Saturday 27 August 2016


Plot spoilers ahead!

Part-way through this film Deadshot (played by Will Smith) stumbles on one of those top secret folders (you know the ones), and discovers what's really attacking New York. Turns out it's the Enchantress, who used her original enlistment into the Suicide Squad as her chance to go rogue. In other words, the action of recruiting the Squad generated the enemy they now need to face. It's a neat irony. A flashback handily confirms all this.

Except the 'flashback' almost entirely reprises scenes we previously saw in real time. Which kind of scuppers the surprise element a little.

And things are often like that here. Expert critics have spotted that this film is thrown together in an often haphazard way. But then so has everyone else. The rest of the Squad, bar Deadshot and Harley Quinn, occasionally up and do something significant-seeming, in the firm belief they're adding to their backstory. Not in this movie, they're not. (Diablo comes closest, and luckily his back story is so predictable it doesn't need much screen time.) 

And it bizarrely manages to combine repeat load-tipping of info dumps with the assumption the cinema viewer will know their comics lore. Some things we're told twice, others not at all. Harley jumping into the chemical vat, those not familiar with the Joker origin story find that a particularly mystifying moment.

(Me, I'd have started the film with the conference room scene, where the Suicide Squad project is first announced. The aide to Walker, the Black Ops boss, would then have manifested as the Enchantress to the audience the same time as the Generals. Then the rest of the Squad could have been introduced, one by one. All of whom within their own unique personalised holding cell. But I digress...)

Critics (and everyone else) rightly point out the way the soundtrack sounds so slapped on they might as well have stuck an i-Player on shuffle. And that Cara Delevingne might look the part of the spooky Enchantress, but acts just like a model. Which becomes a particular problem in the finale, where instead of commanding proceedings she gyrates like she's in a really bad music video. And when your cast is all bad guys, you need to a pretty good antagonist to up the ante of evil on them.

While Deadshot is projected as the primary protagonist, getting the nearest there is to characterisation, it's Harley Quinn (played by Margot Robbie) who really dominates. It's hard to find a publicity image where she's not centred. If he's intended as the heart of the film, she's its face.

She actually gets a back story. Trouble is, it isn't just bad, it's about as bad as it gets. As if the career woman who throws it all in for the bad guy wasn't bad enough, the scene where the Joker tortures her into her new identity is effectively a euphemistic rape scene, so we even have the 'conversion through rape' trope.

Much of this has been said already, and ably enough, so let's make just one further comment. Notably, both Deadshot and Diablo are conflicted over their bad guy status. Deadshot is shown sniffing gunpowder like a crackhead with a pipe, yet at the same time he's motivated by love for his daughter. That's some... not much, but some indication of an inner life. Whereas both Harley and the Enchantress are simply split, the well-behaved good girl (Harleen Quinel and June Moone respectively) alternating with the sexy bad girl. Not depth but appearance. Times two.

And Harley leads us on to the next common criticism of the film, the way the Joker is reduced to such a cameo role. (See for example this YouTube review.) Most likely, this is another thing down to poor structuring and edit wars. Actor Jared Leto has confirmed he not only shot a whole lot more scenes, he was less than pleased to find how few made it to the finished film. (Asked if any of his scenes were cut, he's responded by asking if any weren't.)

But actually, that's one thing which works in the film's favour. Had the Joker been onscreen more, Harley would have once more been relegated to his girlfriend and sidekick – the Batgirl of the crime world. As it is, his being remote from the plot but forever trying to force his way back in all but reverses things. He comes to represent her desire to be out there, driving recklessly round town rather than being stuck in boring detention. In short, the essential nature of Harley necessitates that the only way the Girl Joker can dominate the film is to keep the Boy Joker at arm's length.

But then again, that's what they do. It doesn't atone for the egregiousness of her origin story, of course. But when we complain about superhero films being so concerned with the heroes, and the heroines always shunted into supporting roles, isn't this something to cheer? (Me, I'd have given Harley none of the unnecessary backstory, and almost no scenes together with the Joker save the brief moment where her rescue seems to be working. But that's probably another digression.)

The conceit underlying both characters is that crazy counts as a kind of super-power. It leaves the wielder so unconstrained by social norms, so ready with the unexpected it becomes an ability akin to the ability to set light to things or be a crack shot. (Neither has any particular powers beyond this.) And then, just to throw you even further, they toss in the notion that crazy might just be an act after all, there to distract you while they get on with their scheming.

And this is accentuated with Harley, who also delights in playing the part of the bimbo stripper. On release her very first action is to toy with the guards' minds, leaving them unsure whether she's lunatic or player, goofy simpleton or corkscrew-minded schemer. Her costume is less the... well, the harlequin image of the original cartoons and more a cross between the peeling facepaint feral joker of 'Dark Knight' and the punk kinderwhore look - both of course designed to sew confusion among those they encounter. And she pretty much keeps up that act throughout. It's her not Deadshot who dispatches the Enchantress, a victory she achieves through cunning and deception.

The one time we see her without the make-up, so to speak, is when she believes the Joker died in trying to rescue her – and we see her crying in the rain. But only we see this. By the time the rest of the Squad have walked up, the act is back on. (Admittedly for this to be true you have to disregard the risible scene where the Enchantress tempts her with the fantasy of becoming a stay-at-home mom. But then you have to do a whole lot of mental re-editing with this film.)

All of which is sold by Robbie's performance, which could without exaggeration be called scene-stealing. It's everything Delevingne's isn't. As she repeatedly sidles up to other characters, they can never be sure whether she'll screw with them, try to snog them or stab them.

And here we've hit the upside. When it works, which in fits and spurts it does, the film treats you just in the same way Harley does. No wonder she's the face for it! You're never quite sure what it is, what it will do to you next, what angle it will come from - dark or comic, dramatic or surreal. The film itself behaves like a lunatic let loose from the asylum. That may well be because the film doesn't really know itself what it is. But it can still press that into service.

And there are times where it does seem to froth with deranged invention. The Joker's henchmen conduct a raid in ludicrous fancy dress, one machine gunning guards in a panda costume. And shouldn't it be like this? if superhero films try to up characterisation, they're still going to be lagging behind in the Academy awards. They're simply not playing to their strengths.

And the concept of a motley collection of bad guys is actually a pretty good one. It's often said the strength of a superhero title is the strength of it's rogues gallery. So why not have just the rogue's gallery? “Let's do something fun”, asserts the Enchantress early on. And something fun does sound a more inviting prospect than another two and a half hours of sour hero grimdark. This ragbag army follow a very crooked path indeed, sometimes doubling back on themselves, at others leaping blocks ahead. A route map they're not. But at least they're moving in the right direction.

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