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Suicide Squad (2016)

Action/Adventure Rated PG-13

The movies are certainly big enough for superhero figures. But are they wide enough?

Not in the case of Suicide Squad, a tent-pole wannabe so helpless in the face of its expansive cast, dense mythology, competing villains and complicated character relationships that it succumbs to structural chaos right from the start. You could put this movie’s scenes on shuffle, and it would almost make as much sense. Suicide Squad simply doesn’t have enough time—enough narrative width—to accomplish all that it intends.

Based on characters from the same DC Comics universe as Batman and Superman, Suicide Squad not only tries to launch its own, ensemble franchise—about imprisoned supervillains who are recruited by a secret government agency in exchange for lighter sentences—but it also tries to weave these new figures into earlier DC narratives. When the Marvel movies employ this strategy, it’s often ungainly and opportunistic, but ultimately (and particularly in the case of Captain America: Civil War) effective. Here, it’s a train wreck.

And yet even as I recognize the challenge facing the creative team led by writer-director David Ayer (Harsh Times, End of Watch), I don’t think giving the filmmakers more time—via a director’s cut or even a Netflix series—would salvage this Suicide Squad. In fact, I shudder to think about sitting through another minute of what they’ve delivered here. This is an ugly movie, full of forced edits, facile brutality and fitful gunfire. (I can’t think of another superhero film that relied on this much shooting.) There is a weightless dreariness to the production design (it wears on your eyes, but doesn’t seep into your bones) and a relentless inelegance to its action sequences. There is a moment early on when one of the squad recruits takes an opportunity to cut and run, and oh how I wished I could have joined him.

Knowing he has to move quickly, Ayer opens the movie with a dossier report on each of the squad members. Delivered by the program’s mastermind—a no-nonsense government operative named Amanda Waller (Viola Davis)—the report whizzes by with a combination of her narration, onscreen graphics and cutaway scenes of these characters getting arrested. At first things look promising: Will Smith’s Deadshot, a sharpshooting killer for hire, has a compelling backstory that nicely involves a run-in with Batman (Ben Affleck). But then the pace of the montage picks up until I felt like I was in first grade trying to learn my flash cards. There was a guy who can conjure fire, something about an Australian thief who likes boomerangs and pink unicorns, a few scenes of a crocodile man and more. Before the montage wrapped up, I had not only forgotten many of these characters, but also the answer to 2 x 2.

This Joker isn’t a threat, he’s a recycled attention-seeker.

In terms of performance, only a few of the actors get enough screen time to register much of an impression. Smith has a morose sincerity as Deadshot, and seems happy to leave the wisecracks to others. Picking up the comedy slack is Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, the unhinged paramour of The Joker (Jared Leto). Robbie certainly brings vitality to the part, but she’s betrayed, in more ways than one, by the film’s structure. We get two contradictory flashbacks explaining Quinn’s origin (in one she’s tortured by The Joker and in another she willingly joins him), so that we never get a psychological grip on the character. Meanwhile, one of Robbie’s big scenes is inexplicably undermined by the editing. While Quinn is delivering a funny dialogue about the voices she hears in her head, the scene is broken up by cuts that seem less interested in her character than in meeting the timing demands of the White Stripes song blaring on the soundtrack.

And then there’s Leto as The Joker. You would think an actor would do anything to distance himself from Heath Ledger’s now-legendary portrayal of the iconic character in The Dark Knight (just as Ledger was careful to distance himself from Jack Nicholson’s performance in 1989’s Batman). Instead, Leto delivers something that is 40 percent Ledger and 60 percent James Franco’s wannabe gangster in Spring Breakers (grillz and all). Every choice he makes—from his growl to his line delivery to his writhing on the ground with knives—is geared to be weird, but that’s where the performance ends. This Joker isn’t a threat, he’s a recycled attention-seeker.

It’s no surprise, then, that the best performance in the movie is the quietest: Davis as Amanda Waller. Waller may look like she runs the DMV—middle-aged, plain-clothed, a don’t-mess-with-me-or-I’ll-send-you-to-the-back-of-the-line stare—but we soon discover she holds significantly more governmental power. And she wields it without mercy, sacrificing whomever she feels needs to be sacrificed in the dubious interest of national security. “Are you the devil?” Harley Quinn asks her at one point, to which Waller responds, “Maybe.” And that’s how Davis plays her—the wrangler of a squad of fiends who might just be more dangerous than them all. Perhaps Suicide Squad would have been better off not going bigger or wider, but deeper. Forget that crocodile guy or the quippy Quinn; I would have been happy with a movie all about Waller.