Suicide Squad [2016]

There is exactly one great ensemble-based action-adventure: the Iliad. Achilles is clearly the main character, inasmuch as his choices shape the narrative, but the bulk of the action features the other badasses being badass – Hektor propping up the entire Trojan side of the battle single-handed, Odysseus being all kinds of cunning, Ajax being mighty. Each of the Greek heroes gets at least one pretty thorough-going rampage, to prove what a badass they are. Homer does a lot of things to write the perfect heroic epic but the thing of most interest to me right now is something Robin Laws always says about writing: start as far into the story as you can. The Iliad picks up 7 years into the war, and it doesn’t waste any time explaining who Achilles is, who Agamemnon is, why they’re fighting, who’s in the moral right: nothing. It’s straight into the specific incident which triggers Achilles’ withdrawal from the war and it ends when Achilles re-enters the fighting. When they made Troy [2004], a film I adore, that was perhaps the one thing they over-did, showing the kidnap of Helen, the gathering of the army, and the fall of Troy. But I forgave them because all that stuff was badass and they didn’t spend too long on it.

So here’s the problem every ensemble film has faced ever since: nobody knows who the heroes are sufficiently well that you could really seriously think about not introducing them, and nothing shows this more clearly than The Magnificent Seven, which one way or another wastes about half its running time just showing them getting the seven together and unpacking each’s motivation for going along on the ride. In Kurosawa’s original this is dealt with much more swiftly, and I think part of the point is well made at the end when the two original Samurai are reflecting on the battle – they lost, but the villagers won. The point of the heroes and heroism is to see them sacrificed, to see their ultimate irrelevance in the natural ordering of village life. I wrote “wastes” above, but of course, without that effort, the film hinge of the film where they’re given back their lives by Calvera [Eli Wallach] just wouldn’t make sense, and you wouldn’t care about the individual battles within the final confrontation. The real story is actually about who those characters are, and what they do is really just an exclamation mark at the end of that explanation.

With Suicide Squad, like the Avengers before them and the Justice League to come, we’re at a cultural tipping point where I think the vast bulk of the audience could have named all the principal characters and told you their basic story before entering the cinema. We don’t really need any explanation about, well, there’s these super-beings and this one is called The Flash, or anything like that. Try an experiment – go to one of your “non-geek” (we’re all geeks now, but do your best) co-workers and ask them to name all the superheroes they can think of within a couple of minutes. If they can’t name and don’t name Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman, I would likely fall out of my chair in surprise. So a film like Suicide Squad, unlike The Magnificent Seven, isn’t starting on a blank canvas. It’s starting with all the main figures pretty well known, and if not known, then at least not a million miles away from things we’ve seen plenty of before. Don’t know the low-down on Deadshot? It’s not going to take a rocket scientist to connect the dots on that one. So my first major thought on Suicide Squad is that it wastes a third of its running time on exposition that frankly, even if it’s not directly repeating known facts, is telling you things of which you’re broadly aware. Most films can lose 20 minutes without losing anything, Suicide Squad can lose close to 45. Jut think how much more actual story they could have put into the film with a 50% increase in running length.

That 45 minutes could have done a lot for the film. As it stands, it’s an almost purely generic clone of The Dirty Dozen [1967], with lots of little action sequences which carry no emotional valence at all. The action in this film is pure spectacle, lacking any real procedural focus, any real scope for characterisation, or any real sense of jeopardy – because the stakes for any given conflict exist purely on the grounds of overcoming an obstacle. A fundamental structural feature of heroic stories is that the hero overcomes the obstacle – interest is always generated by things that are orthogonal to the main quest itself. The emotional beats are generated by a choice between alternate evils, not by simply powering through. This is why Hitchcock always regarded the Macguffin as purely a secondary consideration. He never really cared about whether his characters were chasing state secrets, or whatever, as long as there was some notional reason for them to have been launched into action. What Suicide Squad needed was some time to generate those sideways glances and diversions which are where the real emotion lies.

Having said that the Macguffin doesn’t really matter, the Macguffin in this film really didn’t work for me at all. It was the most boring version of the doomsday device I’ve seen since… well, actually, we’re awash with poorly conceived giant swirling death-globes just now, from the truly awful RIPD to the charming but structurally unsatisfying Ghostbusters, to the completely incomprehensible X-Men: Apocalypse. A wizard standing in the middle of a landmark chanting magic and just waiting for you to breach their protective layer of henchmen and kill them is … just so trite, so lazy, and so staggeringly unimaginative that anyone going into a pitch meeting with that climax should be fired on the spot.

From a structural perspective then, this film is a total write-off. But I always try and see the best in films – so assuming all this was a deliberate design decision and it’s just not aligned with my personal taste, what is there to take away from this film that we can like?

I think one of the main things we need to give it some kind of kudos for its gender representation. Now, not forgetting that everyone in the film is a sociopathic monster, we’re basically even on the numbers and level of focus on men and women. It’s a co-lead from Deadshot and Harley Quinn. The costume design did tend to show a lot more female flesh than male flesh however, so it’s a win with a caveat. What they lacked in clothing, I think they made up for in story drive – Quinn drove the action more than Deadshot, and of course the ultimate puppet master was Amanda Waller, so… yay?

I thought it was a great looking film, and had a fantastic sound design. The soundtrack was always spot-on, even if sometimes it felt a little obvious in retrospect. I’d need to see it again to confirm, but it felt well edited and paced to me. Editing is always a hard one to comment on with only a single viewing. The mechanics of the actual film and storytelling were also good. I was never confused about what was going on, or where. Can’t say the same for some other recent blockbusters.

Suicide Squad was that worst of things in a way – it was “okay”. Assuming that you’re not too bothered by a conventional storyline (as I wasn’t with one of my favourites from the last year, Deadpool) and provided you find the character introductions interesting (and they broadly are) then this film will perfectly adequately pass a couple of hours. I’m always really reluctant to say what a film “should” have been – I think that way lies madness – but what I hoped for was something that took the transgressive rule-breaking habit of Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and combined it with transgressive, rule-breaking characters, to do something interesting. And this just wasn’t.

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