Once upon a time, Warner Brothers revived its Batman series with a talented young director at the helm named Christopher Nolan. And it was all great, as Batman Begins and The Dark Knight brought in large hauls at the box office as well as terrific reviews. But then they and the rest of the world watched as Disney teamed up with Marvel Comics to bring together all the latter’s stable of superheroes under one roof and make superhero movies that brought in obscene profits and mostly good reviews year upon year. Warners wondered why they couldn’t do that. So as the Harry Potter series petered out, they joined up with DC Comics to launch their own team of heroes that could headline their own films as well as team up in ensemble movies. Green Lantern was the first, and it fizzled out so badly that Ryan Reynolds made fun of it for the Marvel team in Deadpool. “Never mind,” the people at Warners must have thought. “We’ll reboot Superman and join him with Batman.” The disappointment with Batman vs. Superman might have discouraged filmmakers with less money, but the superconglomerate by then had had too much money and time inveted. They had little choice but to put out Suicide Squad this weekend. I saw the latter over the weekend, and I’m here to report that the whole Justice League series is going about as well as the Republican presidential campaign.
In fact, that’s a great comparison. It’s like Warner Brothers is the Republican Party and the Justice League series is Donald Trump, right down to the intolerant fanboys trying to shut down any criticism. Warners needs (or thinks it needs) the built-in audience and large opening weekends that the fanboys can deliver, so they’ve hitched themselves to an ongoing disaster, and they seem powerless to get off the train or even avert the next embarrassment. In fact, it’s worse for the studio, because while the GOP can look forward to putting Trump out of his misery come November, Warners is tied to unmade superhero movies for the next decade or so, and there’s no sign of that any of this will get better soon, despite interested people hoping against hope.
The film begins in the wake of Superman’s death at the end of Batman vs. Superman, with U.S. government honcho Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) going to her bosses with a proposal to battle the next great threat by forcing all the imprisoned superheroes to work for them in exchange for time off prison. Her team includes the Joker’s girlfriend Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), contract killer Deadshot (Will Smith), human flamethrower Diablo (Jay Hernandez), master thief Boomerang (Jai Courtney), man-eating genetic freak Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and magically powered Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), all under the command of a Special Forces soldier (Joel Kinnaman) who can barely stand to look at them.
As nobody really points out to Amanda, her idea is really bad. The movie might have gotten away with this if writer-director David Ayer had depicted the Suicide Squad as a half-baked measure conceived in a moment of panic, but he doesn’t have the wit to do that. Instead, one of the anti-villains (Adam Beach) tries to escape at the first opportunity , and the Joker (Jared Leto) actively interferes with the group’s efforts by trying to spring Harley from custody. Even without those, Amanda’s leverage over her charges is laughably weak, and as a result, one of them runs off and creates a threat to the world that the rest of the group has to wind up fighting during the big climax. What looks to be a few million people wind up dying as collateral damage. How does Amanda still have her job at the end of this?
Despite this, the movie is largely just boring rather than outrageously bad. There’s nothing in Ayer’s previous filmography (which includes Fury and Street Kings) that suggests he has the sense of humor or flair for camp that this material needs, so even with all the bad guys here, the movie winds up being a pious drone. The group chemistry is nonexistent; you don’t believe for a second that these outlaws would stand up for one another. Smith gets saddled with a particularly soggy subplot about Deadshot having a wife and daughter whom he’s anxious to see again. Leto winds up ripping off Heath Ledger’s old moves without bringing anything new to the role. Robbie appears not to give a flip about the entire proceedings, or about keeping the handle on her American accent. That’s one way to get through a debacle like this, but it’s a shame, because you can easily imagine her maniacally glinting Harley, pitched somewhere between little girl and riot grrl, being lights-out in a much better movie.
What comes off as thoughtfulness in Marvel’s best movies emerges as curdling self-importance in DC’s movies. Here’s a depressing thought: If Suicide Squad couldn’t figure out a way to loosen up, what chance do the more iconic heroes like Wonder Woman and Aqua Man have in their films? I remember how Disney cut their losses on the fading Chronicles of Narnia movies (mostly because their kid actors got too old, but still). Warner Brothers should seriously consider doing the same, at least until they give their whole approach a serious rethink.