Saturday, August 06, 2016

Thoughts on Suicide Squad

Back in 1987, DC Comics started publishing Suicide Squad by John Ostrander and Luke McDonnell. Ostrander's brilliant premise was this: in a world of independent, potentially dangerous people and aliens with powers far beyond those of mortal men, the American government found itself in need of a covert task force of equally super-powered people to counter the perceived threat. Government agent Amanda Waller - one of the great creations of modern comics - recruits a team of so-called super-villains into Task Force X, offering them time off their prison sentences in exchange for engaging in suicide missions for the government. They really have little choice, because Waller has implanted bombs in their necks that can be set off remotely if the villains try to escape or otherwise disobey. Colloquially, they're known as the Suicide Squad, since the odds of coming back from any given mission are slim.

This paranoid, cynical premise is a perfect reflection of the late cold war era, and Ostrander played on the tropes of the time brilliantly, giving the villainous characters depth rivaling and even surpassing DC's more famous protagonists - Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman and all the rest. During the course of the series one-note villains such as the ludicrous Captain Boomerang or the deeply damaged Deadshot are given new dimensions; as I reader, I found myself sympathizing with them even on those occasions when they were put into conflict with the mainstream heroes. Over the course of five years and 63 issues, Ostrander and his team delivered engaging, morally ambiguous stories rich with drama, action and character development, while also offering wry commentary on the politics of the day.

When I heard that Suicide Squad was to be adapted to film, I was equal parts excited and wary. Summer blockbusters are not the ideal venue to explore the more subtle aspects of Ostrander's original comic; it would be all to easy to simply skim off the surface of the work - the action and some character beats - throw them into a few chase and fight sequences and call it a day.

And indeed, that's exactly what's happened with David Ayer's big screen Suicide Squad. Most critics are panning the film, and I fully expected to do so myself. It's true that film is front-loaded with exposition, that it's too dark - not in tone, but visually - and that the villain is somewhat one-note. What makes the movie work for me is its treatment of the Squad members: assassin Deadshot, petty crook Captain Boomerang, the deranged clown princess of crime, Harley Quinn, the monstrous, mutated Killer Croc, the witch-possessed Enchantress, the ex-gang banger El Diablo, and their government overseers, Colonel Rick Flag and Katana, who wields a sword that steals the souls of those it kills.

Of course this reads as somewhat ridiculous, but part of enjoying this genre is accepting that the world of superheroics includes all manner of wondrous and bizarre properties. What makes the film work (for me, at least) is the way these characters interact with each other and how they respond to the situation Amanda Waller and the government have imposed upon them. They are, to say the least, reluctant heroes, and the antagonistic griping slung back and forth is one of the small delights of the film. The other is the way in which the backstories of several of the characters are revealed, particularly Deadshot, Harley Quinn and El Diablo. Each has his or her own dreams and fears, some realized, some not by the movie's end.

The mission itself is simple and linear: the squad has to fight its way through horde of monsters to first rescue an important figure trapped in the fray, and then to take out the threat itself. While not as well done as similar sequences in Dredd or The Raid: Redemption, the combination of action and character interplay keeps the film entertaining, and the final showdown itself is well-executed, has emotional weight, and even lives up to the title in ways I won't spoil.

The film also benefits from a great soundtrack and a neon purple-green colour palette that should have been used for more than the opening exposition sequences and the opening and closing credits; they give the film a very distinctive look during the sections where it's used, and could have livened up the (literally) darker sections of the movie.

The cameos from other DC characters feel unforced and natural, organic to the story, another plus.

It's possible that I'm being too easy on the film, given that it comes in the wake of the truly awful Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. But for the first time after watching one of the modern DC movies, I actually want to see more of these characters and their world.

Finally, the mid-credits sequence drops a very tantalizing possibility, one I hope a competent filmmaker realizes.

Suicide Squad is by no means a great movie, but it has a goofy charm thanks primarily to the charisma and pain of its core characters. Given a little polish and extra time in the editing room, it may have almost lived up to the comic itself. It doesn't reach that point - it doesn't really come close - but Suicide Squad (the film), deserves credit for ambition, if nothing else, and for showing the humanity in monsters and the monsters in humanity.



5 comments:

Jeff Shyluk said...

They could have simply re-made The Dirty Dozen - as rousing a war movie as has ever been made - and just replace Posey with Deadpool and Valislaw with Dr. Doom, or whoever these good villains are: I kind of only know the Joker and that Harley Quinn is a newcomer. It's not like the kids would have seen TDD, and by putting crazy make-up on the Dozen, they'd beat up on Nazis and everyone would go home happy. Seems like a slam-dunk to me.

Earl J. Woods said...

Yes, I think that might have been a better approach; instead of a mystic threat, the Squad could have been sent to take out a terrorist bunker (just like the DD took out the Nazi mansion). A more grounded set of bad guys might have given the movie more weight.

Jeff Shyluk said...

Besides, Dr. Octopus could fire eight machineguns! Eight!

Earl J. Woods said...

Well, Dr. Octopus is a Marvel character, so he couldn't be on the Suicide Squad, sadly.

Jeff Shyluk said...

I'd use Liquid Paper on your copy of the comic and draw him in myself! If Will Farrel can be allowed to glue together LEGO, I should be allowed to merge the universes.

Although, that's a bit egotistical. The best choice would be Richard Williams, who managed to get Disney, Warner Bros., and Fleisher Studios characters all into Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.