I don’t define myself as a Marvel fangirl, DC fangirl, or the like. My comic book knowledge is limited up to the point of I sorta know who-is-who and my gift of Wikipedia-browsing. I used to have an unhealthy obsession with Naruto manga (Kakashi-sensei~~~), but that’s another story, and I’ve moved on (no, not really).
I do, however, enjoy a good comic book movie, with brilliant acting and plot. Awesome soundtrack is just a bonus, albeit a truly significant one. And in cases of great comic book movies, those things often go hand in hand.
An honourable mention here is Watchmen (2009). I didn’t read the original comics, so I understand a lot of hate it received from the comic book fans. I won’t say them wrong either, especially when it comes to its faithfulness with the source material, since I can’t say I knew better. Even so, I still think Watchmen is a flat-out brilliant movie. I spent literally all Sunday watching the Director’s Cut (the entire three hours and six minutes of it) and fell in love with the gorgeous visual and the stunning soundtrack. Who would forget the suspended-in-the-air lovemaking scene with Leonard Cohen’s melancholic “Hallelujah” playing in the background? Granted, most of the actings did not really stand out, with the exception of Jackie Earl Haley. Haley was sensational as Rorscharch, right to the last drop of his scattered body tissue. Watchmen was directed by Zack Snyder who at that time was still fresh out of his 300’s fame.
Seven years and a godawful Batman v Superman later, Snyder sat on the Executive Producer seat to produce Suicide Squad. The hype exhilarated me to the bone. The trailer—oh that Bohemian Rhapsody trailer!—easily should be one of the best trailers ever made for a super/antihero movie. Again, I am not that knowledgeable of the characters, but I got myself enough information in my pocket (it’s called smartphone, perhaps you’ve heard of it) to feel super excited. I also watched David Ayer’s Training Day when I was in middle school and thought it was a solid movie. I was curious about his take on a comic book movie, especially with such interesting multi-faceted character ensemble. But of course, what got to me the most was the Joker. More on that later.
Here in New Zealand, where I live now, Suicide Squad opened in theatres a little bit later than the rest of the world. I bought the ticket a week before the movie’s opening night and it was all I could think about at work (and instead of my thesis). I browsed Facebook happily, thinking there must be glowing positive reviews from the critics and the fans alike who had watched the movie before me. But what I’ve got was a torrent of disappointments as Suicide Squad got absolutely shredded by the critics. It got a pathetic 37% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (which is down to 26% by the time I am writing this) and countless brutal reviews. The Muse has compiled some of the most scathing ones that reading them is almost as painful as reading hateful rhetoric from a swarm of bigots.
I tried not to let the bad reviews affect me. I still had high hopes when I walked into the cinema. After the credits rolled, I realised it was not as good as the promotional materials wanted you to believe, but it was nowhere near as horrific as you hear from the critics. True, it was a mess. Everything was mashed up together so incoherently it almost made no sense, and at times the fonts used to introduce the characters made me want to scratch my eyes out. It was a tough job for Ayer to introduce such complex characters and backgrounds for the maniacs and psychopaths in a little under two hours, so the first half of the movie was too rushed and sloppy with bits and pieces of scenes jumbled in. Almost unbearable to watch. Almost.
It could have been way better. Some reports have said that it was all the studio’s fault. With Marvel and its easy-to-like glittering cinematic universe soaring above them, DC and WB seemed to be desperately snatching at everything they could get their hands on in order to compete. The pressure was extremely high for Ayer and he was reportedly to be constantly exhausted. His initial vision was said to be closer to that of Nolan’s trilogy, with much darker tone and grim storytelling. (which I would much prefer, to be honest, as long as it is not over-the-top like BvS that I don’t even want to discuss) However the studio intervened to make to film more “fun”. As a result, some scenes were re-written and re-shot completely, costing them more millions to waste. Although Ayer has recently proclaimed that the theatre version as “his cut”, he admitted the ginormous pain in the ass for to make a movie that caters exactly to what people want. One of his sacrifices is leaving 10 minutes of Joker scenes on the cutting floor.
Which brings us to, yes, finally, the Joker. Let’s talk about the Joker. Before I say anything else let’s just agree that Heath Ledger’s Joker is the most well-acted Joker in the history of DC movies. Hell, maybe even in the history of superhero villains. He was simply flawless in every scene. Even the newest Joker, Jared Leto, agreed with me on this his recent interview. Nobody has yet topped Ledger’s performance, be it in the past or the present, and I would not argue otherwise. Nevertheless, with all that stuff, I still need to ask: but is Joker Ledger really the best Joker?
We’re talking about a comic-book villain in a comic-book movie here. The boom, thwack, and kapow with all of its glory. Nolan set the bar incredibly high with his Batman trilogy that successfully changed the expectations of the moviegoers for superhero movies. With superheroes like Batman we want grit, we want grim, we want to do Frank Miller justice. We want good storyline with the main character who is coincidentally a superhero. Heath Ledger performed so astonishingly as Joker that we came to want a pattern of Jokers who are as grisly and less giggly in the future. But Joker Ledger is not Batman’s Joker. He was a cunning madman, indeed, but his main objective was chaos for shit and giggles. He wasn’t obsessed with Batman, and even the “you complete me” interrogation scene in The Dark Knight felt more like a mockery to show that he could not care less for Batsy.
Enter Joker Leto. Leto is a brilliant, brilliant method actor. That Oscar he got for playing Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club is well-deserved. I can’t look at Rayon without feeling affection and heartbroken at the same time. She’s so fragile and likeable. Leto is always committed to disappear completely into every role he plays, and Joker was not an exception. News have covered his penchant of giving bizarre gifts to his Suicide Squad cast mates or that Will Smith never felt he’s met the “real” Leto, just the Joker. But what I want to bring up here is that I feel that his version of Joker really became the highlight of the otherwise shambled movie. It is mainly because of Harley Quinn.
Some critics who aimed at Joker Leto called him “too stereotypical to be menacing”, and his chemistry with Margot Robbie is “rigid”, but this is where I beg to disagree. The scattered chunk of scenes regrettably did not explain anything about how the smart and beautiful Dr. Harleen Quinzel came to fall for her green-haired, iron-toothed, red-lipped psychopathic patient. Even the moment of Harley’s transformation was poorly played and, dare I say, a little bit awkward. But the combination of gripping soundtrack and that kiss following the Joker’s dive somehow made up for all of its lacking. Blame my inner fangirl and shipper, but any scene with those two in it is what I enjoy the most for the entirety of the movie. In the comics, they have sadistic, abusive relationship which I would not approve, obviously. But despite the Joker’s real intention of keep trying to get Harley back, or whether or not he only sees Harley as his valuable property, I truly enjoy his showing his genuine care for Harley by pushing her out of the exploding helicopter. And that ending scene…. Let’s just say butterflies and stomach in one sentence.
In regards to awkwardness, do people forget how awkward it could be in comic book movies scenes? Remember that scene in Batman (1989) when Joker tried to woo Vicki Vale and then literally tried to waltz her to death? Yes, Jack Nicholson as Joker was pure concentrated madness, but Nicholson doesn’t even need to put on a costume for us to think so. Leto, meanwhile, is a chameleon. He unleashed his madness and he did not hold back. He enjoyed playing Joker even more than his previous roles. He transformed into Joker, as opposed to Will Smith’s Deadshot who was just basically… Will Smith. I can’t say I’m not disappointed to know that I could have seen 10 minutes more of Joker in the movie. Showing Leto’s full potential as Joker could have been something that made the movie awesome.
Aside from Harley, the rest of the cast, sadly, was more like background characters with almost no tangible developments whatsoever. Margot Robbie really shone, as she also pushed the boundaries of mad obsessive love to her Puddin’ and mad obsessive need to physically hurt people. And her scenes with Joker were honestly everything I thrive for.
Will Smith got waaay to much screen time than I care to see, because let’s be serious, who watched the movie to see him anyway? The Arrow’s Floyd Lawton, played by Michael Rowe, is three times more interesting than Smith’s version. Shame that the studio thought casting a name as big as him would do anything to help the movie. Jai Courtney, however, could have been given more backstory and quips. He was a delight and watching him pocketing his pink unicorn was more exciting than any of Smith’s scene combined.
El Diablo, Killer Croc, Katana, and the sadly short-lived Slipknot were like the members whose name nobody remembers from Taylor Swift’s squad. Enchantress was terrifying, I give you that, and Cara Delevigne was not really given the portion to showcase her talent. Joel Kinnaman’s Rick Flagg was unfortunately replaceable with nothing really worth remembering. Whilst Viola Davis as Amanda Waller was ruthlessly convincing enough, but not quite there.
Yes, as I said earlier, Suicide Squad could have been way better. It has all the elements to make it a startling comic book movie, but sadly it was not. It was still a mess; but a beautiful one, nonetheless. If Ayer could have been given more freedom to arrange these scattered pieces of colourful papers into one masterpiece collage, I believe he truly could. I have faith in him. But since it did not happen, we may need to take a look at what we considered as “messy”. There is always a beauty in madness, and a beauty in a mess. Suicide Squad reminds us of the good ol’ mess of comic book absurdity, in its own way. Hopefully there would be some kind of a redemption for DC in the form of Justice League (although I would never truly accept Affleck as Batman until the world ends) as long as they stop trying so hard to top Marvel and just let it be.
In the meantime, for y’all Ayerverse Joker fans out there, this one is for you. The music is not my cup of tea, but let me just indulge in the overexposure of Joker Leto for now…