Even though they've seen a drastic uptick in exposure and popularity over the past couple of years, the Suicide Squad has been kicking around the DC comics universe for a long time. Devised as a novel way of explaining how some of the villains -- mostly in Batman's neck of the woods -- manage to get out of prison and continue doing their bad-guy thing, cutting their sentences with "good deeds", the group has naturally experienced a number of changes since the '80s. As of late, the most notable inclusion comes in Harley Quinn, the jesterly wild-card girlfriend of The Joker introduced in Batman: The Animated Series, who has enjoyed her own popularity since DC restarted their continuity with the "New 52", which made her a focal member of this Suicide Squad and gave her a jubilantly humorous comic series of her own. That's the world David Ayer aims to bring to life with his take on the Suicide Squad, and despite clearly grasping the characters and the attitude that hallmarks their antiheroic endeavors , he leaves a lot to be desired in the movie erupting and shattering around them.
Suggested as an initiative to build a resistance team against meta-human threats, the Suicide Squad -- actually called Task Force X -- takes shape through the maneuvers of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), a high-level government operative with deep knowledge of the villains they've got under lock and key. From this rogues gallery, she sets her sights on a number of flexible, potentially neutral criminals to fill out the roster, a group of individuals she could throw into missions and ultimately blame if their dangerous objectives go awry. That includes Deadshot (Will Smith), a constant member of the team in the comics, whose impeccable abilities with firearms are accurately represented by his nickname. Others are also selected for their "gifts", from the flame-launching El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) and the precision of Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) to the aquatic mutant Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), yet they don't hold a candle the kind of power possessed by the dual-identity witch Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), under control by Waller. Then, there's Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), whose claim to fame amounts to ... uh, well, she's crazy. Trigger-happy and a crackerjack swinger of bats, but driven insane due to her experiences with The Joker.
Chances are pretty good that someone will read the above paragraph and say, repeatedly: "Who?" It's an obstacle faced by most writers tackling the Suicide Squad, and it's frequently addressed by fresh introductions at the beginning of their stories, often in point-blank, violent flashbacks that illustrate who they are and why they're incarcerated in the first place. Powered by energetic music and echoing how both recent comics and the animated film Batman: Assault on Arkham handled this, David Ayer's Suicide Squad sets aside the majority of the film's beginning to introduce these versions of the characters, from the melancholy mixture of Deadshot's assassination business and family ties to a start-to-finish portrayal of how psychiatrist Dr. Harleen Quinzel becomes the equally-pale, mentally-twisted minion of Jared Leto's Joker. Therefore, despite the inclusion of one of Deadshot's assassination attempts and a few run-ins with Ben Affleck's Batman, action isn't so much of a priority at the beginning as making the general audience give a crap about these lesser-known villains on a deeper level.
Does Ayer succeed in doing so? ... sorta. He makes it easy to sympathize with Will Smith's Deadshot through conversations between the character and his daughter, allowing Smith's gruff yet considerate magnetism to shine as a deadly assassin who's been separated from the one positive element in his life. This spin on Harley Quinn, on the other hand, is more complicated. Instead of going the route taken by contemporary stories of Harley, in which she's reluctantly pulling away from The Joker and discovering her own strengths, Ayer goes with a more traditional take on the character: she's obsessed with the abusive, exploitative bad-guy lover who made her insane. Thing is, there's usually a playfulness about them hinged on The Joker's volatile and calculated schemes, yet the more serious, tatted-up and abrasively flamboyant crime lord crafted by Jared Leto's peculiar Clown Prince of Crime sours this bond, not that he's given much scheming -- or screen time -- to work with in the first place. With a quirky New York accent, devilish glances, and impeccably animated body language, Margot Robbie shines as this raw projection of Harley Quinn's traits that stands apart from the oddness of her Puddin', enlivening scenes in her flashbacks that serve as the origin story for her warped attitude. "Mad Love" this isn't, though.
The rest of this Suicide Squad suffers a similar fate to the secondary team members in the books: aside from El Diablo, whose back-history possesses enough emotion to merit a lengthier flashback, each one gets reduced to shallow roguish traits, accompanied by cheeky title cards explaining as such. Writer/director Ayer has plenty of experience with personalities like this, from Denzel Washington's Detective Alonzo Harris in Training Day to the ragtag soldiers in his tank drama Fury, which leads one to have a little faith in his ability to flesh out these types of characters and band them together in a short amount of time. He's able to toss Task Force X into the fray and relish their clashes in personality, but something's missing in how he maneuvers these villains from being at loggerheads to them weaving together into a unit, largely because of the size of the squad. David Ayer excels at handling characters and teams who are already lived-in, like the established squad in Fury who gradually bring one new guy into their fold, yet he struggles here with building connective tissue between numerous strangers in the midst of conflict -- even though he still tries to reap the thematic benefits of them eventually doing so.
David Ayer throttles the members of his Suicide Squad -- overseen by a staunch military wunderkind, Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) -- into a gritty, crumbled corner of a metropolitan city for an assignment that conveniently emerges during their creation ... and the narrative that gets everyone there is incredibly patchy, steeped in cataclysmic formula and familiarity that goes to reckless lengths to elevate the stakes. Granted, most modern-era stories involving Task Force X don't boast terribly grounded or novel problems to solve, merely giving the bad guys something to do while they're bickering with one another, and Ayer's story isn't without flirtations with ethical dilemmas, human emotion, and covert intrigue. For every step forward that Suicide Squad takes with its fusion of dark humor and somber reflections on the villains, it gets knocked back by drab, vacuous plotting involving boundless witchcraft and the machinations of Viola Davis' imposing Amanda Waller. Peppered with amusing quips and insistent interruptions from a gleeful Harley Quinn, this end-of-the-world scenario yields a tone that's unsure as to whether it should be zany and subversive or more aligned with the doom-and-gloom dramatics of the DC universe's other films, or both.
Suicide Squad culminates in a loud, vigorous charge through dilapidated streets and emptied buildings filled with energized action, but writer/director Ayer makes it difficult to have too much fun with the chaos of it all by relying on waves of generic, faceless enemies to shoot at within the unimpressive template of a Hollywood ending. The script expends so much energy trying to get the spirit of the squad right that it neglects to craft a rational threat for this Dirty Half-Dozen to conquer, producing a royal mess of an ending that doesn't mesh with the relationship-building and handling of the caliber of stakes that came before it. After the turbulent critical receptions that Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman received, this needed to stand out as the first indication that the DC cinematic universe had its sights on a dependable creative destination for its forthcoming entries. Despite all the potential within its subversive tone, casting choices, and David Ayer's renowned grasp on lending depth to rough-around-the-edges renegades, Suicide Squad doesn't quite succeed in its mission.