As one of summer’s last best hopes, Suicide Squad arrives in theaters with some serious baggage. With each superhyped tentpole that’s come and gone over the past few months leaving disappointment in its wake, fanboys and girls always had the fallback mantra: Well, there’s still Suicide Squad! On paper — or at least the paneled pages of a comic — that optimism seemed well placed. After all, what’s not to love about a colorful Con Air-style posse of sociopathic antiheroes doing good by being bad? It’s a premise that’s catnip to anyone who’s ever found Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader more interesting than Clarice Starling or Luke Skywalker.
Based on the DC Comics series that ran on the assumption that it’s the villains who have all the fun, Suicide Squad kicks off with fizzy, punk-rock ferocity before turning flat and spiraling into familiar formulas. Viola Davis classes up the proceedings as Amanda Waller, a government agent who cherry-picks an all-star team of psychos, springing them from prison to lead a top secret mission under the wing of Joel Kinnaman’s Col. Rick Flag. In return, she promises certain concessions for their “good” behavior. This worst-of-the-worst squad includes Will Smith’s chrome-domed assassin Deadshot, Margot Robbie’s superfreak bad girl Harley Quinn, Jay Hernandez’s pyrokinetic Diablo, Jai Courtney’s Aussie badass Captain Boomerang, Karen Fukuhara’s samurai-sword-wielding Katana, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s reptilian mound of muscles Killer Croc. Each has a unique skill set for mayhem, but it’s Robbie who displays the most thrilling superpower of all: turning into a movie star while having a gonzo blast swinging a baseball bat and tossing off naughty, gum-snapping one-liners. Aside from Smith’s Deadshot, she’s also the only character with a remotely interesting backstory as the onetime shrink to Jared Leto’s mad wild card Joker who was seduced to the dark side. Don’t cry for her, she seems to love it.
Writer-director David Ayer (End of Watch) skillfully sets up the film, introducing each of the crazies with caffeinated comic-book energy. But their mission — to take down Cara Delevingne’s undersketched witch, Enchantress, and her giant golem-like brother — is a bit of a bust. The stakes should feel higher. As someone who isn’t fluent in Suicide Squad lore, I can’t imagine there wasn’t a better villain in its back catalog. Still, it’s nothing compared with how wasted Leto’s scene-stealing Joker is. With his toxic-green hair, shiny metal teeth, and demented rictus grin, he’s the most dangerous live wire in the film. But he’s stranded in the periphery. For DC, which blew it with Batman v Superman last spring, Suicide Squad is a small step forward. But it could have been a giant leap. B–