Suicide Squad is the third entry in the new DC Extended Universe (DCEU) of cinematic superheroes. However, it takes the admirable risk of going beyond DC’s go-to blockbuster heroes, Batman and Superman. Instead, Suicide Squad explores some lesser-known characters, and specifically, puts villains in the spotlight. However, the movie’s a mess of bad editing and good ideas about bad people. In this regard, it’s similar to its own sympathetic yet decidedly nasty villains.

I don’t know much about the Suicide Squad. But I was familiar with the notion of a government agency pulling villains together to make them do heroic things under threat of death, thanks to the Justice League Unlimited story “Task Force X” and later, Arrow’s inclusion of the group.

The Suicide Squad is overseen by lesser-known DC villainess/antihero Amanda Waller, a personal favorite of mine from Justice League Unlimited. Waller has no superpowers and no unique costume, job, or backstory. She’s a government bureaucrat with a heart of stone, an archetypal “do anything to get the job done” official. If that means manipulating employees and superheroes, so be it. If that means pulling villains out of prison to implant them with remote-controlled neck explosives so they’ll go into dangerous situations and act like heroes, that’s just up Waller’s dark alley.

Suicide Squad isn’t interested in using its potentially fascinating antiheroes as anything more than props for an often vexingly short show.

A Little Silhouette of a Villain

Suicide Squad begins where Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) ended. Superman has died and Batman is apparently still working in Gotham City. (We briefly see one other hero, the Flash, but his cameo is frustratingly fast.) Metahumans (i.e., superpowered individuals) are on the rise. Waller wants to be ready for them, so she forms the Suicide Squad, a team consisting of powered and uber-talented super-criminals.

I wonder, though, if Waller actually chose the heaviest metahuman hitters for the team. Much of her roster seems based on “familiarity to DC fans” rather than “crucial to have in a crisis.” For example:

  • Harley Quinn is a crazy woman who is the Joker’s girlfriend. This seems her only “skill.”
  • “Captain Boomerang” is a wild-eyed crazy criminal who sometimes throws boomerangs.
  • Killer Croc is a human/crocodile mutant who gets too little screen time and fewer skills.
  • Slipknot doesn’t get an introduction, meaning he may as well wear a red shirt.

These villains are fun to watch but with the exception of Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), they’re mostly background characters. That being said, Harley’s primary purpose seems to be providing fan service. She’s psychologically unstable and in a complicated relationship with the world’s most famous clown gangster but she can’t really do anything useful other than whack evil creatures with a baseball bat. I struggled, not just with her scanty attire, but to keep up with what little story she had.

Far more interesting are Deadshot and Diablo, two semi-repentant and sympathetic villains.

Deadshot (Will Smith) gets a treatment similar to Sandman in 2007’s Spider-Man 3 and Scott Lang in 2015’s Ant-Man: they’re all bad guys who aren’t really so bad because they have beloved cute daughters. Deadshot is a suave hitman with sporadic principles, such as when his girl incidentally becomes the most important child in the DCEU by begging him not to kill Batman. Moments like this make me curious to see past his lackluster story here, and to however Deadshot could figure in future stories. Furthermore, it’s clear that Will Smith is having a blast with all this.

Diablo’s (Jay Hernandez) story intrigued me the most. He’s another cinematic pyrokinetic but he has a tragic story of abusing his gifts to seek glory on the street and losing it all. Unlike his squad-mates, Diablo seems to have truly repented. He’s sworn off violence and refuses to kill again. But as part of the Squad, Diablo must kill again or else put his teammates in danger (or be killed himself).

Diablo’s story could’ve been an intriguing continuation of the real-life debates concerning (superhero) violence and consequences that we’ve had due to Batman v Superman and 2013’s Man of Steel. The same goes for the stories of Katana (an intriguing heroine lost in the background, a swordswoman in grief over the husband whose soul is trapped in her blade) and Enchantress (an ancient extra-dimensional entity that possesses a human woman and carries a grudge for interesting reasons).

But Suicide Squad throws that all away. Diablo’s subplot affects no one. Katana has no resolution. Enchantress becomes just another glowing, bikini-clad CGI enhancement who invades a city and shoots another scary magic beam into the sky to Take Over The World.

A Little High, A Little Low

I don’t mind a film centered around supervillains. I wouldn’t even mind a film that in a sense “exalted” villainy if it also challenged us to consider whether or not a villain’s life is really all that exalted. But on first watch, Suicide Squad isn’t interested in using its potentially fascinating antiheroes as anything more than props for an often vexingly short show.

The story wants to raise some fascinating ideas near its end. How could a serial killer have sincere love for his daughter? Why does Harley adore the Joker? What do these villains actually want? And most fascinatingly, could a villain who has abused his power and killed people really “make up for it” by some righteous deed, or find any way to return to a “normal” life of mortgage payments and career advancement?

But unlike Batman v Superman’s clear resolution of its titular conflict, Suicide Squad doesn’t stick around to answer these questions. It doesn’t even cleverly subvert them, or rebelliously refuse to answer them. The story simply gets distracted by another character or subplot. The editing is too fast. The story length leaves little breathing room. And the film’s pace doesn’t allow what could have been genuinely surprising plot twists to get set up or later sink in.(Director David Ayer conceded the structure was reorganized later in production.)

By the time the credits rolled, I was heartened by some genuine fan-happy moments, such as the near-exact onscreen reproduction of DC villains and a mid-credits scene featuring a near-reprise of an excellent confrontation from Justice League Unlimited. At the same time, I was extremely disappointed by the story’s clash of sincere exploration and its thoughtless exploitation of such promising themes and characters.

Perhaps this is mostly due to the film’s never-ending pop tunes. Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s operatic overtures this is not. Instead, Suicide Squad jumps from montage to montage, all smothered in classic rock and hip-hop hits without a single pause to savor, say, an actual soundtrack with themes for its villains. I quickly tired of this approach. It seemed to grind home the exploitation, along with excuses for viewers to imagine that they, too, are just as nihilistic, “broken,” and empty-glamorous as Harley Quinn and the Joker.

I could try to be all academic-esque and force a meaning here, like about how this crew of villains, with their positive and negative impulses, is really an accurate reflection of sinful humanity or something. And perhaps this is true. But it seems silly to draw that out of the story itself. Instead, I’m left to conclude that the story’s own troubled production better reflects this idea. One storyteller may have wanted to seriously explore villainy. Another may have wanted to exploit villainy’s songs, angst, and imagery strictly for the story LOLz. That’s the human-nature conflict: on the way to deeper ideals we get distracted by shiny objects and poor editing choices.

Regrouping the Suicide Squad

Before ending this without hope myself, I suggest a few ways to improve Suicide Squad.

First, release a director’s cut. Several scenes from trailers, most featuring the Joker (Jared Leto), were cut for the film’s two-hour runtime. I have a feeling a director’s cut would restore some breathing room and better pacing. It might offer more time to think alongside these villains, consider their histories and aspirations, and know them as (meta-)human beings.

Second, pull back on the pop soundtrack. We get it: Suicide Squad is a cool, contemporary story with groovy villains like the Joker who wear bling and own seedy clubs. However, don’t add even more hip-hop to an extra half-hour of footage. Rather, let a film composer orchestrate actual themes for the story and its characters.

Third, move on with the film series as originally intended. Don’t be intimidated by Batman v Superman critical misfires that imply we can only have one kind of stereotypical “fun” in superhero films. No more hacking up existing scripts or movies, or releasing rumors that you did. Just explore stories of enjoyment that contain mythic significance. (The early trailer for 2017’s Wonder Woman hints at these very elements.) Don’t fear meaning and heroism. Embrace them! Trust audience members to grow into this challenge.

Fourth, give us better stories with Deadshot, Harley, Katana, Amanda Waller, and the rest; make their limited roles in Suicide Squad seem better by future comparison. These are fantastic characters with rich story possibilities if they’re placed in stories filled with actual tension because of their interactions with heroes. Just as every hero story needs a villain, every villain story needs a hero. Maybe that’s what was always missing from Suicide Squad — a great hero to emphasize and then challenge the villains’ actions. Future stories could pit Batman against Deadshot, Flash against Captain Boomerang, or Wonder Woman against Amanda Waller. Perhaps, like some heroes, villains find the most meaning by decreasing so that true heroes can increase.