How do you prep a crocodile man and his friends for their first trip to Hollywood?
To free Suicide Squad’s actors of the “actor stuff” they’d typically bring to the set, director David Ayer made them punch each other. “You learn a lot about who a person really is when you punch them in the face,” said Ayer, an expert on wading through phoned-in “actor stuff” since directing Brad Pitt in a war movie, I’d imagine. Anyway, the stunt impressed the press. “For the cast of Suicide Squad,” a reporter from Yahoo wrote, “realism was everything.”
That doesn’t mean the set was a free-for-all. After Jared Leto — affecting his best Joker — claimed he sent used condoms to his costars while filming, Ayer felt pressed to #Actually the gag in Rolling Stone. They were “removed from their packages,” the Fury director said, but not “actually used.” For his lawyers’ sake, he added: “I was mortified.”
The story made the press anyway, and so did many other curated tales, of live rodents, Margot Robbie’s “skwad” tattoos, Jai Courtney eating shrooms, an on-set therapist, and [shivers] Will Smith’s straight-edge rap. And why not? Amidst a course correction after the so-so reception of Zack Snyder’s dispiritingly dark Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, DC execs have put their backs into convincing fans they can match the charmed levity of their Marvel competitors. They’ve especially got their eye on that other off-canon comics property about bad-good guys, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. That movie was an August release, too, and the surprise hit of 2014 — hence the team effort to engineer its twisted sister, Suicide Squad, into a comparable success. And thus, the tattoos and shrooms, David Ayer screaming “Fuck Marvel!” at the movie’s world premiere (and apologizing for it on Twitter), and everyone’s fake-disgusted revelling in the shenanigans of Jared Leto.
Turns out they’ve been selling the wrong product. The tall tales from behind the scenes get me excited for Suicide Squad’s “Making Of” Blu-ray featurettes and blooper reel. But little of this gleefully ridiculous nonsense characterizes the actual movie. That’s odd, given the source material, an amalgam of story lines past and present that incorporates everything from a humanoid crocodile with a bayou drawl (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) to an ancient witch with a taste for stealing military secrets (Cara Delevingne). The crux of it all is an overstuffed tale about a crew of human and meta-human criminals enlisted by the U.S. government to carry out black ops. Their reward is a reduced prison sentence. These would-be villains, chief among them Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and the assassin Deadshot (Will Smith), are weaponized antiheroes. It’s a delightful idea that the opening 20 minutes of mock-mythic character intros — the movie’s best material by a mile — milks for more juice than it’s worth. “You wanna put the heart of our national security in the hands of witches, gangbangers, and crocodiles?” a government agent asks, hinting at a more mischievous movie than this one — and at Ayer and Co.’s habit of talking too big a game.
It’s no wonder there’s been so much energy spent promoting the ensemble’s off-camera antics. Ayer, who wrote the script, barely writes that stuff into the movie. The anarchy on set is a smoke screen, it seems, conveniently manufactured during the press tour to make up for the dour and tame final product. But what’d they think would happen when people finally saw the movie? Suicide Squad’s conceit is not the difficulty of managing a crew of unpredictable lone wolves, as promised by the trailer, but rather the sentimental fact of their togetherness. Again, odd choice. These are dangerous killers held, humorously but unhappily, at the mercy of an iPhone. Their boss is agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), who dreamed up this nightmare consortium and can, as their maker, terminate any member of the squad with the tap of a touch screen.
Picture those constraints on the likes of Harley Quinn — a woman crazy-in-love enough to jump into a vat of acid for bae — and you’ve likely pictured a movie premised on the violent dysfunction of its ensemble: DisgustedViolaDavis.gif in movie form, at least half the time. But we don’t see the crew fumble through the hard task of making at-odds personalities cohere, because that would require a greater sense of invention than Ayer can provide. And it’d be more fun than what he has in mind. Instead, the squad’s painful backstories, emphatic emotional bulletpoints drawn from the source material, push them into a group hug that defines much of the movie. Their automatic coherence is preordained — there’s no mystery or excitement, no sense of discovery. By the end, the point is overstated. “I lost one family,” says the flammable gangbanger Diablo. “I’m not gonna lose another one.” Diablo, in fact, burned his wife and kids alive in an abusive fit of rage, so “lost” is an odd way to putting it.
Will, Margot: you punched each other for this?
Sentimentality isn’t a categorical flaw. But in the case of Suicide Squad, it’s an easy out that speaks to the director’s limited imagination: When dark, vicious comedy is out of reach, aim for the hair-triggered feels. Ayer forgets, somehow, that actors act — that movie stars are stars not because of untold tales from Will Smith’s rec room, but because of what happens when the cameras are rolling. For all its cast and crew’s inglorious chest-thumping, Suicide Squad is a failed, forced exercise in — of all things! you had one job! — ensemble chemistry.
Might we have seen this coming? Big ensembles are famously difficult: balancing so many emotional lives, detailing them, carving them into individuals who nonetheless make sense in sum, is not easy. That’s no excuse. Hollywood’s blockbuster machine has gotten plenty of practice at the ensemble game, especially lately. There would be no summer blockbuster nowadays without the heroically-sized hero cast. This includes the actual superheroes — your Avengers, your Justice League, your X-Men and Guardians of the Galaxy — and your everyday Ghostbusters, your Trekkies, your Star Wars warriors. To say nothing of the increased popularity of non-fantasy ensemble reboots like the forthcoming The Magnificent Seven and Ocean’s Ocho. Even a macho libertarian like Batman no longer gets to stand alone. In retrospect, it’s remarkable a chamber piece like Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity got the green light for a $100 million budget — not that it was easy!
Gravity was a fall release, however. For summer blockbusters, the declining era of the box office star brings with it an over-reliance on big casts comprised of people who, on their own, in the days of Hollywood yore, might have been enough to draw a crowd. Today’s would-be box office stars, the likes of Jennifer Lawrence and Robert Downey Jr., sign onto these tentpoles long-term but too often have the breadth of their talent underserved by the material. In an ensemble movie like Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Ocean’s Eleven, that isn’t such a bother: we’re in on the joke. We don’t watch that movie to see George Clooney and Brad Pitt immerse themselves in rigorous method acting. We watch to imagine actors we love getting together, as themselves, and robbing a casino.
We watch superhero movies, by contrast, to see actors we love get a little weird and play the impossible. For all the shit we might give someone like Jared Leto for his deliberately overdoing it in Suicide Squad, playing the Joker like a neon, slick-haired Miami Vice villain, at least he tries to reinvent himself. Will Smith, on the other hand, is an algorithmic hologram of every one of his past roles. The sourest note, true to the comics but overplayed here, is the deadbeat dad routine. “My daughter is gonna know that her daddy’s not a piece of shit,” he says toward the end, in a ready-made Oscar reel. Margot Robbie, meanwhile, starts the movie on a high note — airborn, in fact, writhing and twirling on ribbons like she’s reenacting one of P!nk’s awards show stunts. But she too overplays the familiar, laying on a Wolf of Wall Street–thick accent that devolves as she devolves from low to lower, from sex kitten to lovelorn sap.
One actor does make delightful use of her persona, walking out of every one of her scenes with the movie in her back pocket. That actor is, of course, Viola Davis, DC’s answer to Samuel L. Jackson — but better. She, too, plays a backstory-lite boss who serves the movie more style and wit than it deserves. She’s also, as a government agent whose motivations and methods are increasingly suspect, the best villain the movie has to offer. Notice that as she’s pitching the Suicide Squad to her bosses, the gleefully violent world she describes is depicted in some of Ayer’s wildest images — pink-tinged with psychotic joy. She brings out the best in him.
And in her costars. Watching her cut and chew a steak with villainous relish, you realize she’s all you wanted the movie to be — all it could have been: a venomous, sensuous, dark, comedic delight. She’s proof DC can make it work. Next time, though, give her her own movie.