Let’s take stock of the DC Extended Universe so far. And by that I really mean let me tell you what I think about these movies. I loved Man of Steel while acknowledging that it has problems. I did not care for the theatrical cut of Batman v Superman, but I thought the extended cut was a much better film; one I would go so far as to say that I kind of liked. The point being, DC was at worst 1 for 2 for me (at best 1.5 for 2), which is by no means an awful place to be. I still like DC, and I still am excited for DC movies. I was especially interested in Suicide Squad. Not only would it be a good change of pace to see what someone other than Zack Snyder could do with characters set in this world (this film was written and directed by David Ayer); but the marketing campaign also just made this movie seem like it was going to be a bombastic blast of fun in a way few superhero movies actually are.
So how did it turn out? Admittedly it’s a bit more of a mixed bag than I wanted, but it’s by no means awful. Similar to this summer’s Ghostbusters, Suicide Squad is a flick that straddles a unique line between good and bad filmmaking. But whereas that movie was the cinematic counterpart of store-brand vanilla ice cream; this flick is like a sundae* that someone threw too many different toppings on without any restraint or sense of what might actually taste good. That is to say it doesn’t work as well as you want it to, and it’s clearly lacking in a sense of balance and proportion, but you can’t accuse it of being a dull experience.
Earlier this week I came across this article, which reported that Suicide Squad evidently went through a somewhat tumultuous re-edit following the mixed-negative reception to Batman v Superman. According to the article, there were two competing cuts for this movie as of a few months ago: one that was a bit more serious (the cut David Ayer originally intended for) and one that was a bit more lighthearted. The studio supposedly threw together a hybrid version of these two takes at something approximating the eleventh hour, and the rushed editing shows, particularly at the beginning.
Similar to Batman v Superman, this is a movie that jumps around quite a bit through its first act. There are a great many character introductions and flashbacks and allusions to future DC movies shoved in — some of it in questionable order — and unfortunately it comes across as clunkier than it should. In particular, the central conflict and antagonist for this film is set up very weakly and in a very rushed fashion, with nothing approximating motivation or a coherent plan apart from “I’m evil and I want to destroy the world.” Clearly some scenes that would have elaborated on this were left on the cutting room floor. There’s also quite a bit of pop music in this first part of the movie, arguably too much. I have heard some say that this is another sign of last-minute editing, as a composer likely wouldn’t have had time to write and sync original music to a new cut of the film. I have nothing against pop music, and some of it is quite good; but there’s just so much of it at the beginning, and it becomes somewhat distracting. Probably the most annoying aspect about this first act of the picture, though, is that for some reason, despite how much talk there is about the idea of assembling villains together into a task force, this doesn’t happen until the very end of the act, which is much later than I think is appropriate for this team to unite. I don’t feel we should have to wait so long to get to the parts we came to the movie for.
In short, this first part of the film is kind of an underpowered mess and arguably bears the brunt of the consequences of last minute editing, sacrificing a good deal of flow for the sake of an iffy, jumpy, light-hearted, pop music-soundtrack approach. But even in this mess there are interesting elements. By that I mean the anti-villains we get introduced to are really captivating people despite their introductions all being squashed together into too short a span of time. This rogues gallery of DC villains is certainly an intriguing lot; and there are enough good moments thrown in here to hold you over, both in this first act and for the rest of the film.
Let’s talk about these characters for a bit. Will Smith as Deadshot, for example, is very fun to watch and definitely one of the cooler comic book characters to make it to the big screen. The actor clearly put a lot of effort into the role, bringing his trademark Will Smith bravado and snark in full force. As for Harley Quinn, yes, she’s amazing. Margot Robbie got her character down to a “t”. She’s silly and quirky and the most colorful anti-hero both figuratively and literally; and she certainly deserves her own solo outing. Of course, the Joker is also in this movie. Played by Jared Leto, his is a version that I really enjoy; combining the youthful vigor and psychopathy of Heath Ledger’s approach with the classic gangster-gone-nuts aspect of Jack Nicholson’s interpretation. The result is a happy medium that also feels completely new unto itself. Unfortunately, the Joker is relegated to a supporting character in this movie, appearing either in flashbacks or in a weird side story, but contributing very little to the main plot. While that makes sense for this story — indeed, no one who was following this film’s production should really be surprised by that — it does mean that Leto doesn’t get as much screen time or play as big a role as you might want in the picture; at least in this cut. I assume he’ll be in the next Batman movie, though, and I’m looking forward to seeing him in that. Oh, and lest I forget, Viola Davis as Amanda Waller — the cold-hearted, manipulative, calculating woman who brings the Suicide Squad together — is immaculate casting. She positively owns that role with absolute authority and is amazing to watch. Enough said.
Most of the other members of the squad are also well portrayed; from Diablo, the most heartfelt person in the team, to Captain Boomerang, who is quite amusing and arguably one of Jai Courtney’s more successful roles, to Killer Croc, who is a literal beast. Joel Kinnamon also does a respectable job as the ostensible leader Rick Flag. Unfortunately, (what I suspect is) that last minute editing rears its ugly head again with two members who are really under-serviced. The first is Slipknot, who is barely introduced at all and then gets killed far too early. The other is Katana, whose surprisingly complicated backstory is merely glanced over. As with the antagonist, you can tell that the scenes that would have elaborated on Katana and Slipknot were cut out.
Anyways, so all these introductions happen in that messy first act, which, as I said, was likely the part that got re-edited the most and clearly suffers the most for it. Once we get out of that and into the second act, though, with our team together and on their mission; the movie start to gradually improve. The film stops jumping around as much; the action is engaging and plentiful; our anti-heroes start to develop as characters in meaningful ways; and the film’s use of pop music becomes less intense and more fitting for augmenting particular moments. This isn’t masterful filmmaking by any stretch, but it nevertheless works, by and large. Granted, our villain unfortunately remains under developed, and the use of zombies as foot soldiers isn’t exactly fresh; but at least it gives our anti-heroes an excuse to be as violent as we would want them to be, so it’s okay. I still think there was likely some re-cutting in this second act; but probably to a lesser degree than the earlier part of the movie. I really think that it starts approaching something closer to Ayer’s original vision for the film; and it’s definitely an improvement over the beginning.
And that brings us to the third and last act of this movie, which, I believe, was the least touched by recutting and therefore probably the closest to what Ayer initially wanted. This last section is a bit more somber than the earlier parts of the film, which leaned on the silly side; but that’s to its benefit. There are some powerful moments in this section. In particular, there is a truly exceptional scene with our anti-heroes sitting at a bar, feeling depressed, sharing stories, and trying to figure out what to do. It’s a really nice part of the film; one that makes us appreciate these characters as human beings, which is almost certainly the whole point of this movie. Having said that, the recutting of the film in earlier sections appears to have removed some of the narrative tissue that this moment was clearly working from; so it doesn’t have quite as much impact as it probably could have (and likely did at one point). I really wish the previous acts had been closer in terms of tone and character interaction to this so that the payoff would be more complete.
Moving on, the rest of this act plays out alright, with a climactic finale that is exciting and has good character moments; and it leads into a more or less acceptable ending. Admittedly, if you’re like me, you probably had a particular conclusion in mind for this film; but it doesn’t go where I though it would. The ending it chooses works, but it is a little strange. I almost wonder if this was again a case of last-minute editing. Then again, maybe I just can’t predict movies as well as I’d like to think I can.
In summary, Suicide Squad starts out rough but gets better the longer it goes on, ultimately becoming a satisfying film. Yes, you heard me, I said satisfying. I know this movie is getting quite a bit of vitriol on the Internet; but I just don’t share that hatred. It has its fair share of problems; and, in particular, the re-editing almost assuredly hurt more than it helped (the parts I suspect to be from David Ayer’s original cut work better for the movie than the those created by the recut). But those issues don’t tank the picture. This is not awful the way last year’s Fantastic Four and the theatrical cut of Batman v Superman were, nor does it doom the DC Extended Universe or prove that only Marvel can make good superhero movies. Suicide Squad is on a border between good and bad for me, but as with Ghostbusters, I am coming down on the side of liking it enough to call it good. It’s entertaining and exciting enough to makeup for the moments that don’t work; the characters are plenty of fun; and I think it ultimately works as the off-beat action picture it was sold to the general public as. And on that basis I’m recommending checking this one out. In other words, even a sundae with too many toppings is still a sundae; and sundaes are good. So now DC is 2 (or 2.5) for 3 for me, which isn’t bad; and I’m still looking forward to future DC movies.
And in the mean time, go see this flick.
*I promise that, after this, I’ll stop using dessert imagery to describe movies.
Post Review Discussion:
Though I ultimately liked Suicide Squad, as I said throughout the review, I don’t think the re-editing did much good, and I can’t help but wonder about the version of the movie that might have been had Warner Bros. not panicked in the wake of Batman v Superman. I think you more or less see a glimpse of David Ayer’s original vision back in last year’s Comic-Con trailer. It was less energetic than later trailers; but it seemed clear in its direction and was something akin to thoughtful in its approach to the subject matter. The third act of the film is, by and large, so close tonally to the Comic-Con trailer that I suspect my theories about what parts got re-edited are true. I really would like to see David Ayer’s uncompromised cut of this movie. If it’s more like what we got in the third act of the version in theaters, then I am convinced it would have been a far better picture, even if it wasn’t as lighthearted or pop music-driven earlier on. I’m hopeful we might get something like a director’s cut of the movie that is closer to what Ayer wanted for the movie. Since we did get an extended version of Batman v Superman, it’s not out of the question.
Interestingly enough, this problem with harmful re-edits appears to be a recurring one for Warner Bros./DC’s films. I theorize that Man of Steel suffered pacing issues and sacrificed character development when its original three hour run time was knocked down to 2 1/2 hours. Certainly Batman v Superman suffered from being edited down; its theatrical cut is incomprehensible and the ultimate cut should have been the version released to the public. What’s especially weird about this is that Warner Bros. ostensibly claims that its approach to its superhero movies is to give auteurs the creative freedom necessary to tell the stories they wanted to tell. These re-edits seem to fly in the face of that.
More over, if the reasoning behind this re-edit of Suicide Squad being the negative critical reaction to Batman v Superman is to be believed, then this movie exists the way it does partly because the studio tried to listen to fans over a director. Now that may seem like a good idea to some of you in theory; but I’m reminded of the late Philadelphia Eagles coach Joe Kuharich, who famously said, “If you listen to the fans, you’ll find yourself sitting with them.” In other words, all of those vocal shouts to make DC more lighthearted and fun were perhaps misplaced; and Warner Bros’ attempt to appease those fans resulted in a film of lesser caliber than what might have been had David Ayer been allowed to do what he wanted. That arguably signifies that Warner Bros./DC’s problem is not that it lets directors do whatever they want without any restraint, it’s that it doesn’t let directors do what they want enough. The studio pays lip service to the idea of creative freedom but then meddles with poor editing, with the possible intention of trying to please people who don’t really know what they’re asking for. I hate to armchair quarterback ** this, but you just have to let the filmmaker, not the Internet, not the studio, make the movie.
At any rate, I remain*** a DC fan. So here’s to the future of the DC Extended Universe. May Warner Bros. let directors have the right amount of freedom, and, if it continues to be reactive to fan reactions, may we at least learn to make better demands for films.
**The irony and arguable hypocrisy of me, a fan, saying that a studio should listen to me by not listening to the advice of fans is not lost on me.
***Wonder Woman looks excellent.