In the weeks preceding the release of Suicide Squad, things got bad. The Republicans and the Democrats staged their conventions. The RNC played out like free-association improv where the given word was always “terror”; the DNC offered more hope (or at least balloons), but not enough. Zika struck Utah. A rampage hit Dallas. A coup erupted in Turkey. And that was only July. The entire year has been like this, and there’s still so much more of it to go. Surely no one appreciates this more than writer-director David Ayer, who arrived at Comic-Con International wearing a “Make Mexico Great Again” hat clearly meant to mock Donald Trump’s foreign policy and choice of headwear.
That’s because no movie released this summer feels more of the moment than Ayer’s Suicide Squad. Not The Purge: Election Year with its on-the-nose title; not Jason Bourne with its buzzword-y Edward Snowden talk and inexplicably successful Internet companies. No, it’s Suicide Squad with its slightly upside down (or at least askew) moral compass and messy delivery that feels like the right movie for right now. Does opening up your Facebook feed feel like falling into fatalism? Suicide Squad is here to catch you–for better or worse.
This in no way is meant to suggest that a bullet-and-cameos orgy from DC’s burgeoning cinematic universe will make a ripple in the national conversation, let alone spark a substantive one. In fact, its obsession with firefights (an Ayer specialty) couldn’t come at a worse time. But if you’re growing bored of Pokemon Go and looking for a new distraction from the fact that 2016 has been simply atrocious, a movie about a group of ex-cons who turn out to be heroes might be what you need–and even if it’s not, it’s what you’re getting.
Suicide Squad does more than offer a things-could-be-worse diversion. It taps into the predictable 20-years-later nostalgia for the ’90s. With a soundtrack offering something for every generation since the boomers (shouts to K7!), it’s the kind of grotesquely energetic comic book movie that harkens back to, I dunno, Tank Girl maybe? (Before you yell “Deadpool!” in the comments: I know. But while the two share a certain level of not-kids-stuff, Squad has a graveness Deadpool doesn’t.) Remember when MTV played music videos and some movies felt like long videos? Well, here, just in time for MTV’s promise to bring back Daria, is a two-hour music video hosted by ’90s hero Jared Leto, starring as the dude who grew up into the kinda guy Angela’s mom worried he would. (Yes, he has a tattoo on his face, who cares?! God, mooooooom.)
Actually, let’s talk about the Joker for a second. Leto is now the third Oscar-winner to play the iconic villain, one of whom won his Academy Award for playing the Joker. The role’s been played so often and so well that it’s almost sacrosanct. So does Leto do it (ahem) justice? Yes, actually. He doesn’t eclipse Heath Ledger, who had much more to do in The Dark Knight, but you can sleep well knowing Margot Robbie (the Harley Quinn to his Joker) didn’t have to put up with live-rat delivery for nothing. Leto has the fully unhinged, vaguely pansexual, your-uncle-who-grew-up-on-Adam-West’s-Batman-won’t-get-it goods–even if it feels like a lot of it got cut from the final film.
Which brings us to Suicide Squad’s other very-now ingredient: women! Holy shit, there are so many women in this movie you’d think it was directed by Paul Feig or from the studio that’s really trying to prove female superheroes can make money next summer. Granted, not all of the women are treated fantastically in this film (Clothes That Actually Look Like Margot Robbie Could Fight in Them for President). But the female “heroes” in the Suicide Squad outnumber the heroines in the first Avengers movie 2-to-1, and at a time when female heroes are just starting to eke out a place in tentpole franchises, that looks like progress. And hey, there’s still a chance we could get a more well-rounded Quinn if that Robbie-produced mostly-female spin-off actually happens.
If all of this sounds like faint praise, it is. Just because a fun-but-scattershot mess of a movie helmed by an exceptionally charismatic Will Smith feels like the perfect end to a mess of a summer, that doesn’t make it good. And while I’m seemingly in the minority of people who actually liked Suicide Squad, the criticism is valid. It’s not without its flaws (it feels pieced together, mostly because it was), and 10 years from now it’ll be a trivia night answer rather than canon. But in this summer, with its lackluster movies and generally terrible national affairs, it fits right in. And while being better than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice isn’t a compliment, it is that. Easily. Ayer finds depth in his DC characters that Zack Snyder so far has not. And what it says without saying it is that sometimes good deeds come out of shitty circumstances.
“In a world of flying monsters,” as Squad mastermind Amanda Waller (giving-it-her-all Viola Davis) notes, “this [squad] is the only way to save our country.” That’s a good motto in a comic book universe where antiheroes with names like Diablo can channel their fiery rage to do good and the cities are rebuilt before the next sequel. Outside the theater, that’s not the case. Bad guys can’t save anything in the real world. But in Suicide Squad, they can maybe kind of distract you from it–it ain’t much, but it’s the most heroic thing they can do.