It's a sad day in hell (or Gotham) when the most interesting thing about your movie is Jared Leto's demonic cackle. But that's Suicide Squad in a nutshell. The notoriously annoying method actor brings his particular brand of crazy to David Ayer's neon-tinted tent pole as The Joker. While other super villains battle with goodness and feelings and honor, Leto's rotten clown revels in being bad; he could easily star in a spinoff titled The Day the Clown Screamed.
Still, The Joker resides merely on the fringes, seemingly biding his time until a more suitable narrative reveals itself. This latest chapter in DC's ongoing and evolving cinematic universe focuses on other baddies recruited by ruthless government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) to combat future meta-human threats facing the United States. They include Will Smith's eagle-eye assassin Deadshot, Margot Robbie's psychiatrist gone mad Harley Quinn, and Jay Hernandez's fire-spewing gangster Diablo.
Ayer spends much of the first act clumsily introducing these prolific killers and their backstory, leaning on a back catalogue of popular tunes to cue each transition (Eminem's "Without Me" is a strange curatorial choice). Despite the multiple murders and carnage, this prologue comes across as mostly fooling around. Special forces officer Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) is tasked with babysitting duties, looking frustrated at every turn.
Shit eventually hits the fan when an illusive witch named Enchantress (Cara Delevigne) begins to terrorize Chicago stand-in Midway City. Why is less important than how; she possesses the souls of regular humans, turning them into gun-toting monsters who can survive multiple headshots. They make for good fodder when Deadshot and company finally assemble and engage. Ayer's never been one to to shy away from the physical brutality of violence (Fury's final tank showdown remains his career showstopper), but here he seems stymied by the PG-13 rating.
When the characters aren't dispatching faceless monsters they are relentlessly bickering with each other. Suicide Squad's bad attitude resembles that of Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy, another "bridge" between franchises featuring more popular superheroes. If James Gunn's snappy sci-fi disregarded plot in order to build chemistry between characters, Ayer's somber action film ends up explaining too much. Most scenes are smothered in a thick layer of exposition.
A relevant thematic pattern emerges from all the jive talk. Each anti-hero has lost or been displaced from someone they love because of their bad behavior. Diablo's tale of woe confirms how ego and natural instinct can ignite self-destruction. The film itself is a wakeup call in short for them to either change course or die trying. Oddly, Adam Beach's wall-scaling Slipknot fails to even get the chance for redemption.
The most demented example of this motif is expressed through Quinn's relationship with The Joker, who she treated as a patient during their time at Arkham Asylum. Suicide Squad often cuts away from its tired central narrative to spend time with the face-painted couple. Their candy colored embrace in a vat of bubbling chemicals is a visual high point, the perfect culmination of style and mania.
Zach Snyder's surprisingly vital Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ended with the death of Superman (Henry Cavell), and Suicide Squad capitalizes on the desperation and fear that follows. Waller's brazen actions throughout suggest that the most evil super villain is the American government. Ayer isn't interested in taking that idea any further than the surface blackmail and manipulation perpetrated on members of the team, and Deadshot most aggressively.
For all its posturing as a dark portrait of super sociopaths, Suicide Squad (opening Friday, Aug. 5) never becomes nightmarish enough. It lacks the necessary teeth and ambiguity to connect cartoonish evil with the relatable horrors of everyday life. Only The Joker seems to understand that actions scream louder than words.