The Problem with “Suicide Squad”

“Suicide Squad” was one of the most anticipated movies this summer. Even though critics ravaged the movie, fans flocked to the movie in droves – right up until they saw for themselves the mess that “Suicide Squad” really is. First, let’s point out the highlights.

Harley Quinn and Deadshot are mostly the heroes and they do a great job. One unifying theme for the characters is getting back to their loved ones. Deadshot has the strongest story where he wants to get back with his daughter while Harley Quinn wants to get back to the Joker. By the end, both characters get back to their loved ones.

The soldier leading the Suicide Squad is in love with a woman whose body has been taken over by Enchantress, a witch who’s the villain. So this soldier’s goal is to get back with his girlfriend. So we have three parallel storylines that support each other and get paid off in the end.

Now for the drawbacks.

Beyond Harley Quinn and Deadshot, the rest of the characters are little more than puppets. Even the soldier leading the group has so little screen time that it’s hard to sympathize with his goal of saving his girlfriend whose body has been taken over by Enchantress. We get to know Deadshot and Harley Quinn. We don’t really get to know this soldier, so his goal of saving his girlfriend is rather meaningless and empty.

None of the other characters have much of a goal. When they fight, they show little unique skills that make their fighting memorable. It’s basically just watching a bunch of random guys fighting so there’s little of interest.

Perhaps the worst part about “Suicide Squad” is the constant use of flashbacks. Just as the story starts to get moving, another flashback slows the action down to let you know the motivation behind the character. It seems like a quarter of the movie is devoted to flashbacks to explain everything. Once this flashback is over, then the action goes back to the present and just when you start to get excited about the action, the movie cuts away to another character.

In general, flashbacks work either in extremely short bursts or in a single, lengthy segment. More importantly, flashbacks must be an integral part of the current story.

In “Bloodsport,” the hero is a martial artist who has gone through some unusual training techniques by his master, one of which involves being blindfolded and having to fight. Just when the villain has blinded the hero by throwing sand in his eyes, the hero remembers the brief flashback of training while blindfolded. Now as the villain attacks, the hero defends himself without using his sight. In that instance, the flashback is short enough to remind us of a past scene.

In “Casablanca,” there’s a long flashback that shows how the hero met a woman and was dumped by her at the last minute, turning him cynical. This lengthy flashback works because it finally explains the hero’s motivation and lets us experience the same emotional trauma that the hero went through.

That’s they key to a lengthy flashback. We have to experience the emotion. It’s not enough to just show us the past. The past must be an emotional journey that draws us in.

In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” there are plenty of short flashbacks, but each one tells a mini-story that pulls us in emotionally. There’s an early scene where the hero’s brother crashes through thin ice and nearly drowns until the hero saves him. That tells a complete story in the two boys sledding, the brother getting into trouble, the hero saving him, and the hero losing part of his hearing as a result. We get a complete story and the emotional impact at the same time.

Where the flashbacks in “Suicide Squad” fail is that they show us the past, but there’s no story or emotion. We just see characters from the past, something happens, and the flashback is over. The flashback tells us what happened, but it doesn’t let us experience any emotion of the characters so each flashback feels more like an interruption than exposition.

The best form of exposition is when the audience sees something and infers what’s going on. In the flashback scene in “Casablanca,” the hero is ready to leave on the train with his lover when she sends him a note telling him she can’t go with him. That emotionally crushes him but from his reaction and knowing the contents of the note, we can infer that he’s emotionally crushed. We don’t need the scene to tell us this.

In “Suicide Squad,” there’s a flashback where Harley Quinn is a psychiatrist talking to the Joker. We hear a narrator saying that she started to fall in love with him but we don’t get a chance to infer this information from the scene. The flashback scene simply shows Harley Quinn talking to the Joker and that’s it. It’s a flat, static, boring scene that isn’t made any better by having a narrator tell us she was starting to fall in love with the Joker. That’s lazy screenwriting. Because so many flashbacks in “Suicide Squad” do this, the story never keeps the action going and never makes us care about the characters.

“Suicide Squad” is a good idea trapped in a poorly constructed story that makes little sense. The actors are fine, but the constant cuts to different characters who have no goals, and the constant flashbacks insures that “Suicide Squad” never engages us consistently.

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