'Suicide Squad' scrapes the bottom of the comic-book movie barrel (PG-13)

The biggest problem with “Suicide Squad,” the star-studded adaptation of the DC Comics series about a group of supervillains drafted to carry out dangerous government missions, isn’t that it’s a lousy, clunky movie. Those aren’t hard to find (and, this summer season in particular, have been almost impossible to avoid).

No, the worst thing about “Suicide Squad,” which arrives after a year-long onslaught of hype and advertising and social media chatter, is how toothless and timid the film is. This was supposed to be an edgy, subversive, not-so-serious picture that would upend traditional superhero-movie formulas and bring some levity to the sour, dank DC Extended Universe. 

Instead, “Suicide Squad” turns out to be about a 6,000-year-old evil spirit named the Enchantress who takes over the body of an archeologist (Cara Delevinge) and makes her wiggle her hips in a chain-mail bikini while summoning an army of eggplant-faced CGI monsters to wipe out mankind. I am not making this up.

The Enchantress situation is the result of a plan by a stern secret agent named Nick Fury — er, I mean Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) — to keep the world safe after the events in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” which left the Man of Steel out of commission (at least until Zack Snyder’s “Justice League” arrives). Waller convinces the military to assemble a black-ops team comprised of incarcerated lunatics and baddies to carry out impossible missions.

Among them: The assassin Deadshot (Will Smith); the maniacal Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie); the boomerang-slinging Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney); the human torch El Diablo (Jay Hernandez); the giant walking lizard Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje); and some poor dude named Slipknot (Adam Beach), who only shows up long enough to prove Waller isn’t kidding when she says she will immediately kill any member of the team who disobeys her orders.

The first half hour of “Suicide Squad” is pure exposition — introductory vignettes, complete with helpful text and colorful graphics, to fill us in on the backstories of this motley crew, which is supposed to be made up of supervillains but come off mostly as either misunderstood or victims. Deadshot, for example, kills people for money but only to help raise his 11-year-old daughter. Diablo is a tragic figure, a former gangbanger who can’t control his incendiary powers. Fan favorite Harley Quinn is just a lovestruck fool, a former psychiatrist at the Arkham Asylum who fell for the Joker (Jared Leto) — literally, into a vat of acid — and sacrificed her sanity for him.

In other words, these villains are hard to hate and easy to root for, especially when they’re squaring off against a supernatural being who intends to destroy every living being on the planet. There’s no moral ambiguity in “Suicide Squad,” no intriguing shades of gray. Waller is the only character in the entire picture whose actions are questionable, and Davis plays her with the locked-jaw tenacity of someone who will steamroll anyone who questions her. Even after her choices lead to catastrophe, no one challenges her judgment. 

The lack of psychological complexity in “Suicide Squad” is particularly disappointing in an era when anti-heroes have been so deftly explored in long-form TV and movies: Even Ryan Reynolds’ insufferably smug and self-aware “Deadpool” took the time to address the character’s dubious behavior. Instead, the movie settles for quips (“We’re bad guys. It’s what we do!”) and needle drops intended to cover up the seams in the stitched-together screenplay. When “Sympathy for the Devil” blares on the soundtrack, you roll your eyes at the laziness of the filmmaking: These would-be anarchists are as menacing as music-video goths. 

“Suicide Squad” was written and directed by David Ayer, who previously made several movies about complicated, flawed people (he wrote the screenplay for “Training Day” and directed “Harsh Times,” “Street Kings” and “End of Watch”). But the script for “Suicide Squad” is convoluted and threadbare at the same time — it’s a giant pile of nonsense (there’s a bizarre flashback in the movie that inexplicably replays a scene you just saw 45 minutes ago, a sign of post-test screening tampering). The cinematography by Roman Vasyanov is all dark blues and shadows and smoke, like a low-budget 1980s Cannon Pictures extravaganza. This is an exceedingly ugly comic-book picture devoid of any visual poetry or sense of play. 

Most egregious of all is how “Suicide Squad” squanders its cast. Smith gets by on his usual charisma, but it’s a lazy performance — he’s coasting. Robbie, who managed to pull off a believable Jane in “The Legend of Tarzan,” does what she can with the role of the baseball-wielding lunatic with a fondness for hot pants. But Harley Queen has been infantilized and sexualized, a queasy combination, and her only reason for existing is to pine after her beloved Joker. She’s defined by her obsession with a madman.

Leto’s much-publicized turn as the Joker is another of the movie’s failures; he’s in the film for 10 or 12 minutes tops, and he plays the role in such a cartoonish manner, you wonder if he’s paying homage to Cesar Romero’s Joker from the campy 1960s TV show. He’s all googly-eyes and mugs. “Suicide Squad” crams so many characters into its 130 minutes, I haven’t even mentioned Joel Kinnaman’s jarhead Rick Flag or his sword-wielding sidekick samurai Katana (Karen Fukuhara), who strikes a mean pose but rarely utters a word. There isn’t a moment of spontaneous fun or humor in this long, turgid movie, the latest letdown for DC Comics fans who’ve been waiting for someone to pick up the baton Christopher Nolan left behind and do this universe justice. With “Suicide Squad,” the long wait continues.

Cast: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Cara Delevinge, Viola Davis, Jared Leto, Joel Kinnaman, Jai Courtney, Karen Fukuhara, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Common, Scott Eastwood.

Writer-director: David Ayer.

A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 130 minutes. Vulgar language, violence. Playing at area theaters.

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