Monday, August 22, 2016

Suicide Squad: Less a Review and More of a Bittersweet Reverie




So. I finally got around to seeing Suicide Squad. I'm an avid comics fan and I see most of these adaptations in the theater, but even I took my time with this one given (1) how thoroughly and completely the film was trashed, critically, and more importantly (because they trashed Batman v Superman as well, but I really liked that one, warts and all): (2) my indifference to the version of the Suicide Squad that Warner Brothers chose to bring to the screen.
I've got some thoughts. Specifically: this could've been a muuuuuuuuuch better film if they'd just taken some time to ask themselves some good, honest questions about the sort of film they were making. I was genuinely enthusiastic about Batman v Superman earlier this year, based in part off its gonzo, mythic vibe and the strange, but definitely bold and ultimately defensible, decision-making at the script stage. I felt no such enthusiasm leaving the theater after Suicide Squad. Say what you will about BvS: that movie has the courage of its convictions, and a fair amount on its mind. Those who disliked it can still, I think, acknowledge that. Batman v Superman is an inarguably divisive movie, but there’s enough grist there that two people can have a fun and interesting conversation about their perspectives on the film. Suicide Squad is dumber, nastier, and far less interesting. It's a ramshackle, paper-thin tale (barely) held together by multiple editing teams and some surprisingly solid performances.

It didn't have to be that way.

According to reports, director David Ayers had six weeks to hammer out his script and get things rolling. Is that true? I have no idea, but a feeling of being crunched for time is palpably obvious in the final product. Had Ayers been given the time he needed and, ideally, a writing partner in order to do a few more drafts, we could have had a solid and genuinely interesting film with Suicide Squad, instead of the half-baked-if-well-intentioned, two-hour movie trailer that we got. How might Ayers and Warner Brothers have done this? I'm so glad you hypothetically asked!


1. Jettison June Moon

Enchantress is a nifty special effect, and Cara Delevingne is a surprisingly natural screen presence, but June and her creepy looking alter ego are in the wrong film. Their story doesn't belong in this movie. In fact, none of this magical stuff does, so buhbye Katana as well.*

*I don't know why Katana is in the film at all. There's no reason she should be. She does absolutely nothing worthwhile.

For one, Amanda Waller’s Task Force X is absurdly outmatched during the course of the film’s runtime, and by all rights they should have been incinerated and/or transformed into cheap-looking, disposable monster-people, like, multiple times. But let’s set aside the real issue of threat-scale here for a moment (that’s the focus of fix #2, directly below), and focus on why utilizing Enchantress as the film’s villainess otherwise works against the film on at least two levels:

A. It's at odds with the reason we've all shown up to see a Suicide Squad movie. Namely: moral ambiguity and murky alliances. Nothing about a magical otherworldly threat that will Destroy Everything is ambiguous or murky. It's self-evidently in everyone's self-interest to band together and fight.* Whether the Squad will get along well enough to defeat Gozer is never, ever in doubt. Ever. And that’s a massive mistake, right out of the gate. In order for Suicide Squad to work at all you need to lean hard into the concept, and that can’t be done (well, or effectively) unless you’re actively playing with the Squad’s loyalty and commitment throughout the film. When, in the film’s climax, Enchantress offers Deadshot et al the opportunity to join her, that offer is laughable and pointless.

*Self-evident to everyone but poor Slipknot/Adam Beach, who may as well have "Appointed cannon-fodder" stamped on his furrowed, useless brow.

B. June Moon going rogue and becoming a threat undermines Waller's credibility and authority out of the gate and doesn’t do what the film clearly wants it to do, which is to show Waller as someone who will do whatever she feels is necessary to maintain security and increase her own power while also justifying the decision to give her that power. Waller's competence and control are prematurely undermined in Suicide Squad, and they shouldn't be - not yet. For strict reasons of creating compelling drama Waller deserves an introductory film where she's on top throughout. She should be DC's negative image of Nick Fury - competent and scarily ruthless and (most importantly) undeniably effective. Having the main threat be of Waller's making right now, in the very first film, decapitates a lot of future dramatic opportunities for the sake of ill-judged expedience AND robs us of the chance to see Viola Davis in total steely control for the entire film. We want to see that. We NEED to see that. Not just because it'd be a pleasure to watch (and it would be: Viola Davis is perfectly cast), but because Waller needs to convince the audience and her superiors that this team/series is needed. We are not convinced. Neither should the military types who are in charge of initially greenlighting, then continuing, the Task Force X program be convinced. Based on the events of this film Waller should never be allowed near a position of power again.

To make a truly effective introductory Suicide Squad movie you need to introduce a threat that isn't of Walker's own making; one that isn't absurdly powerful, one that doesn’t so easily bind a group of psychotics and/or felons together into a team…and one that doesn't create sky portal thingies (no more sky portals. Ever. We’re done. Moratorium called. Ixnay on the y skay ortals pay).

Tl;dr: Bye, June!

So, if Warner Brothers shouldn’t use ancient demoness/goddesses as their villain, who should they use? That brings us to fix #2.

2. Thematically tie the film to the larger universe by having the Squad go after the arms dealer who supplied Lex's weaponry in Superman v Batman, and thus create an appropriate, realistic threat-level for Task Force X

This both furthers the inter-film synergy Warner Brothers is attempting AND furthers the drama in Suicide Squad without burdening the film by making it carry a lot of unnecessary DCEU baggage. Bear with me a moment as I outline two of the most obvious ways that Warner Brothers could have accomplished:

A. Make the arms dealer in question someone like Morgan Edge; leader of DC Comics' arms-dealing Intergang organization (feel free to rename them if “Intergang” is just too comic booky for your tastes). Intergang deals in specialized advanced weaponry, and they’re intimately connected with DC’s Darkseid/New Gods characters without there being any need to overtly explain anything about that connection in their initial appearance. Make Intergang the ones behind the bullets that Lois investigated during Batman v Superman. Reveal that they've been introducing arms to the market that are beyond anything seen on earth. Just where those arms come from can be left unsolved/unsaid  - though fans of DC will know that it flows from Apokolips, home of Darkseid, who was hinted at heavily in BvS and will be provide threats aplenty for Justice League.

An organization like that provides limitless cannon fodder without invoking any sky portals (and if concerns about killing off too many humans is a problem, introduce robotic/engineered “foot soliders” for Task Force X to primarily battle). To make the stakes less impersonal, establish that the prime physical threat of the film is someone like The Toyman - a classic Superman villain and also-ran. He's suitably B-list, quirky, and in the vein of what Ayers and WB are clearly aiming for: a left-of-center, Mountain Dew-ish form of EXXXTREME. * He’s a member of Intergang now. Congrats, Toyman (or whoever you’d prefer to fill the “lead henchman” role).

*I don't take issue with that, in the abstract. Ayers' tone and the film's actors/characters all hit a trashily enjoyable note in SS; it's the story that fails them. Using someone like Toyman seems to fit that note, but feel free to substitute in your own b-list villain.
The above scenario is all you need to build a credible and FAR more interesting threat for Suicide Squad: Waller tasks the Squad with shutting down Intergang's Midway City operations. Chaos ensues.

But let’s say that the above – basically The Raid, with supervillains – isn’t to your corporate executive tastes. Let’s say that, instead, you want to ensure your film has a massive opening. Let’s say you want The Joker in this movie (and, if you’re a WB executive, you very clearly want The Joker in all your films). Just go with option B, which is even simpler and more streamlined:

B. Have the Squad, including Harley Quinn, tasked with bringing in The Joker alive. Introduce as well a lower-level baddie whom Task Force X can get more physical with. Chaos ensues. That’s it. Simple. Direct. Full of opportunities for bad behavior, ethical murkiness, and double-crosses. You can even use the film to get Joker into Arkham Asylum for Affleck's solo Batman movie.

Either level of threat is right for the sort of team that Ayers assembled for his film. They present human-scale challenges and open the door to ethical issues and temptation. Can they be bought? Turned? How willing are they to back each other if the threat isn't Utter Global Annihilation? How much more dangerous are these characters to each other?

That's the stuff that interests me about a Suicide Squad movie, and they’re the only arguable bases to make a movie about them. Without any of that, Suicide Squad is a lot of teenage attitude looking for something to rebel against.



3. Shake The Audience Up A Little

Have the Squad (A) kill Morgan Edge (to be replaced, if desired, by Bruno Mannheim as head of Intergang in a future DCEU film), or (B) capture Joker, and defeat Toyman/lower-level baddie, bringing Toyman/LLB into custody. Give the Squad a celebratory moment/moment of reflection. Then undercut that moment completely and reveal that Waller has signed Toyman/LLB to Task Force X. This immediately destroys any celebration/reflection, reinforces Waller’s determination to do whatever it takes/bend or break rules/not care about anyone’s feelings, and doesn’t undermine her capableness in the process.

Have Squad members betray the Squad, or seem like they will. Have them act unpredictably and unwisely. Have some fun with the audience or don't make this sort of film.



4. Re The Joker: No f*cking tattoos or grillwork.

Leto is fine in the role. He's got eerily dead eyes and an appreciably homicidal air about him. All the ornamentation just distracts.  It's not daring. It's just "Joker with a lot of shit on his face." Leto got a ton of terrible press for this film, and by all accounts he sounds like a nightmare to work with, but again: he’s fine in the role dramatically, not some unmitigated disaster. In his next appearance just have him ditch the Lil' Wayne accoutrements and be the chilly blank he's meant to be; a Thin White Duke of Chaos. Don't even bother commenting on it. Of course Joker changes his appearance.


...That's that. Just change the entire film, retroactively. No big whoop*.


*Ha.

Keep the characters the same. Keep the casting the same. Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Viola Davis, Jay Hernandez…even Jai “Boring Blank” Courtney: they’re all pretty great in the film. Let them inhabit a better film with a more stripped down, "realistic" milieu that does not feature ancient goddesses or sky portals or metal teeth. Let the characters be genuinely dangerous and unpredictable. Let them be a Suicide Squad in more than just name only. That's a film I'd consider worth watching. You could do all those things and also secure a PG-13. You'd make a much better film in the process, on top of having what looks like a total ball while making it.



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