Suicide Squad Could/Should Have Been Better

If only DC would learn its lesson….

Let’s just get this out of the way: Suicide Squad was bad. Really bad. The kind of baffling incompetence, arrogance and pandering awfulness that only Hollywood at its most cynical can conjure. Did it have to be this way? Not at all.

Superhero movies have gotten too big. Not only in terms of box office numbers, but also the sheer scope of the typical movie in the genre. By the time Marvel got to Age of Ultron, the films were beginning to sag under the weight of ballooning casts, city-destroying explosions, noise, and bloodless combat against computer-generated foes. Before long, the plot (such as it is) is obfuscated by the activity onscreen, and the film deteriorates into a melange of jump cuts, shaky camera work and incoherent action.

Iron Man told a relatively small story, about Tony Stark, Pepper Potts, and the people closest to them, including the business partner who betrayed him. Captain America: The First Avenger was a coming-of-age tale and a World War II thriller, while Thor told a fish-out-of-water story. Ant-Man, Deadpool, and Guardians Of The Galaxy were all somewhat episodic, and all were easy to follow (no mean feat in the case of GOTG, with its ensemble cast of mostly established actors and two completely CGI main characters.) Even if you don’t like the Avengers “team” films, you can enjoy the surrounding Marvel universe of movies without issue.

Not so with the DC/Warner Bros. films. These films are designed to be epic and intertwined from the get-go. The climactic fight between Superman and Zod in Man Of Steel is ludicrously destructive, ostensibly causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of civilians. The tone is dark and grey throughout, more suited to Batman than Superman. By all accounts, Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice is just as “epic”, and just as bad. (To be fair, I’ve only seen clips of BvS.)

*SUICIDE SQUAD SPOILERS AHEAD*

Suicide Squad takes place in the aftermath of BvS. Superman is still dead, Batman is off doing… something else, sometimes. Wonder Woman’s movie isn’t out until 2017, so she can’t help, and Green Lantern doesn’t exist yet. Also, The Flash, Aquaman, and Green Arrow are… busy. In the absence of a superhero, the government decides to enact Amanda Waller’s (Viola Davis) plan to use some captured supervillains, under the command of Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman- definitely NOT an answer to Nick Fury, shut up) to put down future threats to humanity. One of her recruits, The Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) escapes, releases the soul of her brother from some kind of tiki doll, and after he possesses a businessman on the subway, the two of them decide to take over the world and proceed to become the first targets of Waller’s team. There’s the obligatory army of nonhuman things, the beam of light shooting into the sky, and people bantering as they fight. Diablo (Jay Hernandez) sacrifices himself to save the team, sort of redeeming himself for the brutal murders of his wife and children(?), The first half of the movie plays like a darker GOTG, and the second half plays like a cross between The Avengers and Fantastic Four (2015). Suffice to say, Enchantress is defeated, and despite the fact that an entire city was decimated in the span of a few hours, the plot sort of resolves itself and everyone goes home.

Suicide Squad suffers from an acute identity crisis. As many others have noted, the tone seems to shift wildly; apparently, the writer/director (David Ayer) wanted a darker (surprise!) film, while Warner Bros., reeling from criticism over BvS, preferred a lighter, more comic tone. Much of Jared Leto’s Joker was edited out, scenes were rewritten, reshot, and dropped into place in such a slipshod manner that characters and plot points seem appear out of nowhere. Slipknot (Adam Beach) appears, punches a woman, decides to escape, and dies in the course of 10 minutes. Also, Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) and the stuffed pink unicorn he keeps in his jacket- what the hell was that all about?

All in all, Suicide Squad suffers from an overabundance of everything. There are too many characters; most of them stand around doing strange things, like Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) licking his hand when it starts to rain, or nothing, like Captain Boomerang, who mostly drinks canned beverages and hits on Kitana (Karen Fukuhara)- no, really. Of all the characters, only Deadshot (Will Smith), Harley Qinn (Margot Robbie), Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) and Joker (Jared Leto) acquit themselves well; they’re the only people in this movie who seem to have anything to do.

In my opinion, the budget was too large, and the movie they tried to make was much bigger than the story they had to work with. I think they could have made a better movie with less money and fewer characters. How?

Doing More With Less

Superhero movies could take a lesson from Star Trek Beyond. STB seems like nothing so much as an episode of Star Trek, and I think it was the right direction to go. Stepping back from the themes of Into Darkness yielded a tighter, more character-driven narrative, and a film that moved deftly between drama, comedy, and action. The relationship between Spock and Bones, so vital to the original series and films, is finally explored in detail, and, by destroying the Enterprise at the beginning of the film and marooning the crew on a strange planet for most of the runtime, the filmmakers ironically made the most Star Trek-y movie in the whole of the rebooted series.

Imagine that the Suicide Squad filmmakers had focused a little harder and delivered a smaller story. What could that have looked like?

Deadshot and Harley Quinn

Of course, casting an actor as charismatic as Will Smith in the role of someone as repugnant as Deadshot opens up a lot of possibilities. Maybe the film could have opened with the hit they filmed for SS, showing us the ease with which he kills for money, and how callous he can be about it. Immediately afterwards, as he tries to escape, Batman appears, and subdues him, and Deadshot spends the next several years in Arkham Asylum. After his wife and daughter learn who he is and what he does, they cut off all contact, and he has time to reflect on his actions and decides that he wants to change.

Fast forward a few years, and we see Harley Quinn on a crime spree with Joker. When Batman shows up, Joker abandons Harley, who is captured and also winds up in Arkham.

Amanda Waller, in this story, is working for a classified government agency that tracks humans with superpowers and researches ways to neutralize them. She comes to Arkham to offer Deadshot a deal: Joker has stolen a bomb/is planning to release poison gas/something else, and if he will agree to kill Joker, the government will reduce his sentence to time served. He will travel with a medicated and ostensibly rehabilitated Harley Quinn, who will serve as bait for Joker. This allows Deadshot and Harley to flesh out the father/daughter dynamic hinted at in SS. There is enough of an age difference between Smith and Robbie that Harley could conceivably be the same age as Deadshot’s daughter.

Joker And Batman

Of course, Waller’s story is a ruse. In reality, Deadshot, Harley Quinn and Joker are all supposed to die when Waller detonates a bomb/poisons Gotham/something else. She’ll be able to blame Joker for the carnage, write the other two off as collateral damage, maybe kill Batman, and assume new powers within her agency to direct it as she sees fit. She views metahumans as an existential threat to the US, and by extension, the world, and would prefer to see them all hunted down and destroyed. She becomes the primary antagonist, but at least she has a motive that people can understand.

When Deadshot and Harley finally catch up to Joker, he denies any plan to destroy Gotham, preferring to lure Batman into confrontation (maybe he’s kidnapped Commissioner Gordon?) for the fun of it. Batman duly appears, and Harley runs off with Joker. Batman and Deadshot fight before realizing they ought to work together; Batman knows Waller is corrupt and that Joker is not behind the current threat, and confirms what Deadshot has suspected about Waller all along. Batman pursues Joker and Harley while Deadshot goes after Waller, who attempts to gain his trust before trying to kill him. In the end, Deadshot stops Waller’s plan and captures her without killing her.

Batman captures Harley and Joker, who both go back to Arkham. The government chooses to honor Waller’s bargain with Deadshot, allowing him to go free. The movie closes with Deadshot knocking on his daughter’s door, having decided that he wants to reconnect with his family.

Is that a perfect story? Nope. Is it a better story than Suicide Squad? Yep. (I’d be happy to sell the story; call me, Warner Bros.!) It’s smaller, more coherent, contains narrative symmetry, and best of all, you only have to keep track of half a dozen characters.

The Fix

The studios need to step back for a moment and reconnect with the characters; after all, characters drive narratives, and all the sloppy rewrites and reshoots in the world can’t make up for paper thin characters navigating paper thin plots. Gone With The Wind is an epic film, to be sure, but the story itself is epic. The characters are immediately recognizable American archetypes. Assigning each character a theme song may work in Hamilton, where each character performs his/her own music, but in the context of a summer tentpole, piping in classic rock anthems comes off as a lazy substitute for characterization. (Waller is evil, so let’s play “Sympathy For The Devil” when we introduce her! Can we license “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap”? Has anyone ever used “Spirit In The Sky” in their movie?) I was half expecting “All Along The Watchtower” to start playing during the final battle.

If DC/Warner Bros. really want to connect with audiences beyond the people who read comics, if they really wanted to set their movies apart, they would shrink the scope, shrink the budget, shrink the casts, and put character and story first. Even Marvel doesn’t do that very well. I don’t think it’s likely to happen, but hey, if Warner Bros. wants to reboot, I’ve got a story for them…