REVIEW: ‘Suicide Squad’, where poor editing is the real supervillain


One of the cardinal rules of filmmaking is that the editing should be invisible. In any sequence, the editor should be able to cut between close-ups, wide shots or any other framing without drawing attention to the “seams”. After all, we’re not seeing a story unfold as it does if you’re there in real life. It’s part of the magic of motion pictures, a means of jumping through time and space without really noticing it.

Of course, if all filmmakers stuck to the rules, going to the movies would be a pretty boring proposition. Any film teacher will tell you that only once you’ve mastered the rules of editing should you try to experiment with breaking them; that way, you know how far you push an edit before your concept falls apart. This is how we get movies with flashy, memorable editing; transitions that make you smile, or combinations of shots that make your heart race. Every cool edit is built on a skeleton of tiny, seemingly boring decisions that keep the film under control.

And so we come to Suicide Squad, a movie I’ll admit I was surprised to see such bad advance press about. It’s been the buzziest movie in the growing film universe based on the DC characters, due in part to its star-studded cast and the would-be edginess of its premise. And yet what torpedoes the movie isn’t an overstuffed script or a CGI bonanza of destruction (both of which plague the genre, and have weakened not just DC films but the gold-standard Marvel ones, too).

Jared Leto as the Joker, Robbie as Harley Quinn and Common as Monster T.
Jared Leto as the Joker, Robbie as Harley Quinn and Common as Monster T.

No, what hobbles Suicide Squad (from almost the first scene) is some of the most confused editing I’ve seen in a Hollywood blockbuster for years. Instead of introducing a villain or threat and showing how the (anti-)heroes stand up to it, the film nearly drowns in expository tedium for nearly the first 30 minutes. Even when the action finally gets going, the film acquires a maddening on-off rhythm, an obvious sign of how someone - other than the director and the lead editor - hacked up the film and tried to put another one together based on fears about box-office performance.

What sours the experience further are the glimpses of the movie that could have been. Let’s start with the story itself: a rogue’s gallery of villains (many from the Batman comics) is let out of prison to complete a black-ops mission for the American government. They include top assassin Deadshot (Will Smith), Joker’s sidekick Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), pyrokinetic gangster El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and others. Trying to hold their leashes, meanwhile, are government agents Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) and Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman).

Sounds promising, right? With this ensemble and the moral ambiguity posed by the set-up, you’d think that writer-director David Ayer would be right at home. Ayer was behind both End of Watch and Fury, two films that suck you into the worlds of police officers and soldiers stuck in impossible situations, forced to commit questionable acts to survive.

Ayer does manage to inject Suicide Squad with some of the dramatic qualities of his earlier movies. But the scenes that do connect are constantly undermined by the editing, which cuts off the interesting scenes too early (like one right near the end, where the Squad is finally getting to know one another over drinks) and inserts other scenes almost at random.

This includes a key set piece for the development of the main villain, where it seems like the movie literally fast-forwards through the sequence, and it left me utterly confused about who the Squad is actually sent to fight. Is it terrorists? A supernatural being? Joker’s minions? We get several answers, none of them definitive.

Viola Davis as Amanda Waller, the government operative who assembles the Squad.
Viola Davis as Amanda Waller, the government operative who assembles the Squad.

Another random insertion makes Amanda Waller look like a cold-blooded murderer, when she's supposed to be the most level-headed of the bunch. Many other sections alternate between unnecessary padding and rushing to the next action beat. Bizarrely, this pattern eventually gives Suicide Squad a kind of monotone quality; it’s everything and nothing, with no rising or falling action to keep you hooked.

As for the Joker (Jared Leto), despite all the buzz around Leto’s Method performance, we see precious little of it, and he has shockingly little influence on the plot. He’s made out to be a terrifying presence, but there’s no tour-de-force scene like Heath Ledger’s gangster conference in The Dark Knight to make you believe it. The gaps in the film's usage of the Joker suggest that maybe there was more of him in an earlier cut, and he was significantly trimmed down in favour of the movie’s more supernatural antagonist.

As frustrating as Suicide Squad is, it’s hard to lay it at the feet of Ayer and the cast, who by all accounts punished themselves to bring out as much authenticity as possible in what they captured on set. The fault lies squarely with the brass at Warner Brothers, who apparently heard that Batman v Superman was “too dark” and believed that the only way to react was to make Suicide Squad “more fun”.

That kind of reductive thinking not only over-simplifies the issues in Batman v Superman, it sets you up to ruin your subsequent movies. It’s the kind of direction given by someone who doesn’t really get how movies are made. Far-fetched as it may be, maybe it’s time the movie executives who order these re-edits take a night class or two in film school. Because when you decide to pull apart a movie and stitch it together, maybe it would help if you know how to assemble one in the first place.

Suicide Squad gets one and a half stars out of four.

One and a Half Stars

What did you think of the latest movie based on the DC pantheon? Were you able to overlook the narrative problems and enjoy the silver screen debuts of beloved characters? Or is Warner Brothers digging a deeper hole with every release? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!