Friday, August 19, 2016

Sympathy for the Joker - Suicide Squad, Reviewed

Suicide Squad is not really a good movie, but it is a good time, at least for a comic fan like me.

Oh sure, it's a largely predictable, paint-by-numbers action-adventure movie drawing characters from DC's eponymous comics, and parts of the movie feel as though they were bolted on after the fact, probably after some studio execs saw Deadpool earlier in the year. Despite being lighter in tone than Batman V. Superman in places, Suicide Squad still feels darker and more cynical than a PG-13 movie based on a newsstand comic book really ought to be. And even for a movie centered around fights and setpieces, there isn't exactly a lot of plot cluttering up the scenery.

But for all its flaws, I wasn't completely disappointed with Suicide Squad. Part of that was because Glory and I only paid $7.46 each for our Tuesday tickets, but a bigger part of it was due to moderating our expectations. We'd heard the early reviews, seen the low Rotten Tomatoes score (26%!), but chanced it anyways. Why? Because like it or not, writer/director David Ayers got the greenlight to adapt a great comic, and right or wrong, his movie is the only way to see these characters move and speak on the big screen, at least, for a while.

And for another thing, I have to think that part of the scorn heaped on Suicide Squad is due to the fact that the bar on comic book movies has been raised to ridiculous heights by excellent films, beginning with Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins 11 years ago and continuing through the majority of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We're spoiled.

If Suicide Squad had come out in, say, 2007 (between Batman Begins and Marvel's Iron Man), I think its reception would have been much warmer. This is not to excuse it, and the fact of the matter is that there are enough great superhero movies out there now, that we should demand better of the rest. But when one falls short of the mark like Suicide Squad does, that doesn't necessarily make it an entirely wasted effort.

So, from the perspective of a fan of the source material, what did Suicide Squad get right?

The Comic Esthetic - Without resorting to spandex, SS does a great job capturing the established look of many of the characters. Remember when comic movies did everything they could to avoid looking comic-booky? Suicide Squad, despite its gritty overtones, embraces its four-colour heritage instead.

Deadshot is probably the best example of this, with Will Smith wearing the iconic facemask and targeting eyepiece at various times, as well as the wrist guns I would have thought too improbable for a grounded military fan like Ayers.

Harley Quinn has enjoyed a lot of different looks since her introduction in the old Batman animated series in the '90s, but the facepaint, baseball bat and oversized six-shooter are all canonical. Is the baby-doll hot pants look maybe a bit more titillating than is needed for fighting an army of zombie-types? Probably, but that hasn't stopped a lot of the she-roes that preceded her, so, whatever.

Killer Croc is another triumphant portrayal. The original plan saw the team using King Shark, a, well, shark-man from the current comics lineup, but Ayers' aversion to CGI creatures prompted the change. Practical makeup and prosthetics turn Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Adebisi from Oz, Mr. Eko from Lost) into this fearsome sewer dweller. I only wish they had given him more lines.

Captain Boomerang has a look in the comic so ridiculous, other characters mocked it back in the '80s, so they homaged the colour and that was about all. Katana on the other hand looks quite a bit like her current incarnation.

A Lived-In Universe - Suicide Squad picks up where Batman V. Superman left off, with the world terrified about when another Kryptonian is going to go rank and decimate a major city or just take over the world. They show some of the Squad getting apprehended by the Flash, or Batman, and create Task Force X with the help of established DC character Amanda Waller.

Just a Shade Lighter - When they show Batman capturing him, he says, "It's over Deadshot. I don't want to do this in front of your daughter." That tiny bit of compassion went a long way towards warming me up to Ben Affleck's Batman, after his ridiculously enhanced recklessness and ruthlessness in BvS. Similarly, Boomerang's a ruthless dickhead, but he occasionally makes you chuckle with his antics, just like in the comics. And even when he's playing a ruthless assassin, you can count on Will Smith's impeccable comic timing.

The Lesser Knowns - Ayers said he wanted to make The Dirty Dozen with supervillains, so its inevitable that you would have a character like Pansy, uninterested in fighting. In this case it is El Diablo, former Latino gangster now haunted not only by his pyrokinesis but his deeds. Jay Hernandez does a great job making someone potentially irredeemable somewhat relatable, and maybe even likable.

What didn't work so well, even (or because) I'm a fanboy? For me, it came down to two characters.

Amanda Waller - In the comics, the head of Task Force X is a tough, tough lady, who makes some hard choices without a lot of support, because a) she works with people who would just as soon kill her as wipe their own noses, and b) she is a woman playing at a man's game, running covert ops with little oversight. She uses the Suicide Squad callously, but not cruelly.

In this movie though, she is so manipulative and ruthless, it is impossible to like her. In fact, I am kinding of hoping that Batman holds her to account at some point, but I doubt that is likely.

The Joker - Well, here is the rub of it. The Joker is one of the best larger-than-life villains of the last century, probably second only to Hannibal Lecter in terms of modern day boogeymen. A lot of weight was put on casting Jared Leto in this role, a gifted character actor, and much to-do was made of his method-actor on-set shenanigans (mailing live rats, a dead pig, and used condoms to his castmates).

But his Joker just didn't work for me. Here's why:

Every other live-action representation of the Joker, from Cesar Romero's greasepainted clowning, through Jack Nicholson's deadpan mugging, to Heath Ledger's scene stealing chaos, have all had one characteristic that Leto's Joker does not.

They were funny.

They were funny in different ways, to be sure. Romero's goofy Joker was there to be laughed at, in many ways, with his infectious, hooting laughter. Nicholson's version actually made some pretty good wisecracks ("Yes, he was a gangster, and a terrorist, but on the other hand, he had a tremendous singing voice..."), while Ledger's ghastly anarchist prompted the kind of nervous laughter you felt guilty about, like in Pulp Fiction when John Travolta shot Phil Lamarr in the face. ("I'm gonna make this pencil disappear...")

Maybe it's the writer, maybe it's the studio interference, I don't know. But watching interviews with Leto, it's plain to me that he just doesn't get the character. His Joker is all menace, and no charm; all chaos and no playfulness. He is brilliantly terrifying, but without any of the depth that 75 years of comics have provided him.

If we see the Joker again, I kind of hope it is with a different actor, but even if Leto gets to reprise the role, my fervent wish is that someone shows him this page from Neil Gaiman's comic, "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?"

Of course, I will also recommend viewing all Mark Hamill's performances as the animated Joker; still the gold standard as far as I'm concerned.

At any rate, if you are a fan of the Suicide Squad comics, or just the idea, or of comic books in general, don't let the bad reviews scare you away. Just be glad we live in an age where we actually have the option to be picky about our comic adaptations, and that so many of them have been done so well.

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