Last weekend, the Austin contingent of Loser City got together to watch the much maligned hit Suicide Squad. Kayleigh Hughes, Chris Jones and Nick Hanover (and Dylan Garsee, who is too busy running a fancy chicken shack to participate in roundtables these days) went in with low expectations but were pleasantly surprised by the film, so they did what pop culture writers always do in these situations: they put together a roundtable to discuss why their take differed from the critical consensus.
Nick Hanover: When the three of us saw Suicide Squad this weekend, we went in aware of the blitz of bad reviews and fan dismay but I think all of us came out pleasantly surprised by the movie, even though each of us has totally different levels of affection for superhero action films. So let’s start this off by talking about what we thought Suicide Squad would be. I know for me, I expected the film to be more of Batman vs. Superman’s gibberish grittiness except with more smarmy edginess and hints of Juggalo aesthetic. But what were the two of you expecting?
Kayleigh Hughes: Based on the reviews, I guess I was expecting an incoherent plot beyond the traditional expected level of incoherence for an action or superhero movie. And I dunno, a scene set in a Hot Topic in a crumbling evacuated mall. But realistically, based on the trailer/my dreams, I was expecting lots of colors, emphasis on the characters and their kooky losery bad guy quirks. Like Ocean’s Eleven with studded belts and lots of literal (and musical) grime. I also thought the Squad would fight the Joker and make fun of him a bunch.
“Juggalo aesthetic” is a rude phrase, Nick, and you should regret saying it.
Chris Jones: I would say I was cautiously optimistic up until the opening week, and then I was certain I was going to hate it. I ranted at length last week about what a miserable shit show Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice had been, and when similar review scores to that film started popping up and word of mouth started spreading about how awful it was, I actually almost considered cancelling on you guys (almost! That would have been a huge dick move).
But now that you ask, I guess I didn’t anticipate much about what the movie would actually be like going in. I think Young Thug was supposed to be on the soundtrack (although I don’t recall hearing him in the movie) so that alone told me that something about this movie had its priorities straight. I guess at my most optimistic I thought it would be a pretty good no-frills action movie, and at my lowest point I was certain it was going to be a BVS-style train wreck.
Nick: The visceral, kneejerk hatred of this film by critics, particularly critics who like the Marvel movies, was really surprising to me. I noticed that a lot of the things I liked about the film were singled out by other critics as flaws, like the AV Club’s condemnation of Suicide Squad as Spring Breakers by way of Arkham Asylum. I felt like Suicide Squad was being skewered for the DC films’ general problems, like their murky visuals and nonsensical plotting. Why do you think so many critics were so bothered by this movie? Kayleigh, I’m especially interested in what made the movie click for you that hasn’t clicked for you with other movies in the genre.
Kayleigh: Well, for one thing, even though they’re mostly crazy meta-human criminals, the members of the Squad were a lot more like real people than the shiny rich sculpted superheroes I see a lot. Abilities aside, they’re all people that society has a tendency to be shitty to, which just for that reason alone makes them more real and interesting to me. I’m a sucker for underdogs, especially when they actually are, versus, like, “rich white boy who got made fun of once” or something. So I think to a degree critics honestly didn’t know why they should care about these gross, trashy losers. Maybe people want grand and epic in their superhero movies and this film was absolutely not grand and epic. Will Smith’s Deadshot gleefully and flawlessly firing off rounds into targets after being imprisoned and gunless is massively low-stakes, but it’s probably the most I’ve ever liked watching someone shoot a gun. Because he’s having fun and his character is happy and it’s a weird fucked up thing that’s making him happy and that’s really endearing.
And, while apparently people said the plot was a mess, I liked that too much time was spent on the non-mission parts of the movie, because missions are so boring, you guys. I’m utterly desensitized to the million ways there are to destroy a city and threaten the world with total annihilation, and the Suicide Squad folks were way more interested in swapping bad deed stories around a bar. A couple shots in and Harley shrugs and bounces off to complete the mission because it’s not like they have anything better to do, which is so much more fun.
I still think, like I suspected before seeing the film, that the reactions fall along style lines. If you think “aesthetics” is primarily about shiny perfection, accuracy, symbolism, and grandiosity, you’re not going to love Suicide Squad. If you think of aesthetics in terms of style and personality, and you’re into imperfection, lack of pretension, playfulness, nastiness (and I don’t mean fratty bad-words-haha Deadpool-type nastiness), you might like it.
And it’s just so much more pleasant to watch movies when not a single important character is a growling golden mancube.
Chris: I noticed a lot of critics talking about how the plot didn’t make a lot of sense, but that doesn’t account for that visceral hatred you pointed out. And the story is honestly pretty elegant for a superhero movie: Big Monster is wrecking a city–>stop the Big Monster. Some aspects of the movie did feel shoehorned, like Katana’s entire character, or how the Joker just kind of flutters on the periphery of the story as opposed to impacting it in any meaningful way, but those transgressions aren’t severe enough to account for the mania this thing has produced, and if there were any outright plotholes I didn’t notice them (this isn’t even the type of movie where plot is paramount in the first place, so getting hung up on such things would be petty in the first place).
I think a lot of people simply must have gotten flashbacks to Joel Schmaucher’s carnivalesque Batman movies of the ‘90s and simply branded Suicide Squad with guilt by association. The colors are garish, the editing is spasmodic and the performances are campy; all of this is true. The movie definitely conforms to an adolescent idea of “cool,” but I don’t see that as being an intrinsically bad thing: If I’d seen this as a teenager I probably would’ve had a fucking blast (and I did anyway!). I think this movie did put a lot of work into being cool, from the trap soundtrack to the streetwear flexing, and a lot of people would say that automatically discounts Suicide Squad from being cool by any legitimate definition, but to my mind, it just shows that the movie understands its audience.
Nick: I appreciated that the film just embraced what it was and stuck with it. One of my main issues with current superhero movies is that they try to appeal to everyone and become bland and uninspired as a result, particularly with their homogenized casting. The characters in Suicide Squad were frequently cartoonish but even so I felt like there was a lot more depth to them than you usually encounter in action movies, and the casting was inspired. Which characters stood out to the two of you the most and why? Who do you feel was the weakest link? Who would you have wanted to see more of and in what ways?
Chris: You touch on a problem I’ve had with superhero movies starting around the first wave of Marvel films that I hadn’t been able to articulate before Suicide Squad, which is that most superhero films aren’t as concerned with catering to the viewer’s entertainment needs as they are long seminars about why the world of the movie you’re watching is Serious & Important. Marvel movies are known for being light and somewhat whimsical, but even they can get very mechanical about this, bogging themselves down in their own mythology and worldbuilding, sacrificing memorable dialogue and action set pieces for the sake of maintaining consistency of aesthetics and making the presence of the various aspects of their world known. Even a non-franchise-connected movie like The Dark Knight Rises had problems with this, spending a bizarre amount of screenplay time explaining the mechanics of Bruce’s weird water bomb thing.
Suicide Squad really doesn’t have much of that; in the first 10 minutes you have Will Smith shooting people in the face to an Action Bronson track, and the movie’s commitment to fun moments like that maintains for most of its runtime. It doesn’t feel like a sales pitch about the importance of a shared universe, it’s just a big-ass movie with a lot of cool stuff going on in it that happens to have a tenuous connection to Dawn of Justice. It’s a storytelling ethos that’s hard to articulate, a movie telling you it’s entertaining as opposed to just being entertaining, but I know it when I see it, and most superhero movies are the former, and Suicide Squad is the latter.
ANYWAY to actually answer your question: I think it’s no real surprise that my favorites were Deadshot and Harley Quinn, considering both of them get by far the lion’s share of the film’s screentime. Will Smith is just…Will Smith, which is fine, perhaps even desirable. Margot Robbie captures Haley’s essence perfectly; during the flashback when her and the Joker are being chased by the Batmobile, I got flashbacks to The Animated Series. It’s not just that she gets the voice, she walks that weird line between cunning lunacy and childish vulnerability that makes Harley so complex and fun to watch in any media she shows up in. I don’t think you could have cast a better actress for the role.
Speaking of the Joker, I actually really liked Jared Leto’s performance and I wish he could’ve had a bit more screentime, although I understand the desire to not have him suck all the oxygen out of the room like the Joker does in pretty much everything he shows up in. The tattoos and clownpimp leisure suits didn’t bother me as much as I thought they would (I even grew a weird fondness for them), and there’s a swishiness with the way he moves and implements his various accents that resonated with the character’s core. Despite being maybe the most visually divergent incarnation of the Joker in the character’s history, I thought what little I saw of him was very true to the comics, and I’d love to see Leto have more room to maneuver in the upcoming Batfleck movie.
It also must be said that Katana kind of got the shit end of the, er…katana, with her role in this film. She was the most obvious victim of the haphazard editing process this film is already infamous for: she’s introduced with absolutely no explanation about a third of the way into the movie, and for being a late addition it isn’t clear what she’s able to accomplish that the rest of the team wasn’t able to manage on her own. It feels like there’s a cut out there that dives deeper into her motivation and reason for being on the team other than “her husband lives in her sword,” and I think some more judicious editing could have made her stand out and feel more valuable as a member of the cast.
Kayleigh: My Top 5 Best Characters in Suicide Squad, ranked, are:
1. Chato Santana aka El Diablo 2. Harley Quinn (shut up) 3. Deadshot duh 4. Viola Davis 5. Katana
I think Chato Santana is one of the greatest superhero characters I’ve ever encountered and he is so noble and serious and real and I think his dialogue, in particular, was some of the best in a film with, admittedly, not always great dialogue. I also love Harley Quinn so much and don’t think her character is actually particularly sexist. She’s mesmerizing and interesting and driven. They gave her some cheesy lines but that’s hardly the worst sin you can commit in one of these types of movies. Will Smith, as I’ve already noted, was an utter delight, and Viola Davis as Amanda Waller tied the film together completely. It would have been nothing without her.
Katana, as a character, is awesome, and the film’s utilization of her is a shame. Her sword keeps the souls of those it kills, and she’s avenging her husband’s death, and she’s brutal and takes no shit–and yet the film didn’t even actually introduce her, she has almost no dialogue, and her arc is nonexistent. She deserved better, so much better, than being crushed on by the guy with the boomerang who was unnecessary and annoying and the only regularish generic-ish character in the film.
Nick: To wrap this up, what do you two think the legacy of Suicide Squad will be? The movie seems to be doing well financially despite the poor critical reception, and it has been clicking with women and people of color in particular, as they’ve come out in larger numbers and have given it more favorable reviews (will add link in post). Some commentators have even termed the film “DC’s Fast and Furious,” both because of its strong financial turn and its shrugworthy critical response. Do you think we’ll see more action movies that look like this? Do you think WB in particular will learn the right lessons from its success? Or should we expect this to be a fluke of sorts?
Kayleigh: I honestly have no idea how they make superhero movie decisions. It seems mostly based on misguided assumptions that only white young men watch these movies and that they only want to see other white people–men as heroes, women as clotheshangers for bikinis–and then they act surprised over and over again that women and people of color have interests and money. So don’t ask me what the studios will do.
I am confident, though, that it will be a cult favorite that friends will show other friends, and that it will be one of those movies that people use to say, “no I promise the superhero world isn’t just Christian Bale growling in a dimly lit mansion!” I think it will age pretty well, especially because of the casting, and I hope that it did well enough that Amanda Waller gets to send the Squad on more lighthearted and low-stakes missions. I would also watch them in a TV show. Just saying.
Chris: I don’t think Suicide Squad is ever going to recover in the middlebrow nerd circles that control the coverage of these types of movies. It wasn’t made for those people, and that’s a sin they have a hard time forgiving. I think for all intents and purposes, Suicide Squad is heretofore going to be considered a Bad Movie.
That said, I agree with Kayleigh that this movie will survive in small pockets of viewerdom via word of mouth, simply because it’s so different from its contemporaries. I can easily envision a group of friends cracking some 40’s and buckling in for Suicide Squad much more easily than I can do the same for any of the Captain America movies, and I think that alone is going to ensure that the film has a dedicated fanbase for years to come.