This will be a review of both the theatrical Suicide Squad movie and the animated version.
Suicide Squad is ok.
Assault on Arkham is good.
Now, those of you who are in the mood for way too many words written about comic book adaptations, read on. First we’ll start with the newly released Suicide Squad theatrical film.
Suicide Squad is a chopping, incoherent mess that manages to be entertaining and even interesting in parts. It’s not terrible and I would suggest it to anyone over a certain age. It’s a PD 13 movie but there are some 13 year olds who probably shouldn’t see it without an informed adult with them. And that means one that’s seen the movie and thought about it.
It has good stuff in it. It’s diverse without being ‘about’ diversity. It’s got action. It’s sexy. The special effects in places is pretty impressive. The Enchantress comes off as spooky (and a little goofy, wiggling around at the end) compared to Marvel’s Scarlet Witch. There’s good character development and this is the best Joker movie I’ve ever seen. Sure, it has the worst daughter in history (Seriously, Deadshot’s daughter is black Sansa Stark) and Captain Boomerang basically does nothing at all but even they don’t ruin the movie. It has a vision, a little murky and disjointed but it’s way better than anything Zach Snyder has done since Watchmen.
Gossip time. Stories about edits and re-edits and re-re-edits and possibly more ‘re’s in there as well seem to be true. The gossip is that after Batman V Superman made money but got little respect, the risk-adverse suits at DC/Warner Brothers got panicky. Since Deadpool and Guardians of the Galaxy showed humor and action could work big time, they took David Ayer’s dark, (allegedly) slow, turgid first cut and started monkeying with it. One of the monkeys was the editing house Trailer Park, who apparently were brought in to edit the entire movie. James Gilroy is the credited editor but there’s been a LOT of work done on the movie after he apparently left the project. What we’re getting is apparently the Trailer Park edit, which did the best in test screenings.
Ok, enough gossip, at this point, why the movie is a mess is more a curiosity. The real question is, will it affect your enjoyment of the movie? Well, yeah, it probably will. It’s not as bad as the bizzare jump edits of Batman V Superman, but the sequences and flashbacks cause confusion. Once the movie settles down into a scene, the individual scenes themselves kinda work. The plot is a mess and stupid besides. I’ll look at how that could have/should have been fixed near the end of the review. But we should talk a little about the plot as it is.
Plot: Superman is ‘dead’ and the US government is worried about the next big invading alien or whatever. They have no good guys they can rely on (though there’s no sign of them trying to work with any established heroes), so one of the world’s top supervillains, Amanda Waller, convinces a bunch of military folks to allow her to recruit a bunch of criminals she supposedly can control through blackmail and threats to murder them. One of the first she ‘recruits’ is a possessed “Archaeologist”* who is the host for a 7,000 year old witch/demigod called The Enchantress. Her control over her is by controlling the witches heart, which she keeps in a briefcase and seems to be her only weakness. She then recruits a bunch of other criminals. When the Enchantress bolts to free her similarly-trapped brother, The Incubus, and tries to take over the world (yes, really), the criminals are unleashed to take down…the other villain Amanda Waller recruited. Huh. Which they do. The Joker is also in the movie. But not in the plot.
Can you spot the dumb there? Did you see what I left out? The plot is bad but it could be workable but the plot is only part of the problem. What I left out was a listing of all the other characters. So let’s list them now.
- The Enchantress/ Archeologist June Moone
- The Incubus – The Enchantress’s brother and possibly lover
- Harley Quinn
- Killer Croc
- Captain Boomerang
- Slipknot – briefly
- Diablo – also known as El Diablo
- The Joker
- Master Sergeant Rick Flag
- And the real villain of the piece, Amanda Waller
But let’s compare that to the cast list for Assault on Arkham. That wasn’t convoluted and it didn’t have too many characters. Again, just focusing on speaking part roles who impact the plot.
- Harley Quinn
- King Shark
- Captain Boomerang
- Black Spider
- Killer Frost
- The Joker
- The Penguin – one scene
- KGBeast – briefly
- The Riddler
- And the monster in human form, Amanda Waller
You see, due to the way Suicide Squad was written and edited, most of the characters are introduced multiple times. Each is given several minutes of backstory, usually in a flashback scene, but also in an expository lecture usually delivered by Amanda Waller to some military officer. Furthermore, then character introductions are scattered throughout the first half of the movie. It’s not all ‘boom and done’ in one big infodump. Infodumps are not elegant, but they can get the job done and when you’re dealing with a large cast, you gotta be efficient. Not just in how you introduce the characters but in how you use them. And that’s where Suicide Squad screwed up.
Because, you can’t (or shouldn’t) do a superhero movie where you spend half the movie just introducing the characters. That’s what Ang Lee’s Hulk movie did and it was terrible. At some point, you need to trust your audience. You don’t need to tell them ‘Deadshot is the best assassin in the world’, then have someone else tell them the exact same thing, then have the character demonstrate their ‘power’ (which is really just extreme accuracy. It’s not even really a super power) in a set up scene. Pick one, either tell us what their power is, or (better) just show them in action. Action related to the plot, ideally.
In Assault on Arkham, each villain got a 30 second intro. We see them committing some crime or being discovered (King Shark’s scene is particularly horrific) and them being arrested. Boom, done. Now that style may not be what David Ayer was going for, that’s fine. And you can spend more than 30 seconds, -Assault on Arkham might be a bit too fast paced in areas, due to budget reasons- but you introduce the characters, you set up the situation, then you show the audience the characters interacting and solving problems together.
But back to Suicide Squad. There is a good movie here, I think. But it wasn’t fully realized. Margot Robbie NAILED Harely Quinn, just got the character perfect, exactly like the cartoon brought to life. Will Smith did a pretty good job with Deadshot, he didn’t really capture the character but he was charming and charm goes a long way. Viola Davis did a good job playing a despicable human being, Amanda Waller. Jared Leto, to my surprise, was so good as Joker, I wanted to see more of him. I’d watch a full movie of Joker and Harley, seriously, make that happen, DC. Even the plot could work, if only as a cautionary tale AGAINST the concept of having a Suicide Squad. El Diablo was genuinely sympathetic and a good guy.
Now I could, with time and effort, recite the full plot of the movie and go point by point over what was wrong and why. But honestly, I have a job. :) But what I want to do is explore how this movie could have been good, instead of just ok.
First, everyone needs to have something to do. Slipknot is just there to die, but the audience shouldn’t know that. In the animated movie, each villain got equal time in their introduction. Do that here as well, introduce everyone all at once and let it be a little surprise who’s going to die. Put Slipknot on the movie poster. Better yet, he should have a plot-critical role. Maybe his climbing ‘power’ is going to be used to get into the building to rescue the VIP. So when he gets killed by Waller when he tries to escape, it makes the mission harder. There should be a cost to everything. Same with the Joker. He needs to DO something related to the plot. He can’t work with the Squad, he’s too crazy and impossible to control, but if the government needs something from him, and they have his girlfriend…suddenly they have leverage over the Joker, for the first time.** Of course, involving Joker to get his help causes problems, he sabotages the Squad for giggles and helps Harley escape.
Katana needs to be removed. Or, if she is needed for future movies, have her in jail for murder. Sure, justifiable vigilante murder, but that’s still a crime. Boom, she’s a bad guy now, too. One who despises being trapped with criminals, same as with Black Spider in the animated movie. Maybe he sword can actually hurt The Enchantress and it only will work for her. Fine, she’s in after all.
Rick Flagg needs to have something different to do. He doesn’t work as a controlling authority figure. He just doesn’t. So we get rid of him as being ‘in charge’ of the Squad and at the same time, we get rid of all the soldiers that accompanied them. The movie is about the Suicide Squad, it should stay focused on them. But he can still be in the movie? How? As an undercover double agent. You can keep all his backstory, I think his romance with June Moone/The Enchantress didn’t work in the movie, but maybe it could be made to be so. That means you have a good guy surrounded by bad guys who has to fit in with them. That’s good tension. And inevitably, they will discover who he is and that can cause some serious drama too. But not too soon, because the team needs to bond and gel. Amanda Waller works as a heavy on her own. Have the implant allow her to hear what everyone says, have her mount cameras on everyone so she can see, Aliens-style, what they see. She should be the remote control villain anyway.
That was another problem with the movie, though it wasn’t apparent to most people, I guess. They just noticed it was odd how everyone got along and a few people might have wondered why someone who is shown backstabbing (yes, literally) a fellow thief in the back, is going along and not being a backstabbing prick. The fact is, they villains don’t actually help each other much. They need to . They should start out being guarded, even at each other’s throats. Inter-group tension is good. Overcoming it and bonding as a team is gold. The fighting against faceless eyeball monsters can serve a purpose, though I’d change the character design. But the fighting can put each team member in danger and if they take turns helping each other and getting better and better at fighting them as a team, that’s a way for us to like and bond with them as well. Let Deadshot be the team leader, just like in cartoon. I think Will Smith could have handled that. Then, just as the group is seemingly solid, in comes the Joker to throw a wrench into it. Harley is rescued. Captain Boomarang actually leaves when he’s given the chance. Like gone for a while, maybe he joins the Joker or he’s just chasing Harley’s ass. But Harley and Boomerang need to go. Suddenly, it seems less likely that they’ll succeed. The villains have to dig deep and decide if they’re willing to be heroes, at least in some way, to go face the big bad guy. And, here’s your true climax of the movie, Harley and Boomerang GO BACK to help.
This is actually a way for Suicide Squad to be better than the animated movie. In Assault on Arkham, the villains do in fact stay true to their natures, they turn on each other and go their own way first chance they get. That doesn’t happen in Suicide Squad but it isn’t handled well.
You see, someone compelled to be a hero isn’t one. Can’t be one. Heroism involves sacrifice. Harley has to leave her ‘Puddin’ to help her new friends. Boomerang has to redeem his selfish jerkass self. And there has to be a cost, there has to be a sacrifice. To its credit, Suicide Squad does have some of that. El Diablo, the most likable of the villians and the one with the biggest character arc, does sacrifice himself as does a SEAL to kill (?) Incubus.
So how do we fix it?
Well, assuming we have to keep the plot and characters we’ve been provided with, here’s my suggestions. Amanda Waller is trying to get permission for her Suicide Squad, now that Superman is dead. The military is reluctant but they also like contingency plans, so they say go ahead and set it up. We get introduction scenes for each of the villains. Each of them gets two minutes to show them being bad guys and getting caught. Some may get caught by Batman or the Flash, some by cops, some by military types. El Diablo may even get snatched AFTER he turns himself in to the cops. We see a quick montage of everyone getting injections or collars for the explosives/bug. Amanda Waller introduces herself via camera and tells them they’ve all been drafted into the Suicide Squad. Fifteen minutes in, and all introductions have been done and we had some quick action to keep audience attention.
Next, someone higher ranking comes to Amanda. They want a demo of her project, proof of concept. Take out the Joker, they suggest. Now Waller has a problem, to prove herself and her team. She selects The Enchantress, thinking it will be a drop kick. Joker is stealing some cool artifacts, one of which is the Incubus statue. They fight and she wins pretty easily but he has the statue. She recognizes it. She does some mind thing to him, via magic, to see what he wants and sees Harley and recognizes her from the intro. She offers to tell him where Harley is in return for the statue. He agrees. She takes the statue and bolts. We need Joker to be part of the plot and this is one way to do it. (I can think of a few ways to involve him in the plot but this is just one of the first that popped into my head)
Now Amanda Waller has a big, big problem. Her demonstration just went sideways. She tries to kill The Enchantress but that doesn’t work. She needs to take the Enchantress down…and she can’t let anyone else know she screwed up. Cue the Suicide Squad. This is also where we introduce the Rick Flag character, not as a criminal though. He’s still The Enchantress/June Moone’s lover and she thinks he’s the only way to get close to The Enchantress. The Suicide Squad has to keep him alive and get him to the Enchantress. I like the VIP rescue twist from the movie but not enough to justify the setups and screen time we’d need to spend on it. This keeps the plot streamlined and it gives us a ‘normal’ guy’s view of all these crazy killers. Now everyone is face to face, it’s time for some group conflict and drama. You put bad guys together and they all have to establish the pecking order.
The Squad is flown into the city The Enchantress and Incubus are taking over. She’s turning everyone into zombies or something supernatural, creating her own army, etc. She’s way up on top of some skyscraper and they will need Slipknot’s help getting up there without having to fight an army of faceless goons. The helicopter goes down, as in the movie. Slipknot and Boomerang try to run. Slipknot gets killed by Waller. Suddenly, the job just got harder. Now they have to fight through a possessed city while keeping Flag safe. The fights don’t go smoothly, in fact the Squad will get a chance to show off their abilities but they are also getting swarmed. Several times, team members will get in trouble and need to be saved by other Squad members. This doesn’t make them friends immediately but it’s a start.
Here we have a good sequence of scenes as they try to get to skyscraper. The Squad starts working as a team and they start getting pretty good at this. Time for the Joker to reappear. He shows up in the city with his crew of animal head killers and they start making a bee line for Harley. Joker, being the mad genius he sometimes is, has a jammer for the bombs and cameras. And, unlike the Squad, he doesn’t care about the city being taken over. He might even find it amusing. Here is where you put in the bar scene. The squad takes a break to get their drink on. Boomerang maybe hits on Harley instead of Katana. In fact, Katana and Deadshot make a better pairing and they can compare how they view each other, as samurai vs assassin.
Time for the Joker to find Harley. He deactivates everyone’s collars, for shits and giggles or maybe as a way of trying to get their assistance going after Waller. More threats or problems for her isn’t a bad thing, even if they don’t pan out. May even set up sequels. Harley leaves with him, happily. And Boomerang bolts at the first chance he gets, being true to his selfish nature. Suddenly the Squad is down two members and another one, El Diabo, is maybe still moping over using his powers. Maybe he used them once to save someone, maybe Deadshot, but then stopped himself, horrified. El Diablo’s a good character and his story arc should be preserved. Now though, it’s decision time. Everyone has to debate if they should bring Flag to the skyscraper or not. Flag should be willing, even without having any powers. Katana is also going to go, the good samurai. Croc sticks with them, these people might be the first to ever treat him decently. Finally, they all do decide to be the heroes. Reduced in size, they fight their way up the skyscraper floors. Waller, meanwhile, is shitting herself. She’s trapped. She can try to get help, try to get away, try to blackmail someone but it’s too late for her to get out of this. Her only chance of a career is in the hands of the Suicide Squad she created.
Now we switch back to Harley. She has everything she wanted but…she realizes that she can’t just fly off with her boyfriend. She has to choose to go back. Boomerang too. The Joker doesn’t get it but maybe he comes too. For laughs. What could be funnier than The Joker helping save the world?
The final fight comes. Here, again, we have El Diablo sacrifice himself to kill Incubus. During the fight, Flag is pleading with the Enchantress, maybe even getting her to waver and maybe…maybe he’s about to succeed when Incubus dies. That shocks the Enchantress enough to stop talking and fiddling around with her spell and start fighting the heroes herself. This really, really doesn’t go well for the Squad with El Diablo out of the picture. But Harley, Joker and Boomerang all show up to save the day. Joker has the knowledge of the little magic statues, Harley and Boomerang deliver it. The Enchantress is trapped again inside a little statue. That preseves her again for future films, but maybe that comes at a cost as well. Maybe Rick has to sacrifice himself or June does, or both.
Tragedy and triumph, the FBI shows up to capture some or most of the squad. Waller is saved, which gives her a chance to voluntarily do something nice for each of the captives, rather than making it a stupid wish list as in the current movie. That’s not probably perfect, with some more time and editing, I could refine the story some but there’s your basic Suicide Squad movie, remastered. No flashbacks or very very few. A simple, liberal plot that has lots of complications, drama, conflict and shots at redemption. Everyone has something to do, a reason for being there and you have a shot at surprising people a little.
Big budget vs small budget. Or Batman: Assault on Arkham vs Suicide Squad
Despite the title, Batman has very little to do*** in Assault on Arkham. It really is a Suicide Squad movie done right. In it, the Squad is introduced and assembled in minutes. Waller demonstrates her power and ruthlessness and the characters are sent on a ticking time clock plot to break into Arkham. There are doublecrosses, murders, backstabbing and teamwork, sex and affection, vengeance and madness. Seriously, it’s cheap, go check it out.
And when I mean cheap, I mean that if this movie cost 2 million dollars, I’d be amazed. The animation quality is good, not great, but good enough. It’s the writing and acting (yes, voice acting counts) that carries it. A well-written movie will carry any number of flaws. A good script is the best bang for your buck that any studio can get. But maybe that’s part of why Assault on Arkham is so good and why Suicide Squad is just…ok. Stakes. Suicide Squad cost $175 million to produce, likely another 100 million to market it. That’s a lot of pressure. It’s like shooting a 1” group at 5 yards at the range. No problem. But now change that to having to shoot out the eye of someone holding your wife hostage. Stakes go up. Stress goes up. Now add people shouting advice, insults, second guessing you. Suddenly that easy shot is almost down to luck as much as skill.
Suicide Squad is under immense pressure to succeed. Some of that pressure is, indeed, self-inflicted. DC wants to be making Marvel studios money but without wanting to spend the years and money Marvel has invested in it’s cinematic universe. And Batman V Superman made money but that’s all. And it didn’t make Avengers money and never will. Back to gossip, David Ayer apparently turned in a dark, slow moving movie. With some good performances and with a lot of side tangents. So the studio, Warner Brothers, ordered re-shoots and started re-editing the movie. Basically they were trying to remake the Guardians of the Galaxy combined with Deadpool. What they SHOULD have been doing was looking at their own animation department. I’m pretty sure Ayer did. There are some beats in both movies that are almost identical. Killer croc is almost identical to how King Shark was depicted. Harley is sexually aggressive in both movies. They’re different, I’m not saying Ayer ripped off Assault on Arkham. Maybe he should have, but he didn’t.
So the executives meddled. They may not have been wrong to, I’m not even saying that. Another dark, depressing movie – especially after the trailers made the movie look like a fun, jokey action movie- might have killed off the entire franchise. That’s a lot of canceled movies. But they didn’t go back to the script. They went to the editing table and there’s a lot you can do there, but you can’t do everything. And what we ended up with is a Suicide Squad movie that was basically ruined. Not toxic, not painful but it’s not as good as it could have been.
Still, go see it. It’s fun in places, sexy in a way none of the Marvel movies have been, Viola Davis, Margot Robbie and Will Smith are solid. But also go buy Batman: Assault on Arkham. There’s a good Suicide Squad movie out there. It just came out in 2014.
*Seriously, what archeologist finds an ancient statue and just twists its head off? Indiana Jones showed more respect for the artifacts he ‘raided’.
** This was one of the best surprises of the movie. The Joker actually seemed to care about something other than having a boner for Batman. He cared about Harley, Harley cared about him. Sick and twisted, sure, but characters who care and inherently more interesting than characters that don’t.
*** Though he is involved and does have vital things to do in the plot, he isn’t the main character.