Suicide Squad (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Suicide Squad (2016)

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Amanda Waller is assembling a team of the worst of the worst that she can control the next time a superhuman crisis breaks out.  With little planning, almost no direction, and a clear disdain for existence, the new team is thrown straight-away into a suicide mission.  David Ayer wrote the screenplay for and directs Suicide Squad, and stars Will Smith, Margot Robbie, and Viola Davis.

There's a quote from Orson Welles, about Orson Welles (one of Orson Welles' favorite subjects), I thought of often while watching Suicide Squad:

"I am Orson Welles -- director, producer; actor; impresario; writer; artist; magician; star of stage, screen and radio, and a pretty fair singer. Why are there so many of me, and so few of you?"

Director David Ayer is not Orson Welles.  That much is clear in the movies Ayer has directed including the excellent End of Watch and Fury.  But in Ayer's work I feel the same restlessness, the need to push whatever genre he's working in to the brink.  In a world where a homogenized superhero style has taken over the majority of blockbusters over on the Marvel Studios side of things, it's no small blessing Ayer takes the challenges he's given and runs with them.

Those familiar with David Ayer's movies won't be too surprised to see a Shock Corridor reference barely ten minutes in.

Test audiences want more exposition and the studio mandates reshoots?  Fine, Ayer is up to the task, and powers through a multitude of opening set pieces containing over-the-top fluorescent splashes of color, scored with an entertainingly obnoxious soundtrack, while throwing bodies around like trading cards.  The members of the titular squad are little more than high-power poker chips in a dangerous game the United States government is playing.  Ayer focuses on this with more ground-level panache as time goes on but these thrilling opening scenes are from the perspective of Amanda Waller.

Viola Davis, the best actress alive, plays Waller with a barely contained orgasmic glee that anchors Ayer's philosophy toward the government.  As she chucks the prisoner's lives around in folders, onscreen text describes the breathless array of things the garbage of society is capable of.  You may have a favorite factoid, and mine was the way Deadshot (Will Smith) has a list of weapons he is proficient in concluding with musket as "Ex-wife" spins like a trinket next to his relations.  The amusement of the introduction grows chilling with Waller unable to contain her pleasure in describing El Diablo's (Jay Hernandez) power.

Ayer reminds us, again and again, that as entertaining as the squad's antics may seem, they're fueled through Waller's perspective.  All she sees is a bunch of broken, if powerful, tools at her disposal.  She ignores the abuse shoveled on them because she's willing to do whatever it takes to keep her tools in-line.  The colorful style of the opening betrays a cutting edge, and it's hard not to think of the abuses the United States military and prison system have inflicted as a security guard takes selfies while electrocuting then torturing Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie).

Amusing as the text is for the squad, it serves as a reminder their lives are little more than trading cards to the United States government.

Suicide Squad isn't about a crisis of conscience, it's about the twisted perspective those in power adapt to keep folks underneath in-line.  The obnoxious soundtrack is part of this, labeling each character with overly appropriate tunes so we hear, "You can't own me," when introduced to Harley Quinn.  People fed up with abuse have a way of turning culture around on their superiors though.  Consider the powerful scene where Deadshot gets to show off his skills with guns as Kanye West's "BLKKK SKKKN HEAD" creeps into the soundtrack, only to explode when his captors realize how quickly he could kill each of them.  It's a moment where the oppressors realize the label they've slapped on the "powerless" fits too well, and the stereotype of the soundtrack empowers Deadshot instead of draining him.

Our history is punctuated with moments where the oppressed take the label their oppressors have slapped onto them only to embrace it to grow in power.  Think here of the way Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is told he's a monster by society, treated as a monster by society, then adopts every mannerism society deems monstrous as a way of fighting back.  Croc's actions range from the amusing, like winking at Waller when she's issuing orders, to real-world examples, like his "costume" consisting of a hoodie.  These are small victories that grant him tiny measures of power, something each member of the squad does as a way of striking back.

I can't think of a modern superhero movie with this kind of gripping and painfully true understanding of power in the United States.  The demographic makeup of the squad is part of this, and Ayer goes as far as to cast an actual Saulteaux performer, Adam Beach, for the Native American role of Slipknot.  Why the hell don't more movies, and not just superhero movies, do this?  It's not diversity for diversity's sake, it's an honest-to-god reflection of how the United States treats its non-white non-male population.  Ayer, pulling double-duty as the screenwriter, peppers this understanding through the dialogue.  The most precise moment is when Deadshot demands the best education for his daughter in exchange for his help, and if her grades start to suffer, "I want you to white people that thing."

Suicide Squad continues the critique of Batman's philosophy with this one step removed from Robin use of a child to get his way.

Try to imagine The Guardians of the Galaxy with this kind of understanding.  It's impossible, as Guardians was too interested in smartass posturing and dishonest cancer subplots to grapple with any kind of philosophy.  Suicide Squad is informed criticism of the sterilized fluff of Guardians, throwing the gauntlet down directly with Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky" prominently featured as the squad assembles.

Suicide Squad isn't 100% successful.  Ayer runs into the same problem many superhero flicks do these days as the squad tees off against a mostly faceless array of baddies.  At least Ayer has the sense to recognize the trend for the toxic boredom it is and makes the baddies look like black mold running wild on the bodies of unfortunate humans.

Even if Suicide Squad failed, I would take its unwillingness to play nice on a big budget over any number of modestly successful franchise films.  Ayer embraces the trashier side of Suicide Squad other directors might have covered up with sarcasm.  Suicide Squad is a rare beast, with no "good guys," and an understanding of how society backed by the government of the United States makes that possible.  I loved it because of those warts, not in spite of them, and I hope Ayer gets another chance to stick these characters in the mud.

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Suicide Squad (2016)

Screenplay written and directed by David Ayer.
Starring Will Smith, Margot Robbie, and Viola Davis.

Posted by Andrew

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