Suicide Squad

In the 90’s, emboldened by the critical and popular acclaim of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns in the prior decade, DC set out to make itself the producer of mature, grown-up comic books graphic novels that could sit proudly on any bookshelf next to Cormac McCarthy. Instead what we got was a plethora of ultraviolent, terribly written, astoundingly immature books that missed the mark so hard they landed next to Alpha Centauri.

Suicide Squad completes the 90’sification of DC movies that began with Man of Steel and continued with Batman v Superman, a dark, gritty, remarkably violent and creepy movie with the racial and sexual politics of a Transformers movie. The premise is that Amanda Waller, an evil government agent with far more menace than sense, decides that in case someone like Superman decides to kill everyone the US government should assemble a team of blackmailed supervillains to do their bidding. This fucks up within twenty minutes as Enchantress, an ancient demon who resembles a decaying stripper, breaks free of her control and decides to end the world (as you do).

Enchantress then spends the rest of the movie wobbling in what I suspect was meant to be a sexy fashion around a giant pillar of light leading to a portal in the sky (very original), while Waller’s other Dirty Dozen shoot their way through her army of identical tar babies to stop her. They consist of Will Smith, an assassin with a young, precocious cliche daughter he loves, Killer Croc, a man covered in bad fake crocodile leather, Captain Boomerang, who has no reason to be in this movie, El  Diablo, a latino gangbanger who shoots fire from his hands, Slipknot, who dies almost immediately, Katana, a samurai-wannabe even more stereotypical than her name implies, and Harley Quinn.

This is the first time I’ve seen Harley in anything, and I can only assume she’s different elsewhere as this movie’s depiction of her can charitably be called creepy, and uncharitably called fucking creepy. An absurdly sexualised caricature of infantilised women, coupled with this really uncomfortable fetishisation of mental illness, which stands out as bad even by the standards of the Batman universe which is typically only half a step up from Victorian madhouses. Her past relationship with the Joker (played by Jared Leto in one of the worst performances I’ve seen in years) is clearly abusive but the director has no idea how to write this in an interesting or clever fashion, it’s halfway played as romantic.

The depiction of romantic relationships here is so bizarrely and proudly retrograde I’m surprised it exists in a modern day blockbuster. At one point a soldier with the team starts talking about his relationship woes, at which point Boomerang tells him he needs to ‘get a handle on her’ by slapping her arse and telling her what to do, and I’m not sure if it’s even meant as a joke. The jokes themselves typically land with a thud and the studio reshoots studio to make the film more like its first trailer are painfully obvious, as it cannot commit to a tone. Parts of it try to be dark and gritty but never allows itself the casual amorality it aims for, and despite being about villains the cast are never allowed to be particularly evil.

Filmmaking-wise this thing is an astounding mess, with characters introduced to the audience multiple times, awkward flashbacks, choppy editing and action that varies from bland to unintelligible. I don’t know if it’s quite as bad as Batman v Superman was, both are incompetent but SS was never boring and a half hour shorter, but if this is now the standard for the DC universe expect it to end very soon.

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X-Men: Apocalypse

Bryan Singer’s X-Men series is the longest line of superhero films by a single director, and while they’ve been consistently popular over the years they’ve been frequently criticised for not keeping up with the times, stuck in an early 2000’s mindset of being ashamed of their comic book origins and refusing to embrace their source material’s often campy nature. But I can happily confirm that this era is finally over, as Singer has managed to make a film perfectly in tune with the age we now live in, with a dour, joyless, extremely violent superhero tale to fit in right alongside Batman v Superman and Civil War.

This time our heroes are confronted by an ancient Egyptian mutant played by Oscar Isaac, looking uncannily like Ivan Ooze from Power Rangers, who is resurrected from the ruins of a destroyed pyramid and wants to take over and destroy the world because… I really don’t know, he’s just evil and rambles about false gods a lot like he was accidentally given Jessie Eisenberg’s script notes for BvS. After gathering a deeply silly looking group of followers, who join him in his genocidal quest for no discernible reason besides him being able to make them more powerful, he sets about razing the world’s cities to the ground to build a pyramid because… I have no fucking idea. He just does things because the script needs a villain.

Meanwhile Magneto watches his latest family being shot dead in front of him because he just can’t catch a break, and joins Oscar Isaac for the exact same reasons he was the villain in the last two films, while Mystique, played by an utterly not giving a shit Jennifer Lawrence, also has her character arc reset to the beginning of First Class because the writer can’t come up with a new plot for her besides ‘gets over not looking normal’. Meanwhile baby versions of the cast from the first three films get together at Xavier’s incredibly inconspicuous school for people with superpowers and go off on a quest to rescue him when he gets kidnapped by Apocalypse. Oh, and Wolverine’s in it for a minute, because of course he is.

To describe this movie as ‘going through the motions’ is extremely generous; it’s basically just a checklist of X-Men movie tropes: Magneto decides humans are worthless, Mystique gets over body image problems, vague allegories to real life persecution are made, Professor X gives humanist speeches, the cast is way too large for everyone to be developed properly etc. The whole affair is so mind-numbingly generic I found myself heavily referring to the Wikipedia plot summary to remind myself what happened the day after seeing it. It’s ostensibly set in the eighties, but it doesn’t matter and once Apocalypse starts getting demolishing cities like a bored Roland Emmerich you’ll have forgotten the few nods made to the period. I don’t know if Singer’s just given up trying, but his direction has regressed drastically since (the legitimately good) Days of Future Past. There are direct to video Seagal films with more compelling direction.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, this film is absurdly violent. People are crushed, impaled, decapitated, shot, stabbed, flayed in slow motion and in one case telekinetically folded up like human origami. None of it fits the film’s overall tone and it feels like the director just got bored and decided to see what he could get away with. All of it ends up building to a punishingly long and literally headache-inducing climax in which characters we don’t know very well hit other characters we don’t know very well repeatedly with dodgy CGI, and I found myself zoning out to the point where I can’t quite remember how it resolved.

This is quite possibly the worst X-Men film to date, even worse than the legendarily bad Origins: Wolverine. It’s an agonizing slog that only avoids being the worst superhero movie of the year because Batman v Superman exists, and I can only hope that another director is hastily brought in to right the series because otherwise it will soon go down in flames.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

We have reached the comic book movie singularity. Superhero books and movies are now practically interchangeable except for their mediums and a whole new world opens up before us of sweeping retcons and the sort of convolution found only in Nolan’s wet dreams and on the far horizon I can see Satan annulling marriages almost as we speak. Days of Future Past is Fox’s attempt to stand up to the unstoppable juggernaut that is Marvel and so far they’ve managed to avoid collapsing into a twitching mess while shitting themselves coughManofSteelcough. In fact I’d say they’ve managed to do pretty well with the best massively-interfranchise me-too crossover I’ve seen yet.

First, the plot. To make a long story short an army of genocidal giant robots were created to hunt down mutants after Mystique shot Peter Dinklage at a peace conference in the seventies (but didn’t get finished until after X-Men 3) in revenge for him vivisecting mutants, but the robots started targeting pretty much everyone and in the apocalyptic future the last mutants left (lead by Prof. X and Magneto) try a last ditch plan to send Wolverine into the past (kind of) to get the team back together and stop Mystique. And that’s just the set-up! This thing twists and turns like The Dark Knight doing a Chiana impression and it’s a credit to the screenwriter Simon Kinberg that this film’s as easy to follow as it is. The convolution never feels overdone however as every development feels like the result of character action rather than the will of an unseen overseer whose whims make no fucking sense coughIntoDarknesscough. The whole thing runs very much on superhero comic logic so a fair amount of suspension of disbelief is required for every attempt made to outdo Metal Gear Solid in the bastardisation of genetics department and you could make a fun drinking game out of the moments when the writer contrives a reason why the cast can’t just use their powers to solve the plot instantly.

Character-wise the film is good as well, although the sheer size of the cast practically requires an X-Men encyclopedia to know who they all are (my sister had to fill me in on Blink and the post-credits man). Ian Mckellen and Patrick Steward bring their required dignity and thespian poise to the role, although Steward is largely confined to speaking with gravitas from his hover-chair whenever the script calls for a big speech. Fassbender and McAvoy are once again great continuing their roles of vengeful mutant-supremacist and Mutant Luther King respectively and eloquently express their character’s respective demons (which given the convolution of the plot is rather necessary). Jennifer Lawrence gives a good turn as Mystique and sells the character’s rather simplistic vengeance arc well despite the makeup diminishing her expressiveness a tad (I found the rare scenes of her without it more effective) and an attempt at speaking Vietnamese that you can hear clunking out of her mouth. Hugh Jackman is exactly the same as he has been the past six films and Ellen Page is again pretty much entirely wasted as her main role is to give exposition and sit there concentrating at Wolfie’s head while doing her time-travel thing that appears completely pulled out of the writer’s arse here.

One of the standout parts of the film is new guy Quicksilver, a kleptomanic with superspeed and the ability to actually be pretty damn funny, particularly in an extended bullet-time sequence with a number of hapless security guards. Our villain for the evening is the creator of the previously mentioned giant robots Bolivar Trask, an anti-mutant scientist/engineer played by Peter Dinklage, who gives a fine turn as the character but who in my opinion could have used more scenes to flesh him out. As an avid Game of Thrones watcher I had a hard time rooting against him at times as when he walked onscreen my brain instictively went ‘Yay, it’s Peter Dinklage!’ and I had to perpetually remind myself that here he’s playing a genocidal fuckhead.

One of the things I do like about this film is that by the standards of superhero movies it’s fairly low-key. The action sequences are relatively small-scale, generally only involving ten or twenty people, and the main climax of the story involves no explosions and is about trying to stop someone from being killed by the heroes (although there is a robot fight in the future to give that half of the cast something to do). Bryan Singer’s direction is fairly good but not spectacular (the film feels longer than it is) and I’d say that this film is really more Simon Kinberg’s. Overall it’s a fun, fast-paced experience that manages to be alternately funny and serious when it means to be and I’d recommend checking it out.