Suicide Squad; Who Needs the Joker?

(SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS. The film came out in 2016, but if somehow you haven’t seen it and you’re planning to watch it now, skip this column unless you don’t mind spoilers.)

I have one question about the movie Suicide Squad; only one that I really want answered, and that is: “Why was the Joker even in that movie?”

Don’t get me wrong. When I say I only have one question, it doesn’t mean I understood the movie, or the characters, or the costumes, or the motivations of the two Big Bads, what the Vortex-of-Junk weapon was, or why the movie even got made in the first place. I just figure those questions aren’t even worth bothering with.

This was obviously a “by the numbers” (and by that I mean studio spreadsheet numbers) film, Casting by Box Office, with extensive (and sadly delusional) plans for multiple sequels, a film completely lacking in passion or original thought. That’s why, for instance, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and the Joker (Jared Leto) have less than zero chemistry. (They have negative chemistry.)

That’s why the film can’t decide if Deadshot (Will Smith) is the lead or not. That’s why the story has sibling entities/gods/villains, one of whom is named Enchantress and one of whom is named Incubus even though those names come out of completely distinct traditions. It’s why “June Moone,” an archaeologist, promptly breaks the head off an ancient artifact when she finds it, absorbing the swirling back vapor that pours out of it… because that’s what she learned at Archaeology School. It’s probably even why Jared Leto approaches the role of the Joker as if he is playing the lead in a community theater version of Hamlet.

That’s why, even though this is a film solidly shaped by models like The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen and The Devil’s Brigade, not enough of the “suicide squad” die. This is even probably why homicidal Harley Quinn wears a pinup/calendar girl costume, is entirely an object of the male gaze, and sashays around in stiletto heels while bashing people with her special baseball bat.

I will be the first to admit that bashing people with a bat while wearing stilettos is a superpower. And I will be the first to admit that Margot Robbie, who is a fine actor, does her level best to work with the tissue-thin characterization she’s given here. It’s a decent performance of poorly written material. She works it. She’s completely committed. She’s just overwhelmed by everything else that is so bad.

I have this personal problem with movies that end up on television. The problem is that I’m tempted to watch them. I had no interest in Suicide Squad when it hit the theaters. I’m not a big fan of the DC universe, and less of a fan of their films, with the exception of Wonder Woman. I didn’t want to see it On Demand, but when it showed up on TNT last week, pocked with commercials and running three hours, I was like, “Well, why not? Maybe it will be good.” And, I mean, I had a book, so the time was not wasted. But, geez. It was so much the opposite of good.

And then, there’s the Joker.

About the story; Superman is believed to be dead. In his absence, and in fear that another superpowered alien might appear who isn’t as nice as Superman, the US government (CIA, presumably) seeks out a bunch of near-super villains, most of whom were captured by Batman or Superman. They are going to blackmail them into running black ops. It’s a fine, evil idea spearheaded by Amanda Waller, played perfectly by Viola Davis, who can’t save the movie either. The thing is, it’s even plausible that the USA would unleash serial killers like this on other countries. Of course, things go horribly wrong and the team is extorted into taking down two supernatural entities, Incubus and Enchantress, in the USA, in a CGI city called Midway City because once they got past Metropolis and Gotham, DC gave up on thinking of names for municipalities.

One of the people Waller recruited/ dragooned into the Squad is the giggly, gum-popping serial murderer Harley Quinn. Quinn (formerly Harleen Quinzell) thinks she’s the Joker’s girlfriend, and she might be – it’s hard to tell. Far from being a good female super-villain in the mode of Catwoman, Poison Ivy or even Waller herself, Quinn is a minion. She was a psychiatrist who the Joker tortured and brainwashed into thinking she loved him. Unlike Catwoman et al, who were victimized and fought back, chosing identities and roles that were outside the law – true Outlaws by choice, acting with agency — Quinn is still victimized; a victim of intimate partner violence and gaslighting. She is the opposite of a powerful woman.

But she’s only one of a bunch of middle-weight badguys:

Deadshot; a sharpshooter with any kind of projectile weapon. He used to be a hitman. His goal in life is to earn back the respect of his young daughter. This is the Will Smith character. I’m a sucker for competence porn, so after the scene where Deadshot jumped on a car and shot a whole block full of bubbly lava monsters in about seventeen seconds, he had endeared himself to me.

Croc Man or Croc; a guy made up as a crocodile. Or, wait, no, that’s not it. Some weird genetic quirk makes him an atavistic crocodile human. Yeah, that’s what it was.

Boomerang; an unlikeable Australian bank robber; white colonialist who uses a boomerang (get it? ‘cause he’s Aussie) and secretly carries a pink plushie unicorn which doesn’t make us like him any better.

El Diablo: A DC-knockoff of Ghost Rider, who catches fire and sets things on fire and has Things to Atone For, which is the closest this movie comes to getting the plot right.

Slipknot: who could have been really interesting except he’s a redshirt, dying before the action even starts to prove that This is Serious. I hope Adam Beach got a whole bunch of money for this role.

Flagg: A regular human Special Forces guy who is having an illicit affair with June Moone and is the designated hard-ass. His specialty is Staring with Intensity at the Camera.

The plot is “dirty-dozen” style (which means you’ll notice right away there aren’t enough team members to play the movie right) in which the Big Bad guys have to be stopped even though it’s likely most or all of the team will be killed. Note the name of the film. Hold on, though, there’s a problem. The studio really hopes to make multiple Suicide Squad films. Will Smith can’t die. Probably, Margot Robbie can’t die. And you already wasted one team member simply to make a point.

Around the edges of the “this is a one-way trip” plot, though, is Jared Leto, er, I mean the Joker, with an alternate plan to snatch Quinn out of the midst of the group. I guess he thinks it will be easier than rescuing her from the ultra-uber-super-duper-maximum-security-boarding-school-prison thing she was being held in. He routinely texts her as the mission progresses (because they gave her back her cell phone? And they aren’t monitoring it?), with the next step in his plan. It almost works, but the Joker’s helicopter gets shot down, and Quinn thinks he’s dead. The movie gets back on what resembles a track, until the very end when the Joker puts in another appearance.

Why’s he even there? The film didn’t work, but it wouldn’t have worked any less if, at the end, after Quinn gets moved to a slightly-less-secure facility as her reward for helping, the Joker appears (or another minion, who needs the Joker?) and busts her out. Instead, this barely-coherent film slips sideways into Leto’s self-involved navel-gazing performance to no story benefit. And, as I said, he and Robbie have zero chemistry. Even with Smith’s ridiculous line, “Stay evil, dollface,” Smith and Robbie have more chemistry than Robbie and Leto.

Vulture, a pop-culture site, sat three pundits down to discuss the Joker problem when the film came out. They are in agreement that the original plan was probably to have the Joker be more prominent in the film. The movie was apparently in trouble early on; the release date kept getting pushed back, and people kept bailing out of the property, both of which are warning signs. They are in agreement, however, that there will no doubt be a stand-alone Joker movie here pretty soon. And eventually it will be on TV. I should make a note to self now not to watch it.

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