A mess that is saved by awesome actors.

Suicide Squad is a mess. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a studio film so clearly and clumsily manhandled with reshoots and rejiggering; the whole first act plays like an extended montage, an endless “Previously on” segment set to a staggering series of on-the-nose needledrops (Sympathy for the Devil plays when master manipulator Amanda Waller is introduced), and the third act is full of emotional beats and character turns that are not set up and as such can’t land their payoffs. But, swimming through all that, pushing against the current of a botched movie, are four lead performances that salvage the whole thing.

Suicide Squad is set in the days after the death of Superman in Batman v Superman. His appearance on the scene destabilized the world - suddenly every nation and terrorist group needs their own superhumans - and his death destabilized it again. Superman’s absence suddenly leaves the nation exposed, and Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), a high level agent in the secret group ARGUS with a by any means necessary worldview, has a solution. She wants to take the superpowered prisoners in Belle Reve prison (a place she describes as “a hole, and I threw away the hole”) and turn them into a taskforce to take on extraordinary threats. It’s clearly a bad idea, and the whole thing leads to immense death and destruction and nobody ever really addresses it.

Her Task Force X - the titular Suicide Squad - is made up of the worst of the worst. Deadshot (Will Smith) is an assassin who doesn’t ever miss. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is the Joker’s psychotic girlfriend. El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) is a former gangbanger who can control fire. Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is a Nawlins native who mutated into a monster. Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) is a 6000 year old demon that is possessing an innocent archeologist. Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) is a bank robber with no discernible skills or abilities in the context of the movie. Slipknot (Adam Beach) is… I don’t actually know. Spoiler: he dies almost immediately after being artlessly introduced 30 minutes into the film.

Who can keep these rowdy nutcases together? Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman), who looks more like a strung out heroin addict in this movie than a great soldier. It’s one of the film’s odd aesthetic choices, which veer wildly from grim n' gritty to blacklight silly. His sidekick/bodyguard is Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a quiet Japanese woman who wields a sword that absorbs the souls of those it kills. Everybody treats it like it’s no big deal, which is weird in a cinematic universe dedicated to being grounded and 'realistic.' This, by the way, is not a complaint.

How stupid is the Task Force X idea? Their first mission is to stop Enchantress herself, who has snuck away from Amanda Waller’s control (Waller keeps the witch’s heart in a briefcase) and awoken her brother, Incubus, a CGI character from the ancient days of 1999. He looks like he belongs in the Brendan Fraser Mummy, and it’s unreal watching this poorly conceived character walk around in a modern movie. It actually gives you the kind of cognitive dissonance you might get seeing a real 6000 year old demon walking the streets.

Anyway, Amanda Waller’s whole Task Force X plan creates this problem in Midway City, where Enchantress and Incubus transform the local population into hard-to-see CGI cannon fodder that our heroes can easily cut down in action scenes and they also build a huge portal in the sky to… do something. Kill humanity, somehow. I don’t really understand it. I think it probably got fidgeted with in the edit and now it’s just a generic Death by Skyportal plot. We still have movies with that in them!

Suicide Squad is a mess from beginning to end. Deadshot is introduced no less than three times - we meet him in the opening scene of the movie, and then Amanda Waller introduces his character at a dinner where she’s explaining Task Force X to military types (this is where we see Batman apprehend him) and then we are introduced to him a third time when Rick Flagg comes to Belle Reve and wants to see what he can do with a gun (which we already know because of the previous Amanda Waller scene, which had a flashback to Deadshot carrying out a complicated assassination using ricochets). The movie is full of stuff like that - retread scenes, concepts repeated and repeated (possibly because the studio was afraid the audience would be lost?), extraordinary examples of poor narrative economy. The entire Joker subplot has no bearing on the film and could be excised without losing ANYTHING. Well, you would lose Jared Leto’s irritating and fundamentally ridiculous take on the Joker, which actually would have been an improvement.

But this is the big problem with the movie - it’s a shambling mess whose script clearly never cohered, and whose reshoots only muddied the waters further. The structure is bad, the pacing is off and the stakes are often obfuscated. The entire second act is the Squad on a rescue mission, but it’s not clear who they’re rescuing, and when it’s revealed your reaction is just, “Oh, okay. I guess.” David Ayer makes a game attempt to bring his aesthetic to the material (besides directing he’s the sole credited writer), but either he’s half-assing it or he was getting pushback from above, because the whole film feels compromised from beginning to end. Warner Bros crows that their DC movies are filmmaker-driven, but Suicide Squad feels like the casualty of death by a zillion notes, many of which were "Make it more like a Marvel movie."

Here’s the weird thing: despite being a total mess, despite being structurally inadequate and having almost no story whatsoever, despite being drenched in the desperate stench of trying too hard to be cool, Suicide Squad kind of works. There are four actors who bring their best to the film, and many of the other actors are at least enjoyable (Jai Courtney, who has almost literally nothing to do in the movie (by the way, how badly put together is this movie? In one scene Captain Boomerang leaves the team and then in the very next shot he walks in a slomo shot with them, completely unmotivated. That’s kind of Suicide Squad in a nutshell)). But it’s the main four who really turn Suicide Squad into a watchable movie.

Most surprising of all for me is Jay Hernandez. It’s clear that El Diablo is David Ayers’ favorite character; a former gangbanger born with fire generation and control powers, El Diablo has forsworn his abilities and violence after his powers exacted a terrible price from his life. In a better movie El Diablo would be more foregrounded, but here he’s usually moping in the back of scenes and watching while the other dudes fight. Still, even with that poor writing, Hernandez brings a true wounded humanity to the character, and when he finally does get in the fight it’s both triumphant and tragic. I walked into Suicide Squad not giving a shit about El Diablo and walked out deeply invested in his story. I suspect that if Ayer had a smaller ensemble he could have made me feel this way about other characters.

Also great: Will Smith. His Deadshot is the moral center of the story, and it’s his (undramatized) journey from killer to a guy who just wants to prove to his daughter that her daddy isn’t a total piece of shit that forms the spine of the film. Smith brings his extraordinary movie star charisma to the role, except for one fight scene in an office building where Deadshot suddenly and inexplicably dons his mask, probably so that they didn’t have to pay Smith to be on set that day. Anyway, Deadshot in Suicide Squad is more heroic than Superman in BvS, which is kind of crazy. There’s a subplot where Deadshot and Flagg come to respect one another that isn’t really fleshed out, but Smith sells it. This is what movie stars do - they walk into your movie and make the audience forget that everything else is a mess. It’s a really good performance, and seeing Smith against Ben Affleck’s Batman was probably the most exhilarating moment in the DC movieverse to date - the scene has the frisson you get when two cool Marvel characters meet for the first time, and we simply haven’t had that in a DC movie yet. Smith and Affleck are movie stars, and you feel their energy.

Affleck also has a scene with Margot Robbie, whose Harley Quinn presents another foundational element of the film. We get her origin story - one I must admit I never liked - told in patchy flashbacks (will general audiences understand why the Joker is making her take a swan dive into a pool of chemicals? Perhaps the Burton Batman is so culturally ingrained they will), and her relationship with the Joker is quickly presented in creepy, gross terms (we see her bumping and grinding at a strip club where Pimp Joker is holding court, and then the Joker offers her, sexually, to Common), but when she’s in the present day, outside of the flashbacks, she’s actually quite great. Harley is the most aggressive member of the team, and Robbie plays her bloodlust against a weird, dazed innocence in a way that is totally intriguing. She’s FUN, the only truly fun character in a movie whose endless needledrops seem to be crying out “This is fun!” Harley is electric and exciting, and Robbie, like Smith, is just a bona fide movie star. You can’t take your eyes off her, and I’m not talking about her short shorts here. Hoo boy does the camera linger on her with some serious male gaze.

The final member of the quartet that makes Suicide Squad work is Viola Davis as Amanda Waller. In a movie filled with bad guys, Waller might be the most villainous. She’s Nick Fury with the moral ambiguity turned up to 12, and Davis has a steely conviction that can be terrifying. Like everyone else in the film she’s manhandled by the script (she just disappears out of the movie for a big chunk of the third act), but Davis creates the kind of bad person doing what they think is right character who would be at home on AMC or another network where antihero dramas rule. Davis does this while being forced to rattle off page upon page of exposition, which makes her chilling performance all the more impressive. Get you an actor who can do both: infodump for ten minutes straight AND tell a whole story with just one nasty look.

These actors save the movie, but they can’t make the villain work. In a genre where villains are often the weak spot, Incubus and Enchantress are all-time dogs. Just crappy, pointless, silly villains; Enchantress spends a lot of the movie in an Evil-Lyn costume while gyrating in front of a CGI portal. Incubus… well, he’s just nothing. His eventual defeat is tedious and uninspired. The duo have no personality, they don’t have a strong plan, and they’re not aesthetically interesting. A film about bad guys teaming up to stop worse guys should have a terrific villain at the center. Suicide Squad does not.

That villain is surely not The Joker. Jared Leto is fucking insufferable in the role, playing The Joker as Scarface with a bad sense of humor. I know that everybody gets their own interpretation of comic book characters, but I think this is the worst version of The Joker yet, a version that so deeply misunderstands the chaotic heart of the character that he’s simply ruined. Worst of all, he’s shoe-horned into the film in a truly inorganic way; instead of being a constant threat to the Squad as he tries to get his girlfriend back, The Joker simply pops up at the end of the second act to have an action scene that’s disconnected from the story. He doesn’t even share the screen with any of the Squad besides Harley, so I don’t know why Jared Leto needed to abuse his co-stars so thoroughly during production. Nobody has a scene with The Joker!

If Guardians of the Galaxy was Coca-Cola, Suicide Squad is Faygo. But here’s the thing about Faygo: it’s okay. I mean, I wouldn’t go to the store and buy it, but if I were served it I probably wouldn’t spit it out. It’s off-brand, it’s beloved by a crowd of real goons, it’s a knock-off, but it serves its purpose. Suicide Squad, like Faygo, is almost preternatural in how it straddles the line between good and bad. The movie is, on paper, a disaster. It is, in execution, a mess. It’s never really fun (but it’s also not relentlessly grim and bleak like BvS), but it’s… watchable? And it has those four performances that really make a difference. Suicide Squad is a movie that has been brutalized in post - probably in an attempt to make it more like Guardians (down to the team walking in slomo shot) - but even the most obnoxious editing and worst reshoot material can’t keep down Hernandez, Smith, Robbie and Davis. I don’t want to watch Suicide Squad again, but I really would like to see those characters again. I would like more with them, perhaps in a movie that has a good script, a reasonable story and a coherent aesthetic.

So I’ll be giving Suicide Squad a fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, if only because the site doesn’t let you give a mixed review. This movie is barely fresh, but it represents a step forward for the DC movies. It took a film full of supervillains to make a film about people who want to be heroes, but I’ll take what I can get from these guys. And honestly, any movie that makes me deeply care about El Diablo and Harley Quinn (a character I never, ever liked), isn’t all bad.

It’s just mostly bad.