Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad (Warner Bros. Pictures/DC Comics)
Suicide Squad feels like a confession by Hollywood that they have finally run out of superheroes. It started with Superman, Batman and Spider-Man, three characters that even people who have never touched a comic book would know. The X-Men broke out of geek culture thanks to brilliant handling by Bryan Singer and some fortuitous casting choices, and the same instinct for casting helped second-tier heroes like Iron Man, Captain America and Thor become hits.
But, even as successful financially and even creatively as they have been, Hollywood is now reaching deep. Ant-Man? Deadpool? Half of the supporting cast of Captain America: Civil War that are poised for stand-alone movies? Those are back-bench material, the equivalent of doing an X-Men movie solely about Cyclops.
Suicide Squad goes even further: With no more superheroes left to feature, it focuses on the super villains. The idea, if not the execution, is brilliant. Even the best filmed versions of the Batman story had the hero upstaged by its Jokers (Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer). The villains are more fun, get the best lines and often have a psychological complexity that the heroes lack. Suicide Squad should be the cinematic equivalent of a meal that skips the vegetables and just offers dessert; who cares if it’s bad for you, when it tastes so good?
The movie, directed by David Ayer, never reaches that height, with the notable exception of Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). As the Arkham Asylum psychiatrist driven insane by the Joker (Jared Leto, filling the role that the late Heath Ledger made iconic), Robbie does work reminiscent of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. She is sexy, weird, funny and, unlike so many current female action stars, feels dangerous. Scarlett Johansson may convince people that her Black Widow could conceivably kill a person, but Robbie leaves no doubt that she actually will.
Robbie may have been a child during the height of the careers of Pfeiffer and Sharon Stone (as well as that era’s cinematic dilettante Courtney Love) but she shares that sense of instability. No matter the success of this movie, Robbie’s Harley Quinn seems primed for iconic status. Expect her pigtails, smeared make-up and baseball bat to be the dominant Halloween costume for women this year, and even make inroads among the more adventurous guys.
None of the other superheroes is nearly as fun as Harley Quinn, although some have their moments. Will Smith, despite playing the assassin Deadshot with a bodycount in the thousands, plays his role straight. With his story about losing custody of his beloved daughter, Smith seems less villain than anti-hero, and the anti- part often seems a stretch. Jay Hernandez gives some pathos to the pyromaniac Diablo, as does Joel Kinnaman as the gung-ho military man leading the expedition of supervillains.
Cara Delevingne plays the somewhat preposterous villain, an immortal witch called the Enchantress, but despite how silly the character becomes she remains entertaining, thus making her an improvement on the recent batch of comic-book villains. Captain America: Civil War may be an infinitely superior film, but only three months later it seems unlikely anyone remembers that film’s villain.
Like so many recent comic-book movies, Suicide Squad feels incomplete, as if it serves partially as its own film and partially as a trailer for the next big-budget tentpole. It at least improves upon Batman vs. Superman in that regard, spending more time on its own plot machinations and less time advertising for future installments in the franchise. Its best advertisement for a sequel is Margot Robbie herself, though. So long as she returns as Harley Quinn, Suicide Squad might not deserve to take its final mission.
Warner Bros. Pictures
In theaters Aug. 5
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