It’s not often a box office gross of over $850 million is considered something of a disappointment. But given the budget and second weekend drop of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, not to mention the divisive opinions that it generated, there was a feeling that the film had underperformed against expectations. Especially given that most major superhero tentpole franchises usually tended to either cross the billion dollar line or come incredibly close to it.
Released in 2016, it was one of two DC Comics films set in the same universe that was on the schedules. But while Batman v Superman was expected to be the massive mainstream success, the other film scheduled for that year was to be the riskier, weirder outsider, like a DC equivalent to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
If Dawn of Justice was all about finding a narrative that would lead to the creation of the Justice League, then Suicide Squad was all about the anti-Justice League. Created by John Ostrander, Suicide Squad was basically a team-up where the members were made up of prominent DC villains, and while it had gone through different permutations and members over the years, the most recent version of the team would prove to be the basis for David Ayer’s feature film.
Development had begun on Suicide Squad in 2009, but it was when Ayer became attached to the film that it started to fast track its way to production, with Ayer having six weeks to craft a script and have it ready to be filmed – a piece of information that wasn’t revealed until after the film was released.
Taking a cue from the more modern version of Task Force-X, the official name within the DC universe of the team, the film would see the Suicide Squad assembled from a plethora of DC villains, under the eye of Amanda Waller (a superb Viola Davis) and Rick Flag (Joel Kinnamon), with explosive devices placed in their hands should they go off book, and sent on missions that are incredibly dangerous: suicide missions.
Ayer had come from a background in grittier material. While he was one of the credited writers on the first of The Fast and the Furious films, long before it became a franchise of incredibly ridiculous and enjoyable set pieces, he had gone on to a career directing thrillers such as Street Kings, End of Watch, Sabotage and Fury. The choice of a director of grittier material made sense at this stage, since Warner Bros. was trying to ensure that their DC Cinematic Universe was a darker concoction than that of Marvel, and indeed the film does feel grittier in the first forty minutes or so.
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Suicide Squad manages to combine being colourful, dark, gritty and yet with a comic book feel. Flashbacks that fill in the background of each character, along with colourful captions describing them is pretty good fun, and the sections with Deadshot (Will Smith) and Harley Quinn (an instantly iconic, scene-stealing performance from Margot Robbie) come complete with cameo appearances from Ben Affleck as Batman.
Then the actual story for the film begins and it begins to go down a pretty terrible toilet, the likes of which one would want to avoid. With the introduction of Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) and her brother Incubus, the film goes from promising a tough team on a mission to a sub-par sequel to Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy, only nowhere near as fun.
When Suicide Squad spends time with its cast of characters – which include Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) and a woefully underused Katana (Karen Fukuhara) – it actually promises to be good fun, but when it turns into a city under siege from a supernatural force it becomes a bit of a drag with nothing new in the way of action or spectacle.
What makes the disappointment even more bitter is that the television series Arrow had been developing its own version of the Suicide Squad, with its own versions of Deadshot and Amanda Waller, as well as a vocal cameo from Harley Quinn, that it had to allegedly abandon at the behest of Warner Bros., who wanted to keep those characters and the concept as a movie-only property; a strange relationship between the television and film divisions that had also had some impact on Smallville and its ability to use certain plots and characters, as well as with the recent Batman origin television series Gotham.
Much of the publicity of the film had been centred around the casting of Jared Leto as The Joker, with the first publically released photo of the actor/singer in character gaining a divisive reaction that would continue even into the opinion of the film. While everyone was in agreement that Margot Robbie was a brilliant Harley Quinn, to the extent that Warner Bros. announced several movies that would be set to feature her, Leto’s Joker came in for heavy criticism, with the final cut of the film itself being publically criticised by Leto for not featuring him enough.
A very different Joker, at least visually, to the one we had seen before, this was more a modern gangster complete with tattoos, and the actor by some accounts went full method in his work, going as far as to send his fellow cast members dead rats as gifts.
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Despite the full-on intense preparation and on set behaviour, the ironic thing was that Leto was a fleeting presence in the film, on the sidelines of the main story trying to save Harley from Task Force X and reunite with her. An extended version released on DVD and Blu-Ray added some more to the background and establishment of his relationship with Harley, but it still felt as if too much had been cut from his appearance, something Leto himself pointed out very vocally.
Audience and critic anticipation of Leto’s performance was high, given how iconic the character of The Joker is, and everyone was eager to see how the intense actor would deliver the performance. Jack Nicholson had given a scenery-chewing performance in Tim Burton’s film, and Mark Hamill’s vocal performance was considered somewhat definitive in Batman: The Animated Series, while Heath Ledger’s casting was somewhat criticised when announced but went on to become one of the greatest pieces of acting in recent memory, earning a posthumous Academy Award for a performance that owed less to Nicholson, being its own kind of anarchic thug that was more of a reminder of Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange than anything.
While Leto tried to bring something different, it never quite feels like it gels in the way it’s meant to, nor is he on-screen enough to make enough impact. The same cannot be said of Robbie, who is so good as Harley that it’s no surprise that Warner Bros. was eager to announce and get into pre-production a film version of any comic book title that featured the character, although the eagerness of the studio to announce any DC title as a film is something that needs to be taken with a grain of salt.
The rest of the cast do a great job with their characters, to an extent that it’s a disappointment that this is the film and the story they’ve been placed in. Will Smith makes for a wonderfully complex Deadshot, Jai Courtney is the best he has ever been on screen and it makes one wish they would put him into further DC film as Boomerang, while Katana looks like she could take on a room full of goons and yet the film never gives her anything memorable to do.
When El Diablo calls the characters his family during a key moment at the end of the film it feels like it’s going for pathos, but in the space of this movie it never quite earns that sense of camaraderie or family that it clearly wants us to feel.
Released into cinemas in the summer of 2016, reviews were deeply negative and yet the film made money. While it did drop off in the second weekend by a considerable margin, with less money spent on it than Dawn of Justice, it made a healthier profit margin and appeared to strike a real chord with audiences who took to it more than with Zack Snyder’s film.
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In the UK the film did incredibly well, despite having a more restrictive 15 rating as opposed to a 12A (Dawn of Justice’s rating in both theatrical and extended versions even though the latter was an R rating in the US), although it was still somewhat tame compared to the similarly rated Deadpool which had come out that year.
With Warner Bros. and their development of live-action DC Comics properties, there has always been a feeling of knee jerk reaction to much of their decisions. Suicide Squad feels as if it’s trying to ride on the coattails of something like Guardians of the Galaxy, what with its quirky team set up and use of classic songs on the soundtrack, but it never works in quite the same way despite the fact that one can see the potential amongst the mess.
Warner Bros. would release another two films the following year. One of those would be a tremendous success and a genuine classic of the genre, revolutionary and brilliant in every conceivable way, giving the franchise something to hold up and be proud of. The other, unfortunately, would not only be another creative mess, but this time audiences would smell the stench of failure.