and those of you who read my review of the new Ghostbusters have seen the evidence of that.
But a really good film can let you be a fan and be a critic at the same time. In my opinion, Suicide Squad is just such a movie—there are plenty of sociological and psychological issues presented by each of the characters, but at the end of the day it is one wicked fun ride. (Full disclosure: I have seen all of the live action Batman films, except for Batman vs. Superman—an oversight I will be correcting as soon as I am done with this review; I also watched the Batman cartoons in the early 90’s, the Superman cartoons in the early 90’s, the animated Superman: Doomsday, and Man of Steel. This is the extent of my DC Comics Universe knowledge.)
I’ll address the biggest elephant in the room for those of you who are DCEU fans: Jared Leto’s portrayal of the Joker. For me, his take was enjoyable if not particularly inspired or groundbreaking. While I loved the changes that Heath Ledger and Christopher Nolan brought to their interpretation of the character, Leto’s performance brought a nostalgic tear to my eye as he reminded me of a combination of Jack Nicholson’s Mafioso and Mark Hamill’s more animated psycho. He’s garish and cartoonish, but he also brings a surprising vulnerability to his performance—especially as the film makes it clear that he doesn’t function well without his better half. Clown Prince of Crime he may be, but he’s lost without his heart.
For those of you who are squeamish, let me make plain that an argument could be made that the manipulative, abusive, and codependent nature of the Harley x Joker romance is highly romanticized in the film; this assumption can be seen as natural given that all of the main characters in this film are villains, but that the director (who also wrote the script) clearly knows how to make these cold-hearted killers more than just two-dimensional tropes. Here are some things that the casual viewer seems to forget or gloss over when discussing the relationship:
• Before she becomes Harley Quinn, Harleen Quinzel is a psychiatrist who is in charge of treating the Joker while he is in Arkham. She’s not an innocent candy-striper or wide-eyed nurse, people. Presumably, she has gone through years of schooling and residencies to become a trained brain professional. When she walks into the cell where they conduct inmate therapy sessions, she knows that she is dealing with a stone-cold killer and psychopath. Any manipulation he’s pulling on her? You can guaran-damn-tee that she knows immediately what he is doing. She’s not a fool or a dupe. Also, there’s no rule stating that trained psychologists can’t also be sociopaths; given how swiftly she succumbs to the Joker’s persuasions, the odds are highly in favor of her having already exhibited criminal tendencies in her past (but she was clinging to or exploiting accepted social standard and mores in order to blend in with the average population).
• When he asks her to get him a machine gun… she has every opportunity to stop, think about his request, and then turn him down. Buying a single gun is difficult enough (both legally and illegally acquired), but buying a fully automatic weapon takes time and planning. Premeditation. She had plenty of time to consider the consequences, for herself and others, of obtaining a lethal weapon for a sociopath; she had time to consider what would result from her allowing him to escape from the asylum (because it’s a purely logical conclusion that the Joker will want freedom after gaining access to a firearm).
• She chose him. Repeatedly throughout the present timeline of the film and in the flashbacks, Harley chooses to be with the Joker. When he and his goons have her tied down and he’s threatening to hurt her, she taunts him and tells him that she “can take it”. The Joker doesn’t break her or turn her into his perfect little submissive with their impromptu electro-shock therapy session—evidenced by the fact that even after she believes that he is dead, she reunites with the rest of the team and willingly decides to help rather than perpetually wallow or try to kill herself—he gives her the option of joining him in his insanity, in not conforming to the accepted social “norms”. The Joker gives her choice after choice, and she consistently chooses him.
Further, Harley is not just some fawning sycophant, an annoying accessory, or useless arm candy—she’s just as ruthless as the Joker is, and she holds her own against the Enchantress’ mindless army. And while she may love him, in her own particularly twisted way, she isn’t afraid to live on after his supposed death; knowing that she’s free to escape without consequences, Harley returns to her Squad team members and is instrumental in stopping Enchantress. This despite expecting that she will be returned to her cell at Belle Reve criminal detention facility if they manage to survive the mission. She’ll miss her “puddin’”, but she’s a survivor. He’s the one who is an emotional wreck after she is captured and imprisoned, and it is only when he can start planning her escape that the Joker does more than curl up in a fetal position.
But in reality, it’s not the Joker or any of the other villains you need to fear at the end of the day… it’s the “good guys”; and this is where, in my opinion, the movie truly shines. When the film starts, we’re being introduced to the potential members of the team by a political power deal being brokered by the mysterious Amanda Waller. While she and the politicos she is trying to impress and manipulate into green-lighting her pet project are dining in high style, the various villains are being physically and psychologically tortured by the prison guards at Belle Reve: Floyd Lawton, aka the assassin Deadshot (a fantastic Will Smith, who delightfully returns to his “comic/badass with a heart of gold” roots here), is being fed what looks like glorified granola bars and being held down and beaten for verbally threatening an officer; El Diablo is contained in an aboveground section of what looks like the same sewer pipe they’re holding the Killer Croc in; Harley is force-fed her meals and a cocktail of psychotropic drugs through a feeding tube and is kept behind electrically-charged bars (her guards snap selfies with her while she’s strapped down and routinely catcall/slut shame her)… And while they may all be criminals with extra abilities—meta-humans, as Waller and her project leader/babysitter Rick Flag refer to them—it definitely should be grating against your conscience that any prisoners could be treated like this on American soil.
Because the real villain of this piece is what Waller represents: Government sanctioned psychopaths. I’m not referring to the soldiers on the ground in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, etc., but rather the people who give the orders for them to pull the trigger. And then give the order for that team to be killed to cover up the awful things done in the name of national security. Waller represents our worst nightmares about repressive government, but she also stands for some of the harsh realities of how to effectively deal with global terrorism. In a world where some people just want to watch the world burn, others have to step up and make the kinds of decisions for which war crime tribunals are convened. The film conveys this message very successfully, in my opinion, as most of Waller’s despicable actions are depicted either immediately before or after the portrayal of the various villains’ crimes. She may not be drag racing through Gotham with green hair and a gun, but Waller kills and acts with a stoic efficiency that truly terrifies. (Viola Davis’ acting here was crucial, and I thought that she did a phenomenal job; her “crazy” didn’t exhibit the pyrotechnics of Leto’s performance, or the playful pizzazz of Robbie’s, but her seeming normalcy makes her all the more horrific and dangerous.)
Margot Robbie and Joel Kinnaman both shine in their respective roles, managing to put in stand-out performances without over-playing or underwhelming. Robbie has the bigger and flashier role, always stealing the show in her scenes with Leto and making it look effortless; but while she captures the madcap joy most reminiscent of the character in the animated series (voiced by Arleen Sorkin), she also lets us see behind the mask to a woman who, at the end of the day, really is just a sucker for love. Kinnaman’s Flag acts as a great foil for Deadshot, being the good little soldier who got in too deep with the wrong person; he comes off as very self-righteous and more than a touch hypocritical, until his role in releasing Enchantress is revealed to the team. Kinnaman manages to make Flag appear physically lightened after this moment, stripping him down to a man who actually believes in the mission, willing to do what it takes to save the world even at great personal cost. Even if the heart he crushes is all computer effects, he makes Flag’s pain—and struggle with the decision to end the life of the woman he loves—incredibly genuine.
Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jay Hernandez, and Cara Delvigne all put in enjoyable performances as well (as does Jim Parrack of True Blood and Supernatural fame, playing the Joker’s fixer/right-hand man Frost). And while there’s plenty of room for improvement—and hopefully the building space for a sequel or spin-off or three—it was a great summer tent-pole kind of film. Awesome effects, incredible soundtrack, and an ensemble that puts the fun in dysfunctional. (8/10 Stars) –J.J.

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