The big new movie this weekend is Suicide Squad, the third entry in the DC movie universe about a bunch of bad guys forced against their will to do good things. I came away from the movie neutral leaning on positive; it’s got great performances, laughs, and cool action, but the villains are utterly wasted. Even taking the supposed production woes and rough editing into account, it’s fun and has enough charm and heart to get by. But there is one black specter hanging over the whole affair, and it’s honestly probably the reason why other critics aren’t digging the vibe on it.
Prior to the film’s release, the first trailer showed an action comedy, with scenes timed perfectly to the classic rock song “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. Since that first trailer, all the marketing followed suit, straddling a line between mature and humorous. The posters for the characters were heavily stylized like skulls, commercials actively played up the connection between the film and the Queen song, and also emphasized the more humorous parts of the final product. And that’s a good way to help people remember your film, even if it also means that you’re inevitably going to have comparisons drawn between it and Guardians of the Galaxy.
But for every high, there must also be a low, and Suicide Squad definitely came close after that first trailer. Jared Leto as the Joker was always going to be divisive, both just from being the first live action version since Heath Ledger’s passing and by virtue of his debut photo looking utterly ridiculous. Part of that is by pedigree; I mean, if every other version of the Clown Prince of Crime has him looking more like a clown who stepped out of Men’s Warehouse, going the opposite direction and looking like you just left an Insane Clown Posse mosh pit won’t endear people towards you. Even worse were reports coming out closer to the film’s release, where Leto was said to be sending gifts to his coworkers in preparation for his role as the Joker. Said gifts included possibly used condoms (that’s somehow unclear), anal beads, and a dead pig. It got to the point where the other actors were incredibly hesitant about going near him when he wasn’t in costume. Viola Davis, who plays Amanda Waller in the film, said that Leto sent her bullets in the mail and she openly admitted to having heart palpitations during filming and wanting to pepper spray him.
Method acting is nothing new, but Leto definitely took it to a new level. The fact that writer/director David Ayer and the folks at WB let a white man openly send bullets to a black woman all for the sake of acting is more than a little troubling. If there was anyone who took Leto aside and told him, “Cut this shit out,” they apparently suffered the same fate as the editor midway through production. In fact, now that it turns out that he’s barely in the movie, depending on your point of view, these actions will worsen your opinion of him.
Lest you think Leto was the only one doing this, rest assured that Ayer got in on screwing with the cast as well. The director shaved Jai Courtney (he plays Captain Boomerang) without any prior warning, and he manipulated the cast to get what he want, at one point telling Viola Davis to insult Joel Kinammon without letting him in on the loop. He managed to punch Karen Fukuhara in the nose while sparring. Courtney ended up doing mushrooms for whatever reason and put out cigarettes on his skin.
The phrase “trying too hard” gets thrown around a lot when it probably shouldn’t, but in this case, it fits. For the past few months, WB and DC have been trying to market Suicide Squad as a movie that “drove its cast” insane, talking about how the actors needed therapy for all the stuff they were going through during production. Now having actually seen the film, it’s baffling as to why the studio went for that particular angle with the movie. It’s not particularly deep or cerebral, no matter how many trippy filters it puts over the screen while characters are in flashbacks or dream sequences. Fact is, outside of some surprisingly good poster art and music choices–I have no idea who decided to pair Rick Ross with Skrillex or Imagine Dragons with Lil Wayne, but they deserve a raise–this movie is no where near as hard as it thinks it is. Which is perhaps fitting for a movie where a character is dressed in a ridiculous jacket and is marked with stupid tattoos all over his body.
That, ultimately, is probably why the film has garnered the largely negative reception it has. Yeah, the movie definitely has style and a more consistent and better marketing campaign than Batman v Superman’s “who’s gonna win, oh wait, we already showed you what’ll get them to team up” scheme. That being said, it thinks way too highly of itself and its intelligence. Even if you think it’s cool that they’re doing all this, there’s no denying that it reached a point of obnoxiousness. Jokes have been made about it looking like the Hot Topic version of a superhero movie, and it definitely feels like that.
The thing about all of these claims about being “edgy” and “dark” and “crazy” is that none of it paints a good look for the film. In fact, it actively feels like the studio is trying to sabotage its own film by trying to play up that angle. It’s the equivalent of a young kid going around picking fights with people before it turns out they can barely throw a punch. Stories about making this film feel like they were spliced from a recent season of Family Guy, and none of them add up to anything. A movie being so intense it nearly killed its actors or drove them to the brink is nothing new, as The Revenant proved a year ago. But an action movie causing its actors to do this, and what’s more, a superhero movie? No one is going to buy that for a second. For all that talk about Margot Robbie trying to beat her stunt double in seeing who could hold their breath longer or doing mushrooms, none of that has an impact on the film itself, to the point where you could justifiably think Ayer and WB were conducting some sort of weird game of the Sims with human beings.
Suicide Squad has nothing all that interesting to say about its characters or their various mental states beyond “wow, these guys are weird,” nor does it wholly succeed at creating a Fast and Furious-style bond between its leads like it desperately wants to. Maybe it was intended at one point to be much darker and creepier before WB took over and decided to splice two different versions of the film together. But as far as the final product is concerned, it’s about as edgy and crazy as Slipknot is relevant.