I'm not going to lie. I have wrestled with this review since the week Suicide Squad came out.
A long time ago, when I was a new young writer in the field of media criticism, I would have gleefully eviscerated a film of this quality for laughs, clicks, and ad revenue. As I've grown older, I've realized there is no joy in excessive bitterness and snark. Unless you can actually build that voice into a legitimate criticism based on the actual content of the artifact being reviewed, there is no point. It's an exercise in self-congratulatory wit and has all the value of cotton candy in a well-balanced diet--a rare treat that can never substitute for something substantive and nutritious in your actual life.
To me, the criticism surrounding Suicide Squad has been driven by such a level of hyperbole and attempts at tweet-worthy soundbytes that an actual discussion of the film's flaws and merits was replaced by a dogpile on the obvious failings. Yes, Jared Leto's Joker is that bad. Yes, the film is too long. Yes, the structure of the film is convoluted. Yes, the main villain is ultimately pointless and uninteresting. And, yes, somehow, Harley Quinn's shorts do keep getting shorter in every scene without an actual costume change. These are all serious issues that deserve discussion.
But can such a discussion exist when the intent of an analysis is so directly impacted by a growing fatigue with the superhero genre and the excessive media campaigns surrounding them? And how much of the gleeful shredding of Suicide Squad is a response to the poor behavior of writer/director David Ayer and star Jared Leto?
It seems unfair to have to bring their onset actions into a discussion of the film, but I, myself, cannot separate my response to the film from their boastful stories of willfully irresponsible conduct onset.
David Ayer forced his actors to actually punch each other in the face in preparation for the film. Why? Because he's the director, he has a great reputation, Suicide Squad could be the next big superhero franchise, and DC paychecks are at stake. Unless you are a trained stunt performer executing choreographed movements that typically simulate, but do not actually engage in, physical contact, no one should be forcing you to strike another actor on the set of any project. That's not ok. It honestly makes me reconsider Ayer's filmography, especially the amount of violence he incorporates into his stories and themes, and what he's made other actors do in the past who didn't have the DC hype machine pushing the "these are all villains" narrative to the forefront. What have these actors endured for the chance of working with a director this revered?
As for Jared Leto, I'm not mad that he's a Method (capital M) actor. You find what works for you as an actor, you study the technique, and you apply it to your craft. Method works for him. Great. When your Method impacts the safety, sanity, and well-being of your costars, you've crossed the line. As soon as he started mailing inappropriate gifts (like dead animals) to his costars in the name of becoming the Joker, he should have been reprimanded; he wasn't. He was allowed to run free and do whatever he wanted as an Academy Award winning Method actor on the set of Suicide Squad.
The result is what should be a career-ending performance, not just for his inexcusable behavior during filming, but for honestly giving one of the single worst performances I have ever seen in a mainstream Hollywood film. There are untrained models, pop stars, and professional athletes who have delivered more convincing, tonally appropriate performances in fewer scenes than Leto does in his role as the Joker. His Joker is inescapable for all the wrong reasons. His presence looms over the film, forcing its way into every scene because of Harley Quinn's obsession and flashbacks to her relationship with him. The few times we actually see him are so out of sync with the reality of the Suicide Squad universe that you question if Leto even bothered to read the script before showing up to set. The easiest way to improve the entire film would be to delete every second of screentime the Joker has. Let his continued presence be the delusions of Harley Quinn, the pure ramifications of the psychological warfare he enacted on her to turn her from Dr. Harleen Quinzell into a sociopath.
Somewhere in Suicide Squad, there is a good 90 minute comedy/action film. It's not hard to find. The first 90 minutes are a bit uneven, but the traditional three act structure is there, complete with a great twist ending. Then there's another hour of film dedicated to the villain that has no bearing on the plot beyond increasing the budget of the film.
Enchantress is a fascinating character. In the comic world, she is June Moone, an artist who stumbles upon a magical being who gives her the power to transform into a sorceress who can counteract and eliminate the powers of any other magical being on Earth. The Enchantress trapped within her goes rogue when confronted with too dark a power, often leading her to switch from a tool for good in the Suicide Squad project (she can literally recapture the villains on the squad if they make a break for it) to an uncontrollable weapon of mass destruction.
Suicide Squad attempts to do that without actually embracing what makes Enchantress such a fascinating character. June Moone, now an archaeologist, has no agency over her abilities here. She is an unwilling tool of Amanda Waller, leader of Suicide Squad, and actually suffers extreme pain when she transforms into Enchantress. Moone still has to call on Enchantress herself, but it is forced upon her every single time. I'd go rogue and try to burn down the world, too, if I was being gaslit and tortured by a megalomaniac just to get funding for a paramilitary squad of supervillains. Only June Moone doesn't make that choice; Enchantress does.
Somehow, David Ayer decided the best use of one of the strongest women in the DC universe is to have her damsel herself in her own storyline and have that be the extent of her character development. Clearly, more time was spent deciding just how little chainmail could be used to cover Cara Delevigne's body as Enchantress than was spent considering the implications of dehumanizing the only reason people care about Enchantress in the film. Between Enchantress and Harley Quinn, it seems Ayer was more concerned with pleasing the male gaze than actually encouraging the development of any independent characters in the film.
Suicide Squad is not all bad. Most of the cast is good. Margot Robbie is the MVP as Harley Quinn. Ever skimpier costume aside, she's everything we've ever wanted in a live action Harley Quinn. She's smart, she's funny, she's tough, and she's a total loose cannon. Add in some impressive aerial stunts and perfect comedic timing and you have one of the more memorable DC cinematic villains.
Will Smith and Viola Davis carry the weight of the plot on their able shoulders. Will Smith is Deadshot, the assassin for hire and defacto leader of the Suicide Squad. Once the mission starts, he's in the lead. He makes the decisions for the team and does it in a way that seems believable in this universe.
Viola Davis, as Amanda Waller, sets the whole film in motion and makes you want to care about what happens in the film. That's huge considering how many elements fight against your interest. Her Waller is tough, charismatic, and just as unhinged as the villains she's wrangling together for the squad. The difference is she knows how to cover up her crimes and never gets caught.
There are certainly worse films in the world than Suicide Squad. I've watched enough horror films in my life to guarantee you that. But even in the world of the modern superhero film, Suicide Squad is just not good. Think The Wolverine or Iron Man 2. The people who will find the most joy in this are the totally uninitiated or the diehard DC fans who are just excited to see their favorite characters onscreen for the first time. Everyone else is probably going to walk away underwhelmed. This film needed a stronger hand to shape it, one that does not believe that violence in real life is somehow preparation for simulated violence on the silver screen.