One of the main factors in the making of a truly great comic book movie is the quality of the villain. It’s no coincidence that the most favourably reviewed superhero movie of all time, The Dark Knight, also contains the definitive bad guy: Heath Ledger’s chillingly demented Joker. Likewise, the most satisfying comic book heroes are never the squeaky clean, morally unimpeachable do-gooders. They are troubled individuals with closets overstuffed with skeletons: they are the tortured Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins; Iron Man wrestling with his tainted entitlement; Black Widow, so lasciviously in touch with her own treachery.
So, the logic follows, how about a film in which even the good guys are bad? Surely a movie that is entirely populated by the most nefarious rogues from the grubbiest corners of the DC universe should be a riot. What could be more fun than watching bad people do bad things in the service of good? Unfortunately, even a film full of villains needs a credible antagonist, and this is one of the many problems with Suicide Squad. Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) and her brother, who can shoot metal lasers out of his arms, have baffling motives for world domination. And their method, which involves forming a humanoid army with heads that look like evil blackberries, is no less confusing. The film-makers forgot the golden rule: a comic book movie is only ever as good as its main villain.
Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn pops out of the murky underworld palette, a flash of toxic neon perkiness
The hiring of David Ayer to write and direct the first screen outing for the eponymous antihero task force, which tackles crime in exchange for commuted prison sentences, seemed like a promising move. Ayer’s best work as a writer – Harsh Times, Training Day, End of Watch – kept the audience on side with characters whose moral ambivalence frequently tipped over into gleeful corruption and self-destruction. But the gift for dialogue that was so flashily evident between the bantering, badass cops in End of Watch is absent here. While the film is not intended to be an overt comedy in the style of Deadpool, some humour is essential to mitigate the sensory assault of the action. A well-crafted wisecrack is one of the most efficient ways of giving a character depth. The lack of quotable lines here goes alongside the fact that only a handful of the characters have been developed into anything more than pencil sketches.
‘A venomous injection of fun’: Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. Photograph: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock
The most memorable, by no small margin, is Margot Robbie’s minxy troublemaker, Harley Quinn. Styled like a demon cheerleader crossed with a fairground sideshow, she pops out of the murky underworld colour palette, a flash of toxic neon perkiness. She’s a pressure cooker without a lid, a venomous injection of fun into every scene in which she appears. It’s Quinn, rather than her boyfriend, the Joker (Jared Leto, all metal teeth and method acting), who leaves the lasting impression, not least because the Joker turns out to be an unexpectedly minor character in this film.
Will Smith’s Deadshot is also reasonably well defined, though due to either Smith’s inherent likability or the script’s emphasis on Deadshot’s doting relationship with his daughter, it’s easier to accept the humane aspect of his personality than the sociopathic killer. Less well served is Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), who is more a list of Australian cultural cliches than a character. Katana (Karen Fukuhara) is little more than a samurai sword and a grudge. And Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) struggles to convey much in the way of personality from under the layers of distracting prosthetics.
You could argue that Akinnuoye-Agbaje doesn’t get enough lines to explore the nuances of his character. However, it’s worth remembering that Vin Diesel’s Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy had just one, repeated over and over, and he still managed to be the most sympathetic presence in the film. Ultimately, this overpopulated screenplay might have worked better if a few of the peripheral characters had been stripped away, allowing the more textured ones greater screen space.
Suicide Squad trailer: DC’s superhero ensemble comedy starring Will Smith – video
The film is not without technical issues. The production design works rather well. Oliver Scholl (best known for Edge of Tomorrow) delivers a sleazy, stylish look, which is suitably brash and confrontational. But the special effects are unconvincing, and cinematographer Roman Vasyanov’s decision to shoot a pivotal battle with the characters silhouetted in thick smoke is as incomprehensible as the scene is indecipherable.