For the second time in 2016, Warner Bros. has released a film in the nascent DC Extended Universe that is simply not that bad, and yet people are running around acting like it beat their dog. That being said, Suicide Squad isn't really very good, when all is said and done. There is good in it. Hell, there's legitimately great in it. But you have to suffer through, like, seven different first acts to start getting to it, and cope with the fact that even at its best, the film is up to some very, very naughty things with its soundtrack, which oscillates between the world's most obvious classic rock and the world's most obvious rap-pop and generally feels like it was selected almost exclusively for all of the 50-year-olds in the audience to have something to cling to.

Be that as it may, the core of the thing comes enormously close to working: some indeterminate time after the events of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (which is referenced just often enough that it's irksome without feeling like Marvel-style homework), the government is terrified at the thought that there exist beings with greater-than-human powers who might very well wish us ill. The question of how to control or contain these beings has apparently been a cause of great consternation to many people, and shadowy U.S. government official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) thinks she's come up with just the answer: scrounge up several of these "metahumans" who've been already in the business of wreaking small-scale terror and shanghai them into working on behalf of law and order through a combination of threats and vague promises of shorter sentences. In other words; wind up the colorful bad guys and turn them lose without any pesky superheroes to pull focus.

"Root for the bad guys!" isn't as new a concept as the marketing folk always seem to think it is - it's at least decades old in cinema, and much older in other media - but in the particular case of Suicide Squad, the appeal of bringing back that hoary cliché is self-evident: in the DC comics world, the supervillains are generally more entertaining than the superheroes. So presumably, a whole movie full of them is like having a big slice of cake without anybody even asking you to eat your vegetables first. That this doesn't work out quite that well in the execution can be assigned to this or that problem, but a main one is certainly that it inherently requires a certain flair for histrionics, and director-writer David Ayer completely lacks that instinct. It's not exactly that the film isn't the snarky borderline comedy that was promised by the (always obviously misleading) ad campaign, but that the film earnestly wants to be that film, and Ayer has to labor with great intensity to spark any and all jokes that cross his mind. The good version of "a team of psychopaths fight crime" could be either gravely serious and punishing, or it can be a crackling dark comedy, and in Suicide Squad we see the somewhat wheezy attempt to make the latter by a filmmaker whose entire output to date suggests he's much better-suited to the former.

All is not lost! What Suicide Squad can't get to solely on its grim 'n' gritty urban action drama aesthetic (that is to say, nearly everything), it sometimes manages to stumble upon thanks to a just about uniformly good cast, including some people who had no right to work out this well. And I am, yes, thinking in no small part about Jared Leto's small but high-impact role as Juggalo Joker, which generated so much negative press before the film's opening and turns out to be, in fact, really good - take out the awful visual design choices, and Leto's performance, heavy on unamused glee and a tendency to overarticulate all of his facial expressions and upper body movement, is actually the first time since the 1960s that we've had a live-action Joker who meaningfully resembles any version of the character who has ever shown up on the pages of DC Comics (Heath Ledger's performance is an all-time masterwork, of course, but it's an entirely original creation, and while I still enjoy Jack Nicholson's Joker, he's still just doing a Jack).

Mind you, the Joker barely matters - he's a lurking tertiary character. The main action centers on the members of Task Force X, self-described as the Suicide Squad: high-tech assassin Deadshot (Will Smith), cowardly Aussie bank robber Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), fire-breathing gang leader El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), master climber Slipknot (Adam Beach), reptilian-human mutant Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and the Joker's even more demented ladyfriend, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). All of them under the immediate command of the dubious Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), who shares with Waller a remote that can blow the heads off of any of the erstwhile supervillains if they step wrong, and whose ace in the hole is sword master & bodyguard Katana (Karen Fukuhara). Their job: to put themselves in the way of ancient witch Enchantress (Cara Delavingne), one of Waller's bad guys-turned-good guy-turned-back to a bad guy again, all while inhabiting the body of Flag's lover June Moone.

Not exactly a who's who of acting talent, outside of Davis and maybe Smith, and yet not a one of them puts a foot wrong. It's little surprise that the film is Warner's big gift-wrapped present to Robbie, who has been quite a trouper for the studio since the ever-loving hell out of the old-fashioned star vehicle Focus, and she repays them with the best unhinged comic book movie whackjob since Ledger himself, a petulant little snit who likes to laugh at her own jokes and gaze with rapturous joy at the prospect of committing violence. In fact, Robbie comes powerful close to justifying Suicide Squad all by herself. But amazingly, even as reliably terrible a performer as Courtney provides exactly what the role requires - a sniveling alcoholic meathead, in this case, which isn't a role for the ages, but I think it shows that Courtney's problem in America has been trying to hide his Australian accent rather than being an as-such bad actor. Meanwhile, the actors with the ripest backstories - Smith and Hernandez, whose roles share a weird overlap that I'd tend to describe as "Ayer has unresolved anger towards an ex-wife"-ism - manage to turn their characters into unexpectedly soulful, sympathetic monsters: as the sad, unwilling deadbeat dad, I can't say that Smith is miles outside of his comfort zone, but I don't think he's been this alert and invested in a role since I Am Legend all the way back in 2007.

The characters, in short, are awfully worth spending time with. This does not uniformly apply to the film containing them, which includes a bafflingly misshapen screenplay - it introduces some characters three whole times, and has two legitimately self-contained and complete first acts, as well a second act that it likes so much that it repeats it, right down to dialogue which says in almost exactly as many words, "let's go do the thing AGAIN that we just did". If Batman v Superman, in its theatrical release, felt obviously like the gracelessly shortened version of a complete three-hour movie, Suicide Squad feels like they were still trying to figure out which parts of a three-hour movie they didn't need, and were making the wrong choices. It resembles an assembly edit more than a final cut, down to the way that certain scenes are blocked to make absolutely no sense whatsoever - as in, we at one point see Harley ostentatiously hop in an elevator before the rest of the Squad can join her, and then they're all waiting for her when she disembarks. And that among other issues: as usual, Ayer can't make a movie that isn't casually racist against every ethnicity including, oddly, white people, and he really had to work for it this time - making a giant cannibalistic crocodile man into a chain of black stereotypes is so awful it's almost impressive. The film's also rather desperate in its "look, we're a brand!" attempt to shoehorn in Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) and other nods to the impending Justice League (if there was anything not to borrow from Marvel...), and if you've ever seen a superhero movie, you will perhaps not be astonished to learn that Suicide Squad ends with a giant laser show battle.

For all that, though, it's not a hard watch, nor does the 123-minute running time - altogether dainty by modern tentpole standards - move by slowly; the stuff that happens in Suicide Squad is altogether messy in its assemblage, but at least Ayer makes certain to keep it speeding at us quickly. It's largely a sloppy, generic comic book movie elevated by its off-kilter characters and not helped very much by its weak, limited attempts at colorfully exaggerated style. I would like it very much if the DCEU can consistently stay better than this, but it's not going to be the most painful thing in the world if it doesn't.

Reviews in this series
Man of Steel (Snyder, 2013)
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Snyder, 2016)
Suicide Squad (Ayer, 2016)
Wonder Woman (Jenkins, 2017)
Justice League (Snyder, 2017)
Aquaman (Wan, 2018)