Saturday, August 6, 2016

Review: "Suicide Squad" is awful, sexist, pandering, incoherent trash

I’m done.

I’m out. After only two films, the ‘DC Extended Universe’ of films, as they would like us to call it, has utterly beaten me into submission, and about five minutes before the end of Suicide Squad – perhaps the worst, most soulless, most oppressively incompetent Hollywood film I have ever paid to see in a theatre – I tapped out. I couldn’t take it. After the jaw-dropping awfulness of this Spring’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – a film where Batman murders everyone in sight, Superman admits to having zero enthusiasm for being a hero, Wonder Woman watches viral YouTube trailers for the other Justice League members on her laptop, and the incomprehensible plot revolves around a Lex Luthor so obnoxious he made my skin crawl – I honestly thought Warner Brothers and their DC Films division couldn’t sink any lower. How blissfully naïve I was. On every level, Suicide Squad is worse, a wretchedly produced, pandering disaster of a movie that made me actively long for the relative sanity and baseline cinematic competence of Batman v Superman. No movie has ever made me itch to walk out of the theatre more intensely than this, but whether out of sheer pride or spite, I tried my best to stick with it to the end. I couldn’t. A little before the credits rolled, after sitting through the silliest, stupidest CGI barf explosion of a climax I’ve ever seen in a comic-book movie, and just as the 453rd overexposed pop song started on the soundtrack, my will gave out. I threw up my hands in defeat, and walked out (alongside, I should note, the similarly frustrated twenty-something couple sitting next to me).

Maybe I’m weak. Maybe I’m getting older and bitterer and my tolerance for films that give its audience a giant middle finger in exchange for their paid admission has eroded. But I’m done. I’ve given WB and their awful, insulting attempt at making DC films a ‘thing’ far too much of my time, attention, and money, and after this article, I’m tapping out for good. I’d love to be excited for a Justice League movie, but after seeing the way this group of filmmakers views iconic characters like Batman, I can only approach it with active dread. It would feel so great to be enthusiastic about the Wonder Woman movie, but after seeing how despicably DC has treated women in both their movies this year – especially here in Suicide Squad, which plumbs depths of objectification and misogyny so low it would make Michael Bay blush in shock – I just can’t brush away my distrust. It would be like Republicans – anti-choice, opposed to equal pay, willfully ignorant of women’s healthcare and economic issues – nominating the first female President instead of the Democrats. Sure, it would still be historic – as is the creation of Wonder Woman, Hollywood’s first major female-led superhero movie – but coming from a studio seemingly filled with sexist louts, who obviously view women the same way as a teenager discovering porn for the first time, my confidence is hardly high.

Continue reading after the jump...

But I digress. Suicide Squad is, as I said, soul-crushingly awful, and the sense of despair kicks in early on, as the film wastes little time introducing us to its uniquely garbled style of editing and sound design. Every scene is chopped up to the point of incoherence, from the first sequence to the last, cut without regard for any sense of visual or spatial clarity. You don’t need reports like this one in The Hollywood Reporter to quickly figure out something is amiss – that the first two scenes feel like they’re out of place, clips from later in the movie inexplicably transplanted to serve as a confusing non-sequitur of an opening, or to tell that performances that probably relied on context and duration (such as Jared Leto’s much-hyped Joker) have been cut to smithereens in sequences that have been robbed of all pauses and silences, sped up to play at a hyperactive pace they so obviously were not designed for.

The film’s musical choices make it all exponentially worse. Largely scored with an endless parade of on-the-nose pop songs – many of which are heard, in the exact same context, in the film’s many trailers and TV spots – the first act in particular never gets to build any sense of pace or forward momentum, as each individual scene or character introduction brings with it a new needle drop, each one more obvious and pandering than the last, all loud and unnecessary, obscuring dialogue and often running at tonal odds with the visual or verbal language of a scene. Along with a truly dreadful score by Steven Price – yes, the same Steven Price who two years ago won a well-deserved Oscar for Gravity – one that is just as loud, relentless, and tonally one-note as the pop songs it accompanies, the music absolutely destroys any sense of atmosphere the film tries to construct, rendering the occasional striking image or interesting character design as quick, meaningless interludes in a series of increasingly awful music videos.

The film’s musical inspirations are clear. Suicide Squad desperately wants to be Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, down to its ludicrous and incomprehensible plot being structured to hit the same character beats at the same approximate times, albeit without a soul to make anything feel organic. That is especially true when it comes to the pop soundtrack. In Guardians, the pop songs were used carefully. For one, they all came from a similar era and therefore had a similar sonic and tonal identity. More importantly, they were all of diegetic origin, tied to protagonist Peter Quill’s childhood loss and trauma, extending naturally from the characters rather than existing from without. Suicide Squad – which even copies one of the Guardians needle drops in “Spirit in the Sky” – understands none of this, dropping pop songs from all eras and styles everywhere, sometimes commenting obviously on the characters, but never emanating naturally from what we see on screen.

The result is irritating, and combined with the absolutely abysmal editing, the movie can only operate in fits and starts, every scene essentially hitting a tonal or sonic reset button, with zero sense of flow or momentum from one moment to the next. It doesn’t help that the writing gives us nothing to latch on to, its sense of character thin at best – the so-called ‘arc’ for Will Smith Deadshot is laughably rote – its sense of pace and purpose virtually nonexistent. It is so hard for me to understand many of the creative choices on display here, with the plot essentially boiling down to Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller forming the eponymous team – Task Force X – for no clear reason and with no obvious threat in mind, only for one key member of that team – Enchantress, an ancient witch, which is exactly as ridiculous as it sounds – to go rogue and force the team into action. That’s not a good plot. That would be like if The Avengers started with Tony Stark rounding everyone up just because he thinks it might be nice for them to get together, inexplicably putting Loki on the team, and then acting surprised when Loki decides to wreak havoc, thus necessitating the need for The Avengers. The only reason Task Force X is needed in Suicide Squad is because Task Force X is created in the first place, and that’s a mind-numbingly stupid narrative paradox the film seems willfully unaware of.

Not that this plot is particularly clear in the first place. The film’s first act is a long, seemingly unending series of character introductions, flashbacks, and halfhearted origin stories, all of which keep the team separate rather than introducing them in tandem with one another and striving to build the chemistry necessary to make a film like this work. The second act is a mind-numbing marathon of poorly choreographed and shot action sequences, all of which boil down to the protagonists firing lots and lots of ammunition at a bunch of nondescript CGI baddies, none of which has any consequences (the Squad’s helicopter is shot down and they all walk away unscathed in about a minute flat, with the carnage never to be mentioned again), and none of which allows the characters any room for individual development, let alone interpersonal communication. The third act – a standard “stop the glowing MacGuffin over there on that roof” climax, only realized much more poorly than you’ve ever seen it before – tries to convince us these characters had personality or evolution, but when Jay Hernandez’s Diablo declares that this team is his new family, I could only muster a derisive chuckle. When two of those five family members have had barely ten lines between them – Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s Killer Croc and Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang – you’ll excuse me if I don’t exactly sense the warm feels.

It’s a shame, because the thing is, I really would like to get to know these characters. Through the messy editing, mindless gunfire, and oppressive pop soundtrack, slivers of good performances consistently shine through. Will Smith, who could so easily be phoning something like this in at this point in his career, is really giving it his all, and I would gladly watch him play Deadshot in a better movie that made better use of his considerable charm and talents. Similarly, Jay Hernandez, Joel Kinnaman, and even Jai Courtney – who has never had this much charisma or screen presence, even if the movie only intermittently remembers he exists – manage to stand out amidst the general din, and while Viola Davis seems extremely bored to be in this movie (I would be too), a bored Viola Davis is still inherently awesome, and so I couldn’t help wishing her take on Amanda Waller wasn’t being wasted in something this awful.

And then there’s Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. Where to begin. This character simultaneously represents everything that is promising and everything that is disgusting about the movie. Robbie is all in, and she’s got Harley’s voice and energy down pat – only to be stuck playing director David Ayer’s porn star teenage fantasy version of the character, scantily clad, shot for maximum objectification at all times, and in one scene, literally playing the role of go-go dancer at Joker’s nightclub. And I don’t want to hear how it’s okay because Harley is aware of her sexuality and uses it to her advantage to gain an upper hand on men. That’s just couching toxic sexism in slightly more flattering terms, while still reducing all conversation about the film’s female lead to her role as a sex object.

I love Harley Quinn. I think she is the most unique and interesting creation to come out of the worlds of DC or Marvel in over thirty years, and when used well, I think she is absolutely one of the all-time great comic-book characters. In the iconic Batman: The Animated Series, she was the only character who could go toe-to-toe with Mark Hamill’s Joker and steal the scene away from him, who could be funny and complex within that relationship and a dozen others (her strange friendship with Poison Ivy would eventually become just as important as her unrequited love for Mr. J).

But the character I see in this movie is, fundamentally, not Harley Quinn. Harley may be initially defined by her relationship with the Joker, but to me, she was always more than that, and the fact that her love was always unrequited – to the Hamill Joker, Harley was always just one of his goons, not a serious object of romantic interest (because why, after all, would the Joker have the capacity to love?) – gave her room to grow and be dynamic as an individual. In viewing the Joker/Harley romance as genuine, fully requited, and even aspirational – in a 90s-style, Hot Topic emo culture sort of way, where taking a dive into a vat of chemicals can be played like contemporary Shakespeare – David Ayer proves he simply doesn’t get it. In focusing more on Margot Robbie’s ass or breasts than her actual performance, he also proves he cares less about Harley as a character than as jerk-off material for 16-year-old boys.

Oh, and why is nobody talking about the scene where Batman punches Harley Quinn in the face to knock her out cold, throws her in the trunk of the Batmobile, and then leans in and violent kisses her on the lips while she’s out cold? Yeah. This is a movie where Batman sexually assaults Harley Quinn, coming on the heels of a film where Batman brands criminals so they’ll be beaten to death in prison. Remind me why I’m supposed to be excited for Justice League again?

As for Jared Leto’s Joker, I have simultaneously so much to say and so little. He is barely in the movie – I didn’t time them, but his scenes can’t total more than ten minutes, and probably not even that – and in the brief snippets we get of him, it’s impossible to get a read on his interpretation of this character. Sometimes, as in the aforementioned nightclub scene, he goes so over-the-top with things it makes Jack Nicholson and Ceaser Romero’s takes look subtle. In other moments, such as the chemical diving flashback, he is oddly restrained and seductive. But his scenes are the most poorly edited in the entire movie, his performance clearly cut to shreds on the editing room floor in sequences that are choppy and garbled. Maybe, if we got to see these scenes in full, Leto’s performance would impress. Maybe it wouldn’t. But by promoting him so heavily in the marketing, and by making him a relatively important background figure in the film’s narrative, Ayer and company owe it to us (and to Leto) to actually let that performance shine through, and they don’t. As it stands, it would have been better to cut him out of the movie entirely, leaving the Joker as a mysterious figure on the fringes of the film’s diegesis, rather than this half-and-half approach where he is both showing up everywhere and never allowed to become a character in his own right.

Whatever’s been done to Leto’s performance makes me wonder why he’d ever agree to reprise the role, and it’s a question I have for every actor who participated in this movie. Why would thespians with as much skill and demand as Will Smith or Viola Davis, or as much promise and potential as Margot Robbie, ever return when they were so thoroughly underserved – or, in Robbie’s case, grossly objectified – the first time around? Maybe they all saw something in this project at some point along the way, but the finished product is an insulting mess, to both their work and to the audience, and I struggle to think of a reason why any self-respecting actor would agree to return to a franchise that treated them so poorly.

The same goes for any self-respecting audience member. This is two films in a row where DC has delivered an awful, muddled mess, made without regard for narrative clarity, meaningful character work, or in this case, basic cinematic competency. There is obviously a hunger to see DC’s characters done right on screen. I understand that desire. I would love to see a great modern take on Superman, would love to see a Batman universe where characters like Deadshot and Harley Quinn could exist in live-action. But this is not what I’m looking for, and if this satisfies you, you’re selling yourself and your worth as a filmgoer short. Warner Brothers and DC do not respect you as an audience member, on any level or in any way. Why should you give them the time of day, let alone your paid admission?

It wasn’t that long ago that WB superhero films aspired to something greater, that WB could hire a genuine artist like Christopher Nolan, with actual artistic and thematic interests in a character like Batman, to make their comic-book movies. It was only eight years ago that The Dark Knight erupted as one of the best films of its decade, winning what remains the only acting Oscar for a performer in a comic-book movie, and utterly reshaping the landscape of the modern blockbuster. It was only four years ago that The Dark Knight Rises could seem like a relative creative disappointment, even as its ambition and craftsmanship demanded real attention and discussion. How far WB and DC have fallen. Now, Batman murders people and sexually assaults beloved fan characters. Now, darkness and nihilism pervades everything, with abusive relationships seen as aspirational, and oodles of gunfire viewed as the height of cinematic thrills. Craftsmanship and vision has given way to awful made-by-committee editing, real ideas having soured into false character arcs and meaningless CGI garbage. When Christopher Nolan brought Batman back from the dead in 2005, after the dark days of Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, we thought the Caped Crusader’s worst days were far behind him. How naïve we were. The worst was yet to come, and now he’s dragged dozens of other promising characters down alongside him. For a time, DC on film used to mean something. Now, it means nothing.

I’m done.