The superhero movie is at a strange crossroads. It generally either takes itself too seriously ("Man of Steel," ''Batman v Superman") or delights in not caring a bit ("Deadpool"). The choice, dear moviegoer, is yours. Do you prefer your costumed heroes to brood or to break bad?
Right now, good is out; self-proclaimed "edginess" is in; and a cape might get you turned away from the nightclub.
Riding the trend is David Ayer's day-glo superhero circus "Suicide Squad," a gleefully nihilistic, abysmally messy romp that delights in upending the genre's conventions and tries desperately to, like, totally blow your mind with its outre freak show.
It's less of a movie than a long trailer that doesn't provoke as much as it thinks it does. It's stitched together by an endless jukebox of everything from "House of the Rising Sun" to K7's "Come Baby Come," a soundtrack gimmick taken straight from "Guardians of the Galaxy" (which more successfully gave the superhero movie new moves). It's employed three times before the opening credits have even finished rolling, an early cue to the filmmaking talent at work.
Despite the train wreck of "Batman v Superman" (the last DC Comics challenge to Marvel's dominance), excitement is high for "Suicide Squad" thanks to a marketing campaign that rivals the presidential ones and the promise of some punk in the poppy, PG-13 realm of the superhero movie.
But the nastiness of "Suicide Squad" is superficial, merely fetishized gestures of ultra-violence that will impress few beyond 13-year-old boys. (Sorry, that's unkind to 13-year-old boys.) Based on the comic created by John Ostrander, the film is a cartoonish yet grim "Magnificent Seven" in which a desperate government — for the moment without the services of Superman or Batman — turns to a handful of villains, locked away in prison cells, to combat a yet greater supervillain running amok.
There's Will Smith's sniper-for-hire father Deadshot, Margot Robbie's psycho-in-pigtails Harley Quinn, Jay Hernandez's fire-breathing gang member El Diablo, and others. They're a gruesome bunch, reluctant to fight anyone else's battle, but forced to when the program's leader (the imposing Viola Davis, the film's steely backbone) implants an explosive device inside them. They bond in conversation over whether they've killed kids or not. Lovely stuff, really.
The standout is Robbie's Harley Quinn, the most dynamic presence of the bunch: a clown cocktail of mental disorder and cheerleader pep. Robbie pulls it off, but Ayer spoils the movie's breakout character by continually reducing her to mere eye candy, ogling her as she bends over.
Quinn is the demented girlfriend of the on-the-loose Joker (Jared Leto), who turns out to be a curiously small part of the film. That, however, proves to be a relief. Leto, working in the sizable wake of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger, proves a massive disappointment in the role, lacking in both menace and wit despite the tall-tales of his Method extremes during shooting.
The film, as a whole, is missing the humour and spryness that was promised. Its best laughs are unintentional (all I'll say is that there are souls trapped in swords) and the charisma of Smith and Robbie are drowned out in Ayer's turgid tale.
Ayer's previous film was the WWII tank drama "Fury," an overbearingly bleak movie that similarly followed a harsh band of warriors and flipped the good-vs-bad dichotomy of Americans against Nazis into a less heroic story.
In "Suicide Squad," Ayer questions whether a killer can be a hero and vice versa, even equating psychopaths with elite soldiers. He would like to vanquish the triumphant superhero and reorder the comic universe for more complicated times. But the only thing he may have killed is the comic-book adaption.
Watching "Suicide Squad" (which will nevertheless make hundreds of millions) is to see the superhero movie reaching rock bottom, sunk by moral rot and hollow bombast. Down, down and away!
"Suicide Squad," a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "sequences of violence and action throughout, disturbing behaviour, suggestive content and language." Running time: 123 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP
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