By John H. Foote
(**) In theatres
Bit of a rant coming here folks.
Is anyone else tired of comic book superhero movies? I get that some people like them, but we have been bombarded with them since 2000. I would say that maybe seven of those can be called truly great pieces of cinema. They are Spider-Man 2 (2004), The Incredibles (2004), The Dark Knight (2008), Iron Man (2008), Wonder Woman (2017), Avengers: Endgame (2019) and Black Panther (2019). These films were all elevated by the story, the original direction, the extraordinary action and most of all, the performance of the actors. If the actors can give their characters humanity, the movie has a fighting chance of becoming a work of art. We have learned that it really does not matter who wears the cape. Certainly, some actors and actresses have made a mark wearing the cape (or suit), and good for them. I do not envy them because often these films are predictable and formulaic. I was rather surprised when Martin Scorsese uncharacteristically came out railing against the genre. His attitude has always been “there is room for us all” when explaining why terrible films make their way to the big screen. I agree with that thinking — these films do have an audience, but I pray it dwindles before it gets out of hand. Consider that hundreds of superheroes and supervillains have yet to be featured. Add those potential new titles to the possible reboots of existing ones and you will understand why I’m worried.
For example, after Spider-Man (2002) and the exquisite Spider-Man 2 (2004), the third film was a bust. Actor Tobey Maguire realized he had done enough, and director Sam Raimi stepped aside to do other work. But rather than simply cast another actor, the studio instead decided to remake the original film 10 years after its debut, with Andrew Garfield taking the role for both films. They were both huge hits but critically ravaged. Did it matter? Nope. The profits still poured in. Two years after Garfield last played the role, young Tom Holland showed up as Spider Man/Peter Parker in Captain America: Civil War (2016) and The Avengers. He is now locked into the role for several more films, and appears to be the best of the actors to portray Spider Man.
So, in 12 years, three different actors played the role!
Other characters have been equally prolific. Warner Brothers gave us four versions of Batman. When they cast Michael Keaton in the first two films, Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), legions of fans howled in protest. Always wait to see the film guys! Val Kilmer took over for Keaton under the guidance of Joel Schumacher in Batman Forever (1995), which was the beginning of the end, despite an electrifying Jim Carrey as the Riddler. Bringing up the rear was George Clooney in Batman and Robin (1997), a terrible film brought down by the villains. Uma Thurman was awful as Poison Ivy, but the howler was Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, with his entire performance consisting of puns about the cold, being cold, and so on. This was the nail on the coffin of the Batman series, at least for a few years. Then Christopher Nolan brought him back with actor Christian Bale as Batman in The Dark Knight trilogy—Batman Begins (2005), excellent; The Dark Knight (2008), a bona fide masterpiece; and the fine The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Oh, that both artists had stayed on. But when DC went ahead with Batman vs. Superman (2016), it was Ben Affleck as an older, wiser Batman.
And bear in mind, in between these films, we had a dumpster of terrible superhero films, the worst being The Green Lantern (2011), a wretched movie with Ryan Reynolds, who rebounded with the sublime Deadpool (2016).
I watch these films because it is my job, and maybe a masterpiece is yet to come. Certainly Wonder Woman (2017) achieved that, brilliantly directed by Patti Jenkins and starring the breathtaking Gal Gadot as the title character. Perfect casting. But the one that shocked me most was the final Avengers film, subtitled Endgame, which was an astonishing achievement, bringing closure to the narrative and acted with absolute brilliance by Robert Downey Jr., Tom Holland, and virtually every actor in the film. Movie critics are eternal optimists. We hope each film we see is going to be the greatest film ever made. We hope.
Suicide Squad (2016) did not set the bar very high for this second installment, although it is credited with introducing us to the charismatic Margot Robbie. As Harley Quinn, she is simply astonishing, with a performance worthy of a nomination for Best Supporting Actress. The Academy thought not, though she was a Best Actress nominee for her riveting work in I, Tonya, the biography of disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding.
It wouldn’t have taken much to make this sequel a stronger film and the producers indeed raised the bar only minimally. They added THE to the title, so now it is The Suicide Squad, changed up some of the characters, added the voice work of Sylvester Stallone as King Shark, a monosyllabic creation who eats his enemies, brought back the electrifying Robbie and Viola Davis as the deadly leader of the government group using the villains for their own nasty business. They cast Idris Elba as a character not unlike Will Smith from the first film, lost Jared Leto as Joker (mercifully), and gave the film to director James Gunn who brought a dark violence to the picture. Less of a live action cartoon this time, it is a nasty, bloody film and one that does not play nice with its heroes. Don’t get too attached to any of the characters because no one is safe. This at least gives the film a touch of tension suggesting even Harley Quinn could meet her doom (though there is still far too much money to be made with her character and good luck finding anyone who can play the part even remotely as well as Robbie).
Does the narrative even matter? Once again, a group of super villains are bullied into duty by Amanda Waller (Davis) a badass government operative. She has injected into each of the villains an explosive at the base of their brain stem that she controls. Cross her, you die. The villains are sent off to fight worse bad guys, and a big ol’ fight ensues. The only attempt at a story is with Harley, still hurting over her breakup with Mr. J, who is being wooed by the other side’s bad guy.
Action sequences dominate the film, lavish, expensive ones, and the visual effects are outstanding. Robbie again steals every one of her scenes and Gunn seems to have more respect for her as an actress, keeping her clothed and covered up. The movie as big as it is, and it is huge, has a surprisingly easy narrative: bad guys vs. the worst guys. Easy peasy.
The other interesting characters are King Shark, a cgi creation voiced by Sylvester Stallone, John Cena as Peacemaker, Pete Davidson as Blackguard, Taika Waititi (director of Jo Jo Rabbit) is Ratcatcher, and the fascinating looking David Dastmalchian as Polka-Dot Man (instantly recognizable from The Dark Knight).
Is it entertaining? Sure, but the action becomes repetitive very quickly and I found myself checking the time towards the end of the film. That rarely happens.
It is a stupid movie, but worth seeing if only for Robbie’s scenes. She alone makes it worth the price of admission.
James Gunn states the first film means nothing to him, and that as far as he is concerned, this is the first film about The Suicide Squad. I suspect millions of fans will agree. And yes, Gilmour Girl fans, that is Kirk (Sean Gunn) as Weasel/Calendar Man. He is the brother of the director.
But I am still sick and tired of superhero/villain movies, and frankly, do not care if I ever see another.
But sadly, I will.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.