Everybody knows how the hero’s journey goes. Joseph Campbell laid it out clearly in 1949’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and countless books, films, and comics have followed the pattern: the call to adventure, the journey into the unknown, the challenges, the transformation, and the return. The villain’s journey, on the other hand, isn’t nearly as iconic and well-established. So stories where villains take center stage — like Wicked, or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, or American Psycho — have to make it up as they go along. When creators have the courage to abandon all those familiar structures, the resulting narratives can be daring and unconventional. More often, though, we wind up with something in between: writers trying to simultaneously subvert those structures and draw on them, making for messy, confused stories.
That’s exactly what’s going on with the new DC Extended Universe film Suicide Squad, which turns a group of supervillains into a top-secret government task force. Writer-director David Ayer (Harsh Times, End of Watch), drawing on decades of DC characters and different iterations of the Suicide Squad comic, plays with all the things that make villains fun: the recklessness, the gleeful violence, the mouthy swagger. But he also falls back on some awfully familiar hero arcs, and in the end, he doesn’t make it clear whether he cares about villainy because it’s different from heroism, or because it’s so similar.
The story starts shortly after Batman v Superman left off. Mild BvS spoiler alert: Superman is still gone, but he changed the world with his presence, and hardcase government official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) is determined to prepare America for the next Superman-level crisis. She convinces the military to forcibly recruit imprisoned metahumans into an expendable, deniable black-ops fighting team called Task Force X. Her initial group includes highly skilled assassin Deadshot (Will Smith), manic former psychiatrist and current Joker moll Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), pyrokinetic Diablo (Jay Hernandez), disfigured former wrestler Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and Australian bank robber Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney). They’re all meant to be under the control of Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), a grim soldier who works for Waller because he’s in love with another one of her assets: former archeologist June Moone (Cara Delevingne), who’s possessed by an ancient, powerful spirit called Enchantress. Waller has essentially been torturing both June and Enchantress to keep control of the latter, but her control fails early on, establishing the stakes if her squad of confrontational criminals gets away from her.
Just introducing each of these characters takes such a significant chunk of the film’s runtime that the actual threat they need to fight keeps getting pushed to the background. And even when the team members are hustled into the field, their first assignment turns out to be a small-scale Escape From New York-style extraction that involves completely ignoring the monumental, world-threatening Ghostbusters-style supernatural event going on in the background. It’s actually refreshing: while Suicide Squad includes yet another thinly drawn mega-villain with a McGuffin that’s about to destroy the world for shrug-related reasons, the film barely cares about it for 90 minutes or so. That speaks to Ayer’s agenda here: he’s rightly more interested in his colorful villain team than in the rote face-off waiting for them at the end of the film. He’s well aware of comic-book movie conventions, and he’s trying to work against them.
But the film doesn’t go far enough in setting its own course. Ayer works to establish those villains as gleeful fantasies of unfettered freedom, then fetters them with maudlin backstories that make them all sad, soulful, misused, and misunderstood. Deadshot is devoted to his 11-year-old daughter. Harley is defined by her relationship with the Joker (Jared Leto). Diablo has fought to reach a state of zen calm after his fire powers accidentally killed his family. Croc has been misjudged for his looks. Only Captain Boomerang, the sadly underused comic relief who accomplishes next to nothing in this film, consistently embraces his villainy as something other than a lazy, probably inaccurate label the straights have slapped onto him. The secret softness of these supposedly irredeemable characters could be fascinating. But there’s no space to explore it, given the action throwdowns on the table and the overcrowding from other characters, including Batman (Ben Affleck) in a few cameo-length appearances, and especially Joker, who turns up both in flashbacks and the present, chasing Harley down to rescue her.
The Joker / Harley relationship forms the film’s emotional core, and offers some of its most striking images, like a shared kiss in a vat of colorful toxic chemicals. It’s also striking how mutual and passionate their partnership is, in sharp contrast to the often one-sided, pathetic devotion of Batman: The Animated Series or some of the Harley comics. But it’s also redundant and one-note, like an extended Natural Born Killers riff with nowhere to go. Leto’s crazy-gangster version of the Joker is all intensity and no flavor. Just like Harley, he’s defined here entirely by their relationship, which is fine, since that keeps him from taking over a movie that isn’t about him. But Harley is much more interesting on her own, when she’s visibly scheming, fighting off melancholy, or puckishly playing up or toning down her Brooklyn accent, depending on her circumstances. She’s all seductive surfaces and playful poison, and Robbie seems to have a lot of fun with the push-and-pull of playing a dangerous woman who fakes childishness to make people underestimate her.
Smith doesn’t fare as well; set up as the film’s other standout character, he ends up pinioned by his character’s paper-thin daddy-daughter plotline. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the “killer with a heart of gold” trope, but it’s a far cry from the “supervillains go crazy” story the film is selling up front. His backstory and personality don’t extend much past “has a daughter,” so there’s no support for the conflicting decisions he makes from moment to moment. Suicide Squad is as erratic as he is; it switches tracks regularly, jerking Deadshot and the others through extreme attitude changes that never feel earned or natural, and railroading them back into a plot that’s more exciting when they’re resisting it than when they’re meekly cooperating.
There’s still plenty to enjoy in Suicide Squad, starting with the cheap adolescent joys of smart-ass dialogue and bratty behavior, and building up to the unconventional Deadshot / Harley friendship and the Deadshot / Flag partnership, which both do develop naturally on-screen. The film doesn’t have Deadpool’s smarmy humor, but it operates at a similar revved-up speed, and it lightens up considerably from the grimdark jaw-clenching glower-offs of Superman Returns and Batman v Superman. Just the ability to deflate tension with a joke makes these characters seem more real and more admirable. There’s real intensity as well, particularly from Davis, who plays Amanda Waller as a full-blown sociopath who’s tougher, meaner, and more purely enjoyable than many of the villains she’s corralling. She’s a bully with a righteous agenda and virtually no fear, and she emerges as the film’s implacable Darth Vader, willing to put her supposed allies through any brutality to get her way. There’s no shortage of creepiness, either: Enchantress is spectacularly eerie in the early going, before the film turns her into a silly-looking CGI effect.
But Davis’ clear-eyed, unapologetic, completely human evil as Waller is just one element in a film that otherwise doesn’t entirely seem to be sure what makes a villain. Is it just being misunderstood? Wearing black and / or leather? Embracing tattoos, face paint, and gangsta-culture signifiers? Living to the beat of an all-over-the-place soundtrack that stretches from “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Spirit In The Sky” to Kanye West and Skrillex? Being so unpredictable that they can charge willingly into battle at one moment, then walk off the job and into a bar the next? Being so unmoved by the urgency of a world-destroying threat that they briefly manage to turn it into a pleasant meta-joke? The film’s biggest weakness is that it doesn’t seem to know or care. It doesn’t necessarily fall to this film to define what a villain’s journey really means. But like its characters, it’s free to operate on its own terms, and it’d be a much stronger story if it took full advantage of that freedom.