Fifteen ways of looking at 'Suicide Squad' (and the new Joker)
1. It’s been six and a half years since Heath Ledger was the Joker in The Dark Knight. There hasn’t been a supervillain half as good. Not even close. You can stump for Loki in Avengers and the Thors, but as a character, he’s trapped in a muddle of incoherent motivation (He hates Asgard! He loves his mom! He hates his brother! He’s mad, mad he tells you!). Tom Hiddleston is a scenery-chewer of the first order—but the Marvel movies are made of greenscreen, and he’s chewing on vapor.
2. What other supervillains linger, in six-plus years of superhero cinema? Kevin Bacon played an exceptional Bond villain in X-Men: First Class. Robert Redford gave his vanilla-handsome gravitas an insidious grin in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Anne Hathaway had fun in The Dark Knight Rises, which is more than you can say about anyone else in The Dark Knight Rises. Next to that, you’ve got a parade of Nefarious Business Villains in the Iron Men and Goblin retreads in the Amazing Spider-Men and Peter Dinklage’s evil mustache in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Lee Pace and Michael Shannon played Ronan the Accuser and General Zod, identical cartoon fascists in space exoskeletons—two excellent actors, squandered.
3. Maybe times are changing. James Spader has the subtitle role in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Llewyn Davis has the subtitle role in X-Men: Apocalypse. Sony is drydocking Andrew Garfield in favor of The Sinister Six. Iron Man is the bad guy, maybe-kinda-sorta, in Captain America 3. And now Warner Bros. just announced a movie filled with supervillains, starring a cast of exciting actors and Jai Courtney.
4. Suicide Squad is not a big name by any stretch of the imagination: Reason to be excited, since that sorta makes it the DC Cinematic Universe’s version of Guardians of the Galaxy, a cool idea with so many iterations that’s wide open for a good director to put their unique stamp on. Good news: The director they chose is David Ayer, a demi-auteur with a filmography filled with tough people doing tough jobs. Until this year, Ayer was the reigning practitioner of LA pulp: Writing Training Day and Dark Blue and S.W.A.T. and some part of the first Fast & Furious movie led to directorial efforts Harsh Times, Street Kings, and End of Watch. Not all of those movies were good but they got better; End of Watch is one of those incipient near-classics that everyone seemed to discover on Netflix one week a couple years ago. Then, this year, Ayer made a big-budget tank movie, Fury, about a bunch of dudes on a suicide mission; he also made Sabotage, one of the most insane action movies ever made. Almost a year later I still don’t know if Sabotage was great or just bonkers; it feels like the last action movie ever made, in the sense that it feels like a 109-minute HGH overdose. Now Ayer is making Suicide Squad, which feels theoretically like the middle of the Venn Diagram between Fury and Sabotage, except with huge stars playing supervillains.
5. One of those villains is the Joker, one of those actors is Jared Leto. No point complaining about this, right? Every character will get played by someone new every ten years, right? Maybe this is different, because Ledger-as-the-Joker is the best supervillain ever. (McKellen-as-Magneto comes close, but his impact is blunted after four movies, not to mention the fact that Fassbender-as-Magneto has so much more to play with.) Warner Bros. clearly believes that they can carry over all the profound zeitgeist-of-the-generation love that people feel for the Dark Knight movies into this new DC Universe. But sometimes, people like movies the way they like them, and don’t want to see very different versions of those movies just a few years later. (See: The low-performing Amazing Spider-Man 2. See also: The low-performing X-Men: First Class, in a world where Jennifer Lawrence didn’t become your best friend and retroactively envelop First Class in the warming glow of her smile.)
6. But I’m game. Leto is a legitimate weirdo of the highest order—he’s a man who clearly believes that he is a rock star sent from space to teach humanity how to love, and humanity recently validated all those beliefs by handing him an Oscar. Maybe he’ll play the Joker with an erotic edge—the sensual danger, the kinkiness that was banished from the Dark Knight movies. Ledger turned his purple suit into the best Halloween costume of the decade; maybe Leto can make a purple suit look cool.
7. Oh, and also, um, Will Smith. Now, because Will Smith is one of the biggest stars in the world, and because he pops up here and there in cameos and endearing Fallon appearances, and because his children are rock stars sent from space to teach humanity about ancient texts that can’t be pre-dated, it can be easy to forget that he hasn’t created an iconic new character in six years. That would be Hancock, star of Hancock, not a good or even particularly beloved movie but a movie that ripples with the Platonic Idea of Will Smith-ness in a way that After Earth decidedly did not. Smith was offered the lead role in Django Unchained, but he turned it down. He told my colleague Adam Markovitz: “Django wasn’t the lead, so it was like, I need to be the lead.”
8. Will Smith is playing Deadshot, a character who has kind of gradually become cool by virtue of being relatively simple. He’s an assassin; he shoots real good; sometimes he’s some kind of cyborg. Classically he’s a white dude, but that appears, blessedly, to no longer be such a big deal when it comes to casting. Classically he’s the member of an ensemble—he’s like the bad guy version of Hawkeye, a value-added commodity who makes a decent team into a better-than-decent team but who doesn’t really carry his own story. (At least, that’s what Hawkeye was, before Matt Fraction turned Hawkeye into the best mainstream superhero comic of the last few years.)
9. It’s an easy bet that Smith is playing Deadshot as the initial viewpoint character of Suicide Squad: The guy who joins the Squad at the start of the movie, Noah Wyle-in-the-first-episode-of-ER style. Or maybe Smith is playing Deadshot as the leader of the Squad, with Joker as the volatile new addition.
10. Do you know what Suicide Squad is about? It’s an excellent concept, straight out of the Dirty Dozen. A bunch of supervillains get brought out of Super-Jail and receive an offer from the Government: Work for us, and we’ll give you some ounce of freedom. The Squad goes on the missions that are too dangerous for anyone who isn’t an evil bastard; there’s often a high body count; there’s not really any of the moralizing that has come to define the superhero movie genre, no speeches about the Greater Good. They’re bad people doing good things because it’s their job. If the movie is actually about that, it will be a whole new kind of super-film. (Until The Sinister Six, arriving a few months later in 2016.) If the movie is actually about a bunch of supervillains who are bad, but not like bad bad, and they wind up doing good because being good is good…well, then it’ll be exactly the kind of movie you expect a major corporation to make.
11. Margot Robbie is playing Harley Quinn, one of the most beloved Batman villains among a certain class of cosplaying Bat-fandom. When it comes to Margot Robbie, all we really have to go on is The Wolf of Wall Street, where she played a sex kitten with the soul of an alpha wolf, and an accent that sounded like a hilarious imitation of a New York accent from the ’30s. And that, basically, is Harley Quinn.
12. Tom Hardy is playing Rick Flag. I consider myself decently well versed in comic books—I went to the comic book store every week from first grade through eighth, read Marvel and DC and Image and Dark Horse—and even after looking him up on Wikipedia and reading the entry three times, I can’t quite tell you what a Rick Flag is. He appears to be some kind of very aggressive person in unheathily-good physical condition, which sounds an awful lot like Tom Hardy. Hardy’s presence in Suicide Squad has to be seen as some kind of make-good, after he gained two Tom Hardys of muscle for The Dark Knight Rises and spent the movie trapped behind a mask and whatever that accent was.
13. Jai Courtney knows something. I don’t know what he knows. But if you’re someone in charge of running a studio, you’re worried about what he knows, and you will cast him in anything. Die Hard and Terminator, Divergent and Jack Reacher, a superhero movie: Jai Courtney is like the Brightest Timeline of every attractive young vaguely tough-looking actor in Hollywood. He’s playing Boomerang, so that’s a thing, I guess.
14. Cara Delevingne is playing the Enchantress, and this is a good time to re-mention that part of what makes Suicide Squad fun is how often it kills off lesser-known characters. “Killing off” isn’t really something superhero movies have done much lately, because “actual risk” isn’t really something superhero movies have done much lately. Suicide Squad isn’t quite a risk—one of the biggest stars in the world, an Oscar-Winning actor, a constant almost-star waiting for his big showcase, two women who will split up the magazine covers for August 2016, and Jai Courtney. But it’s a movie about bad crazies doing violent weirdness. Between now and Suicide Squad, we’ll have seen another Avengers movie, another Fantastic Four movie, a movie that’s basically a Justice League movie, a movie that’s basically an Avengers movie, and another X-Men movie. Maybe we’ll be ready for Suicide Squad?
15. According to Variety, the shortlist of actresses to play the badass government agent in charge of the Squad is: Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Oprah Winfrey. I think we’ll be ready for Suicide Squad.
Have thoughts about the Suicide Squad casting? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll respond in next week’s Geekly Mailbag.