In this latest DC Comics adventure, Leto's Joker and Robbie's Harley Quinn make such a beautiful couple, it's sick

By Tom Gliatto
Updated August 04, 2016 03:20 PM
Clay Enos/Warner Bros.

Arriving a mere five months after Batman v Superman, a DC Comics epic as vaultingly joylss as a memorial chapel in Valhalla, Suicide Squad at least has some rumbling, crunchy kick – and, amid a sprawling, grungy cast, a terrific Margot Robbie.

To begin with: Henry Cavill’s Superman is still dead, or at any rate in no mood to be seen soaring through the air, letting sunbeams and shadow dapple and dance in and out of his magnificently creviced chin. His absence, which I suspect is more petulance than anything, leaves the country vulnerable to terrorists, illegal immigrants and any other number of unimaginable threats. To help with the projected security shortfall, intelligence honcho Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) recruits a team of supervillains incarcerated in Belle Reve, a prison so controllingly brutal it could be advertised in a brochure as “Dystopia at Its Best!” You could argue that Amanda is thinking so far outside the box that she’ll eventually need a lift back, but never mind. She brings together the likes of hit man extraordinaire Deadshot (Will Smith), fire-flinging Diablo (Jay Hernandez) and crazy, bat-swinging Harley Quinn (Robbie), a hot mess in hot pants who lost her heart and mind to the Joker (Jared Leto).

A former psychiatrist, Harley struts her addled stuff like an Ophelia who’s decided against the fatal dip and instead relaunched herself as the world’s most recklessly styled Instagram star. She’s a touchingly twisted bad girl – the best since Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman – and practically drunk (or high) on a romantic conviction that anyone else could spot as a pathetic delusion. Margot’s chemistry with Leto’s Joker is crazy-good. They’re Bonnie and Clyde with the potential to go nuclear.

It’s harder to make an assessment of Leto alone, since the Joker is a marginal figure here. It’s fair to say that his performance in the role falls a good deal below that of Heath Ledger’s (the cloud-shrouded Everest of superhero acting) and somewhere above Cesar Romero’s, but that would go for just about anyone’s Joker. Also, he’s trying too hard. (Is it possible to play the Joker and do otherwise? Yes. See prior citations.) Blade-thin, rattlingly manic with metal-capped teeth, he looks like a very wicked adult version of the Home Alone era Macaulay Culkin.

The movie doesn’t spend too much time on the fresh apocalyptic threat who poses the initial challenge to the Suicide Squad. This is just as well: She’s known as the Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), and she gyrates her hips beneath a swirling cloud of light and debris. She leaves most of the dirty work to her soldiers, whose heads look like charcoal briquettes, and to a henchman who stomps around in a costume inherited from either Tron or the musical Starlight Express, only without roller skates.

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Mostly we’re getting acquainted with members of the Squad and, in several of the movie’s best scenes, glimpse their thwarted human component. Poor Diablo does his best to suppress his inner flame. Otherwise, he’s scorches everything and everyone around him. He’s his own General Sherman.

Apart from Robbie, the most interesting performance here is from Davis as the unsmiling woman who (one imagines) drafted the Suicide Squad proposal memo over long weekends and now has pushed it, doggedly, until the top level of the government sees no choice but to acquiesce. Amanda doesn’t come with a pathetic origin story or special skills that require CGI. What she has is an internal compass that, in her mind at least, always points to true north, even if everything else is headed south. Late in the film, she makes a violent swerve into criminality while nonetheless acting in accord with a rational determination to preserve the team’s mission (and, probably, her job and her skin).

She may not be the Joker, but she’s the one to fear.

Suicide Squad hits theaters Aug. 5.