Suicide Squad ½

Once in a while, I like to do a post-mortem of a movie that I've seen and actively disliked in order to figure out three things - what the movie does wrong, why it doesn't work, and how I can keep from making the mistakes it makes in my work. I am now starting to actively regret the existence of post-mortems in general.

From my point of view, the flaws of each separate DC movie can be condensed into a single question. Batman v. Superman's skittish editing, absurd plot cul-de-sacs, and baffling tonal and thematic shifts are best summed up with "what is this trying to convey?" while Justice League's lethargic action and incomplete narrative arcs can be compressed into "why do we care about any of this?". Even a relatively well-liked film like Wonder Woman suffers from the problem of "where is any of this going?", as its effective first two acts build into a clunky, CGI-heavy third act that undermine any attempt at gravitas.

The question at the core of Suicide Squad's many, many, many many many many MANY issues, then, is this - "why is this here?". Nothing present in the construction of this film, whether it be the visuals or the soundtrack or even individual scenes and arcs, seems to cohere with whatever story David Ayer wants to tell. Character traits are introduced at random, entire storylines are set up without any intention of payoff, and even narrative structure itself is bent to the whims of a disturbingly high-stakes game of artistic telephone. This film meets the bare minimum of what it needs to be a movie - there are pictures that move as well as a beginning, middle, and end - but what it actually contains is anyone's guess.

There are a frankly absurd amount of moments that I could use to introduce how much this movie does not work and why it doesn't, but for now we're going to stick to one - Harley Quinn's backstory. First of all, let's note that this isn't Harley's introduction, which we've already been given about five minutes ago back in prison. The introduction is nothing short of grotesque, loaded as it is with overlong depictions of abusive behavior that somebody thought were a good substitute of character development (a problem that will plague the entirety of Harley's arc), but at the very least it manages to introduce some details - Harley is the Joker's paramour and second-in-command, and is simultaneously flirtatious and sadistic.

Now let's ask a question: "if we know who Harley is already, then why do we need to go through her backstory?" Some of you might argue that we need the backstory because it establishes Harley's relationship with the Joker and her origins, but I disagree on the grounds that (take out your notebooks, future screenwriters) backstory and character are not the same thing. Character develops through action, through the unique way in which someone chooses to respond and work through a situation. Backstory can establish character by showing someone's past actions, but that doesn't inherently mean it will establish character, and the gulf between Harley's introduction and backstory serve as a concise description of this. The action of Harley muzzling up to the bars despite knowing they're electrified in her introduction shows us character, albeit poorly written and uncomfortably gross character. Harley being electrocuted by the Joker in her backstory doesn't establish anything about her because it's not her actions driving the sequence.

Come to think of it, Harley doesn't really do anything on-screen in the flashbacks, which brings us to another sub-question: "why do we need the club scene?" By this point, everything we need to know about the Joker, Harley, and their relationship has been set up, and as such this scene just rolls through pre-existing plot points - the Joker's manipulative, Harley's overly sexual, et cetera, et cetera. There is nothing that can be actively added to the story by inserting this scene between Harley falling for the Joker and the two making their escape in the purple Lamborghini. Hell, the movie would benefit from the scene being removed. There's also no need to use this scene as padding to fill out a 2-hour runtime given the sheer amount of other underdeveloped subplots. This is time that Ayer and DC's melange of editors could be spending showing us the intimacy of the relationship between Rick Flag and June Moon or fleshing out El Diablo's internal conflict (or, if we wanted to keep this in the spirit of the film as is, actually giving Katana an introduction). There is literally no reason for this scene to be here, so why is it here in the first place?

The most baffling "why is this here?" moments of the entire sequence, though, come from the scene's visual gimmick. See, there are moments in this sequence where the frame warps and bends, tinting itself green and purple. On a surface level, this makes sense as a painfully blunt visual metaphor - use the colors and warping screen to show the Joker's mindset invading and warping Harley's mind and so on - but this is undermined by the fact that these moments seem to come and go at random. These aren't attached to key moments like Harley choosing to help the Joker break out or accepting the shock therapy, which are moments they would make sense during. They happen suddenly at pauses in conversations, distracting from the flow of the scene and throwing the audience out of the atmosphere Ayer might be trying to build. These warping images might have meant something if they had been placed right, but as they stand they represent nothing more than a cheap visual gimmick.

It's funny, then, that this five-minute chunk of film serves to establish every kind of issue Suicide Squad experiences as a theatrical product and yet barely scratches the surface of why it doesn't work. When you're writing a script (notes at the ready again, screenwriting buddies), you have to learn at some point to let go of whatever isn't necessary for your story. That doesn't mean every scene needs to be either exposition or a twist ending. Simple conversations, for example, can help show us who your characters are and how they react to the world, even if they don't relate to the plot at large. This is why James Bond movies have pre-credits sequences: they both remind Bond fans and introduce to new viewers who Bond is and what he does through actions that don't necessarily connect to the adventure he is about to embark on. Everything you put on screen is going to mean something, whether you like it or not. That's why you need to be aware of what you're putting on display in a story - a redundant, badly placed scene can break the flow of your narrative and take the audience out of the experience.

Suicide Squad is a film almost entirely comprised of these redundant, badly placed scenes, a Frankenstein's monster built from appendices and spare kidneys. Its construction is so jarringly unsound that, even upon repeat viewing, its inherently toxic worldview seems to take a backseat, WHICH IS NOT A GOOD THING. Just so we can address them, though, here are some of the truly horrible moral lessons this film offers up:

-"Suicide is a good thing as long as it's done for the right cause!"
-"A woman being forced back into an abusive relationship is a great moment to underscore with "Bohemian Rhapsody"!"
-"People living with mental illnesses or forms of neurodivergence are either zany, murderous, or zany AND murderous!"
-"The American incarceration system will continue to punish people who are tragically forced out of a place in society, and there's nothing we can do about it!"
-"Australians do nothing but drink Foster's, throw boomerangs at things, and stab each other in the back!"
-"Sexual assault is a perfectly okay plot device!"
-"Asian actors don't really need that much screen time!"
-"Brett Ratner and Steven Mnuchin should be allowed to produce things!"
-"Attempted rape, serial murder, psychological torture, plain old garden-variety torture, conscious demonic possession, ordinary people being converted into horrible goop monsters against their will, prison guards repeatedly beating a black man simply for making fun of one of their own, a mentally ill woman being force-fed via IV, accidental child murder, exploding heads, and Jared Leto calling Margot Robbie "the light of my loins" are absolutely PG-13 material!"
-"This is a perfectly acceptable theatrical release!"

It's that last one that really gets to me. Someone actually thought this film was good enough to be released internationally. If that's not the case, then that means that WB and DC released it without actually caring whether it was a good film or not, and... oh god, that sounds disturbingly plausible. No matter which way you spin it, though, the truth still stands - this should not fly in the film industry. This shouldn't even fly in the AAA gaming industry, where major titles get buggy, broken releases almost all the time now. And yet the people who seem to hold all the power in Hollywood right now care more about staying rich and protecting their reputations from inevitable scandal than they do about actually facing the consequences of what they put out.

One of my favorite books about cinema is Pictures at a Revolution, Mark Harris's seminal text about the four great films nominated for Best Picture at the 1967 Oscars (five if you count Doctor Doolittle). The book is about a lot of things, but one of the big themes that seems to pop up is about how what happened to Hollywood at the end of the 1960s wasn't just inevitable, but necessary. I tend to believe in that approach - that periods of art, like periods of politics, are always rising, falling, and reinventing themselves to be fairer, better, and more positive for all involved. There are dark ages, inevitable consequences of backlash by people too blind and lost in faulty ideology to accept change, but those dark ages usually end in some kind of breakthrough.

I also tend to believe that the modern Hollywood model is on the verge of a collapse-come-reinvention, one that will most likely be bigger and more astonishing than the one at the end of the 60s ever was. Films are becoming more and more unsustainably large, reliant on the cheap nostalgia that comes with unwanted sequels, reboots, and remakes. The old star system is falling apart at the seams, with every bit of the abusive, predatory sleaze it attempted to hold back finally bursting forward in a torrent of "oh god, why did it have to be you, I really liked your work, WHAT THE HELL". Meanwhile, indie cinema is becoming more of a voice for artists and subjects ignored by the system at large, while genre cinema is taking on more of a fiery political charge. If we give it enough time, this system is going to break.

If this theory is to be believed, then Suicide Squad takes on a whole new dimension as a bad movie. This is our generation's Doctor Doolittle, a five-alarm warning that the way we make movies is about to go horribly, disastrously wrong, and it's a necessary one, too. If you want to get better, then you have to know that you're sick, and you can't know that without a symptom. This movie is that symptom, and now that we know what it's like, it's up to us to shut off the source and demand better. For everyone's sake, I hope we can.

God help us all.

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