If you watch the DC Comics TV shows Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl or Legends of Tomorrow, you'll be familiar with the expositional voiceover that gives the "story so far" in about 20 seconds. Now pad that out to about 25 minutes and you have much of the first act of Suicide Squad – which, while not being as truly awful as many of the pre-release reviews made it out to be, is nowhere near as good as it should be.
The best-known character in Suicide Squad is The Joker (Jared Leto), but this is not really his story. It's more the story of his girlfriend, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and a team of fellow villains brought together by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), the head of a secret US government agency, who recruits them for a dangerous mission to stop The Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) from destroying the world in exchange for a reduction in their jail terms. Waller spends a big chunk of the film's first act being Exposition Amanda, explaining the squad members' backstories to some government and military types (as well as to us in the audience). In this post-Superman world (Suicide Squad is very much the bridging film between Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and the upcoming Justice League), these villains are very much the team of "heroes" we need. Well, that and the fact that it the mission goes south, they can easily be thrown under the bus. So off they go to Midway City, under the command of Special Forces operative Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), kept under control by a minute bomb implanted in their necks which will blow their heads clean off should they misbehave.
Superhero ensemble films are very much the flavour of the month, but they can be tricky to do. Marvel did it right, taking characters such as Thor, Iron Man and Captain America and giving them their own origin films before assembling the team for The Avengers (we won't mention the somewhat mediocre early attempts at The Hulk). Historically, DC and Warner Bros have done reasonably well with their tentpole characters of Superman and Batman – the original 1978 Richard Donner film starring Christopher Reeve, and Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight, are still far and away the best versions – but their first attempt at building a Marvel-style ensemble universe, this year's Batman V Superman, was not that well received. Suicide Squad is loaded with characters, the only familiar to most film audiences being The Joker (more on him later) and most are poorly served, getting minimal backstory, development or screentime. Quinn and Deadshot (Will Smith) are quite plainly the two main characters here – they get most of the backstory a more screentime than the rest of the team - but they really should have had their own standalone origin films in the lead-up to Suicide Squad; that would have gone a long way towards setting up this universe, although appearances from Batman (Ben Affleck) do help.
Suicide Squad also seems to have a problem with women, which is strange given how well the female characters are handled in the DC TV universe – especially in Supergirl. The film makes quite a big deal of the roles of both Harley Quinn and Enchantress alter-ego June Moone as girlfriends – Quinn of The Joker, and Moone of Flag – rather than have them stand up on their own as strong, independent females who also happen to have partners. It's one of the many flaws in the script, which is the film's biggest weakness – most of the characters are poorly written, and the plot is thin, messy and far too conventional. Its action scenes are also rather tame and bloodless, which feels like the studio trying to play it safe. And Leto's Joker is possibly the worst interpretation of the character we've seen; he seems to be trying to channel a much more evil, slightly crazier version of what Heath Ledger gave us in The Dark Night, and it really doesn't work. Luckily, he doesn't get a lot of screen time.
On the plus side, the film does boast an impressive cast – the standouts being Smith, Robbie (although she's ogled by the camera, in her skimpy hotpants, far more than is necessary) and Davis. All three do a sterling job with the slim material they have to work with, wringing as much out of the characters as they can (Robbie in particular is often hilarious). The soundtrack, too, is excellent, especially in the expositional first act as a backdrop to the characters' backstories. And there is a little more humour too, after many complaints from both fans and critics of how dry and stodgy both Man of Steel and Batman V Superman were. It's also well worth seeing in 3D at an IMAX screen, too – bigger certainly does help to make it better.
Suicide Squad has taken quite a savaging from critics, and has been roundly defended by its director, who said that "we made it for the fans". But a film based on a comic book needs to appeal to a much wider audience than just fans of that comic book if it is to succeed, make a bundle of bucks at the box office and grow into a lucrative franchise – which is clearly what Warner Bros and DC want to do here. The film is not terrible, but it misfires more than it hits and it's got a lot of problems that should have been fixed before it was released – it's easy to see that there was a lot of studio interference in its production. There will likely be sequels to Suicide Squad down the track, so here's some free advice for the production team that will be taking it on: before you even start writing the script, sit down and watch Arrow, The Flash and Supergirl ... and be sure to lighten things up a bit and have fun with your characters.