“I thought this was contained!” shrieks the high-level government bureaucrat as comic-book apocalypse breaks out early in “Suicide Squad.” Some of us felt the same way about superhero movies in general after the graceless belly-flop of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” earlier this year. “Suicide Squad” isn’t that much better, but it’s enough of an improvement to a) finally reestablish DC Comics as a worthy box-office competitor to Marvel; b) partly resuscitate Will Smith’s career; and C) provide cosplay inspiration for the next 20 Comic-Cons. As a movie it’s a competent headache, not to mention an NRA member’s wet dream.
For those who can’t recite DC canon chapter and verse, this is essentially “The Dirty Dozen” with superpowers. High up in a hush-hush wing of the US government, Amanda Waller (a steely, rip-roaring Viola Davis) is worried about the rise of “metahumans” and puts together a troupe of unwilling jailed villains, super- or just really jacked, as a top-secret SWAT team. They include Deadshot (Smith), an eagle-eyed assassin; Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a flame-throwing gangbanger with a face tattooed like a Mexican Day of the Dead doll; the beastly Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje); and Boomerang (Jai Courtney), who comes across as an Aussie soccer hooligan with extra-strength roid rage.
There’s also The Enchantress (Cara Delevigne), a gazillion-year-old witch who is forcibly inhabiting the body of mild-mannered archaeologist June Moone (really), but she goes off the reservation early in the movie to call up her evil super-brother Incubus so he can destroy mankind or something. This does not sit well with June’s boyfriend, Army officer Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), whose exasperating day job is babysitting the Suicide Squad.
The character that has the fanboys and fangirls excited, of course, is Harley Quinn, who’s played, quite enthusiastically, by Margot Robbie (“The Wolf of Wall Street”) as a perky psycho cheerleader punk with a Brooklyn accent that comes and goes. Quinn was the Joker’s psychiatrist before she was his girlfriend — isn’t transference supposed to go the other way around? — and Jared Leto haunts the fringes of “Suicide Squad” in a creepy, dead-eyed turn that’s quite the freakshow but that never suggests the damaged soul of the late Heath Ledger’s Joker. (For my money, Leto’s a ringer for Frank Gorshin’s Riddler on the old “Batman” TV show.)
The entire cast is capable enough, but they haven’t been given a lot to work with. The script by director David Ayer mostly consists of cutesy zingers (Harley Quinn on a character’s death by remote control: “Now that’s a killer app!”) and stentorian plot furtherance. Occasionally the dialogue invites active commentary. When the young daughter (Shailyn Pierre-Dixon) of Smith’s character tells him “Daddy, I know you do bad things,” I may have muttered “After Earth” into my popcorn.
(Look fast, by the way, and you’ll see lonesome Ben Affleck in an uncredited turn or two as Batman himself. The man looks miserable, as if he regrets signing his soul over for his next three career cycles. Can someone start a Kickstarter to buy out this contract?)
“Suicide Squad” prides itself on being “dark,” but it’s really just jokey, cynical, and violent, not to mention visually ugly as sin. It’s as subversive as milk. But the cast and the pacing keep it moving, and you’ll probably feel like you got your money’s worth if you’re one of those millennials who considers “The Dark Knight” one of the greatest movies of all time.
That said, Marvel’s recent superhero movies look downright Apollonian next to the clanking ponderousness of the DC cycle, and if Ayer (“Fury,” “End of Watch”) is a more capable director than Zack Snyder (“Batman v Superman”), “Suicide Squad” still weighs a ton and moves with 10 left feet. Example: There’s a raging gun battle midway through between the antiheroes and some blister-headed bad guys who appear out of nowhere. Because no stakes have been established, there’s zero suspense, zero audience connection. It’s just noise and bullets.
Speaking of which, did any cast members whose political leanings might tilt to left of center get a look at the script? “Suicide Squad” wallows so deliriously in the sound, fury, and iconography of automatic weaponry and Big Effin’ Guns, that it can’t help but land uncomfortably in a cultural landscape dominated by mass-shooting tragedies. There’s standard action-movie violence — it’s the genre’s selling point and always has been — and then there’s gun porn. By its shell-riddled climax this movie has gone over to the latter camp.
On the flip side, the movie allows that fine, fine actress Viola Davis to fire off multiple rounds and release her inner badass even more than on TV’s “How to Get Away With Murder.” If Liam Neeson’s too busy to do the next “Taken” sequel, I think we have a replacement. But everything about “Suicide Squad” from the title on down promises overkill. And the movie, to its ultimate discredit, delivers.
★ ★ ½
Written and directed by David Ayer. Starring Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Viola Davis, Jared Leto, Joel Kinnaman, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; Jordan’s IMAX, Natick and Reading. 122 minutes. PG-13 (sequences of violence and action throughout, disturbing behavior, suggestive content and language)