Bandwagons; whoever the main supplier in Southern California is they must be absolutely minted by now. On both sides of the Hollywood divide there’s enough rolling stock to give the most ardent train spotter the stiffs. One of the most laden carriages currently on the studio side is the comic book movie. But chasing it in the maximum occupancy stakes, on the critics side of things, is the DC bashing wagon which is now close to overflowing.
We previously mounted a tentative defence of Zack Snyder’s Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), albeit acknowledging the huge problems the film had. The critics gave the movie a proper kicking and for the most part it was justified. Following on from the battering that Green Lantern (2011) and Man of Steel (2013) received, and in comparison to the huge success Marvel are having DC’s movie universe appears to be on the ropes.
And haven’t the critics just loved it. Movie reviewers adore being snide. Some of them pray for billion dollar summer blockbusters to fail just so they can break out their best putdowns and zingers. In the DC movie universe they have found their perfect target, a well-known franchise backed by one of the biggest Hollywood studios that is failing miserably. As a side bonus, articles slating comic book products gain masses of extra internet clicks (and therefore more advertising revenue) as ‘fanboys’ read through said reviews just to get in an angry lather and lead the keyboard warrior counter charge.
Next in the critical firing line was David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (2016). As with previous DC movie reviews, it only took a couple of opening salvos before every other Hollywood reviewer followed suit. It was a veritable landslide, so virulent Ayer must have wondered who he had pissed off in the media establishment. One reviewer was so desperate for attention they claimed it was worse than Fantastic Four (2015).
I’m not sure it’s possible for another mainstream blockbuster to be worse than Fantastic Four. Suicide Squad isn’t perfect; if you had to pitch it somewhere, Ayer’s movie hovers between average and good. That’s an improvement on Batman vs Superman at least and may have finally seen DC turn a corner.
As with Snyder’s Dawn of Justice, the problems with Suicide are fairly obvious, so in theory they should be easy to fix going forward with the franchise. The tone of the film is a bit of a mess. It sways back and forth between dark comedy and earnest drama seemingly at will, even in the middle of the same scene at times. Batman is a superfluous inclusion; it wouldn’t make a difference if he were in the film or not. The Dark Knight shouldn’t ever be superfluous. As such his first coming together with our new movie Joker is wasted, a throwaway car chase scene included just to land Harley Quinn behind bars.
The soundtrack smacks of obviousness. Marvel’s own rag-tag-bunch movie Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) used the same gimmick of forgotten cheesy tunes undercutting the seriousness of proceedings. It was a well woven device driven by Peter Quill’s mixed tape plot point, used sparingly but to great effect. Suicide just grabs a random selection of popular songs and sprinkles them willy-nilly throughout hoping the result will be the same; it’s not. Why a tense fight in an elevator needed to be scored with K7’s Come Baby Come is a mystery, as are a number of the other song choices.
There are also some questions over plot logic. Central string-puller government agent Amanda Waller devises Task Force X as a last resort against US meta-human terror threats. The effectiveness of knife flinger Captain Boomerang, baseball-bat swinger Harley Quinn, meat muncher Killer Croc, and wall climber Skipknot is highly questionable when supersized villains are tearing up whole cities. Their ineffectiveness is further highlighted when it turns out normal soldiers with guns make a much better job of taking out the film’s token bad guys than they do.
Fortunately, things are much better elsewhere. Will Smith had a tough job selling the morals of hired hitman Deadshot. Smith can do sympathetic characters in his sleep though and his Floyd Lawton is a likeable rogue with genuine skill. The team’s leader and token non-villain is military man Rick Flag, who on paper sounded dull and generic. Thanks to a great performance by Joel Kinnaman Flag is one of the standouts. Viola Davis has tremendous fun as the aforementioned Waller and the script is smart enough to leave her intentions ambiguous; by the films end we’re still unsure if she’s a hero or a bag-guy.
Jay Hernandez provides an interesting take on the meta-human plot as Diablo, a former LA gang member who has sworn off violence after his ability to produce fire cost him his family. Alongside Smith he provides some genuine pathos. Jai Courntey as Captain Boomerang relies too much on racial stereotyping to be interesting, but is welcome comic relief stealing a lot of the laughs from Harley Quinn.
The most anticipated displays though were from Margot Robbie and Jared Leto as Harley and the Joker. The viewer’s tolerance for the former depends on their fondness for the comic character and her pig-tailed coquettishness. The script tries far too hard to make Harley funny, cool and quirky, a lot of her lines falling flat as a result, “We’re bad guys. It’s what we do.” Some of her jokes do raise the odd smile though, just enough to achieve the fine balance between annoyance and humour that is the heart of the character on the page. By the end Harley just about wins you over thanks to the faithfulness of the adaptation if nothing else.
By contrast Leto’s Joker is a big departure from his traditional comic incarnation, and whether viewers enjoy this portrayal will come down to personal taste. Comparisons with previous performances will be inevitable. For Batman (1989) Jack Nicholson simply played himself in Joker make-up, which was perfect for the time. In The Dark Knight (2008) Ledger gave us an anarchist, who despite declaring he didn’t plan anything planned a whole lot, even if the motivation was to just do it for shits and giggles. Leto’s Joker however is genuinely insane. There doesn’t seem to be much going on behind his sparkly eyes other than madness and everything he does seems driven by impulse. Style wise, he looks more west coast ‘gangsta’ than comic villain, which hasn’t sat well with some fans; why would the Joker be worried about material things such as gold chains, nightclubs, and purple sports cars? But you can’t be the Clown Prince of Crime without stealing a little. And despite the gold accoutrements Joker remains terrifying, a true sense that he could cast aside the jewellery at any moment and carve someone’s face off if the thought tickled him just so.
The downside is that there’s not enough of him. In addition, Joker’s ‘turning’ of Dr. Harleen Quinzel is incredibly convenient and nowhere near convincing enough to have the viewer believe a top physician could be made in to Harley that easily. Much more time was needed to flesh out this story angle. An odd scene of Quinzel diving in to a vat of acid to prove her loyalty also makes no sense at all, particularly after Joker joins her and they both emerge from the gloop completely unscathed.
In comparison to Leto’s Joker, Cara Delevingne’s villainous Enchantress misses the mark. While her army of mutated troops are creepy enough, her presence boils down to the Squad needing someone to beat up on when the dramatic finale arrives. More tangles with the Joker would have been the preferred alternative. Despite this the film still entertains thanks to the quality of the actors involved. If Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill were the best things in Batman vs Superman, it’s a similar story here with Leto, Robbie, Smith, Davis and the rest ensuring Ayer’s movie is still an entertaining watch. And with so much going on during its two hours, if a scene doesn't grab the viewer it isn't too much of an issue; there will be another scene coming along in a few minutes time.
Next up is Wonder Woman (2017). Trailers have already revealed this to be a more serious affair, similar to Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) with a World War / period setting. Whether it’s a smart choice releasing another dark adaptation built around a hero who appears to have had a sense of humour bypass so soon after Man of Steel remains questionable. Chris Pine is on hand this time to add some fizz, but it’s also debatable whether adding Captain Kirk to potentially steal the movie away from one of your supposed stars is a good idea. In the meantime Warner Bros. will have to continue waiting for a positive critical reception and instead count the half billion box office dollars Suicide Squad has earned to date.