To talk about Suicide Squad is to talk about Harley Quinn.
The Joker’s traditionally harlequin-styled girlfriend and sidekick in villainy is a fan favorite who’s been unshackled from her psychotic puddin’ for some time in the spotlight in the new DC Comics–based movie. Like most of the main ensemble of Suicide Squad, baddies recruited to work for the nominal forces of good through a combination of coercion and bribery, she’s a lower-tier comic book character — these folks are no Superman (though he gets mentioned) or Batman (though he, as played by Ben Affleck, makes a brief, glower-y appearance).
Harley is a psychiatrist who fell for the Joker (Jared Leto) while treating him at Arkham Asylum, and who left everything behind to follow him, out of some combination of mad love or Stockholm syndrome. She makes perky observations like “What a ride!” after having survived a helicopter crash, lest you forget how deranged her worldview is meant to be. The actor playing her, Margot Robbie, isn’t Suicide Squad’s most famous cast member — that would be Will Smith as Deadshot — but she’s been featured most prominently in all of the film’s marketing materials. Maybe that's because she looks so distinctive with her revamped crazed cheerleader fashions. Or maybe it's because she’s not wearing pants.
Harley Quinn is an embodiment of all the conflicting things this frankly disastrous new movie, choppily written and directed David Ayer, is attempting to do. She’s meant to be fun in her I’m so cra-azy way, but she’s also a woman in an abusive relationship the movie has no idea how to handle. She’s supposed to be strong, and in the literal sense, she does bash things with a baseball bat. But she’s also a psychological prisoner who has surrendered her sense of self. She’s a goth icon who talks like a 1930s gangster moll and who owns a gun reading “love” and “hate” on the barrel, but in her deepest heart, all she wants is to be a housewife in curlers, looking after the kids while her green-haired hubby heads off to work. She’s anarchic, but not really, and a good time, but not really, and she’s fucked up, but not really — or at least, not really in a way the movie’s ready to take time to explore. Sure, Harley is a tricky character, but she’s been shaped into an intensely sexualized mascot for a film that yearns for edginess, but can’t get over the rounded curves of its female lead.
Suicide Squad is a movie about criminals and miscreants that makes surface gestures toward upsetting superheroic expectations, but that turns out to be thuddingly retrograde in its choices. Its characters are supposedly hardened, selfish outcasts who nevertheless declare themselves family faster than a bunch of tenderhearted fourth-graders at summer camp. Its plot is maddeningly circular, with the Suicide Squad getting activated to fight a frustratingly silly-looking antagonist who wouldn’t be around if someone hadn’t tried to put together the Suicide Squad. That someone is Viola Davis, who infuses ambitious government agent Amanda Waller with wonderful I’ve-seen-some-shit steeliness. (Her best moment is how zestily she eats while walking someone through the dossiers of the convicts she’s planning on rounding up, as if she could just as easily be devouring her pesky higher-ups.) But even Davis can’t circumvent the fact that the whole movie is about how terrible Waller’s ideas are and how they lead to a sizable chunk of Midway City being destroyed.
Waller is as good as female characters get in Suicide Squad, in which the women can’t control themselves and they're always dragging down the men around them (save for Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s equally camp Killer Croc, who, if they were written consistently, would walk halfway through). There’s Cara Delevingne as archaeologist June Moone, a trembling puddle in human form, and a laughable figure as Enchantress, the ancient witch who’s possessed her — and who exhausts the model’s still developing acting skills. Enchantress has more superpowers than anyone else in the movie, but June is multiple times a pawn, being used by the spirit as well as by Waller, who’s leveraging her to keep special forces recruit Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), June’s lover, under her thumb.
There’s also Katana (Karen Fukuhara), who’s Flag’s inexplicable soul-sucking, sword-wielding, revenge-seeking ally, and who’s revealed to speak English only after letting Flag talk on her behalf for most of the film. There are the wife and kids whom flame-throwing gang member El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) feels guilty about killing. And there’s the precocious daughter for whom assassin Deadshot wants to redeem himself. (Smith’s snappy, smart-alecky performance embodies the tone the movie seemed to be aiming for and but mostly missed.)
Ayer is a director known for making gritty movies about men — and some very good ones, like 2014’s bruising World War II drama Fury, and 2012’s found-footage cop movie End of Watch. So why put him in charge of a movie that’s halfway made up of women, and that, as all those clever trailers have promised, is meant to be a lighter, better time than DC’s previous effort, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice? The first half of Suicide Squad has very noticeably been set almost wall-to-wall with music, from “Sympathy for the Devil” to “Seven Nation Army” to “Spirit in the Sky,” in an overt attempt to infuse the footage with borrowed levity from familiar tunes. But Ayer eventually has to reach for clumsily sketched-out angst (like Deadshot staring morosely at the child mannequin in a department store window) in an attempt to humanize his very crowded field of characters — and that angst depends on using women as accessories to depict male pain.
Which brings us back to Harley Quinn, whose arc in the film, as much as she has one, comes down to remembering her time with the Joker in disturbed flashes, and longing to unite with him again anyway. The troubled depiction of their relationship is the most daring thing the film does, Harley transforming herself into the perfect partner and adornment for her evil swain, giving up her sanity, her life, and her previous looks in order to be with him, putting her entire existence in danger just to prove her devotion. It’s a depraved version of amour fou, or at least, it should be in Harley’s warped point of view — but the movie is just as infatuated with Leto’s tiresomely tic-laden Joker (a much-hyped performance that doesn’t actually amount to much screen time) as Harley is supposed to be. There’s no distinguishing the movie's take from Harley’s woozily romanticized one.
“I sleep where I want, when I want, with who I want,” she spits at a guard early on, a declaration of agency that’s contradicted by the mental and physical cages in which she finds herself, licking the bars and insisting she’s the one in control, despite hers being a whole lead role devoted to highlighting the villain of a future film. Harley Quinn is meant to be Suicide Squad’s dark heart. Instead, she's been made into its damaged dolly jerk-off material.