When I first began to write, one of the common pieces of advice was to learn good story structure from the books and movies I enjoyed. This is good advice, but I've found that I often learn more from bad stories, the ones I should have enjoyed, but didn't. Figuring out why those stories didn't work and plotting out how I would have done them differently has taught me a lot about editing and story-telling. (Warning: this post will contain spoilers)
I love comic book movies, and I love stories about redeeming villains, so I should have loved Suicide Squad. But while I did really enjoy some parts of the movie, overall, it's not a great experience. However, it could have been with some changes.
First of all, let's look at the parts that did work, specifically Margot Robbie, Will Smith and Viola Davis. Harley Quinn, Deadshot, and Amanda Waller were all brilliantly developed characters with good, clear arcs. They played off against each other well, with Deadshot's methodical precision acting as a great foil for Harley's chaotic impulsivity. And Waller was the perfect villain, one who believes that her chosen ends justify the means. The scenes with these three make the film worth watching.
Jay Hernandez's Diablo had the potential to be a really strong character with a powerful backstory, but he got lost in the general mishmash of plotlines. And I actually liked Jared Leto's Joker. The combination of lethality and playfulness is an approach to the character which is often used in the comics but hasn't usually been attempted in film. However, many of the Joker's scenes seemed superfluous in the greater story.
This is where Suicide Squad falls down. Too many characters, too many contrasting character arcs, and a vaguely defined overall conflict. There are 8 named characters in the title squad: Deadshot, Harley, Diablo, Killer Croc, Slipknot, Boomerang, Rick Flag and Katana. There are 3 main villains: Amanda Waller, Enchantress, and Incubus. And then there's the Joker, who I don't count as a villain for this movie because he isn't trying to attack the protagonists or the city. That's 13 characters competing for screen time.
- Deadshot wants to provide for his daughter
- Harley wants to reunite with the Joker
- Diablo wants to atone for killing his family
- Killer Croc wants to be free to... lurk in the sewers, I guess? He just seems to want to enjoy himself, to be honest
- Slipknot wants to escape and gets his head blown off
- Boomerang wants to screw over Amanda Waller and make her look bad
- Rick Flag wants to protect his girlfriend, June Moon (who is also Enchantress)
- Katana wants to avenge her husband's spirit, who is trapped inside her sword
- Amanda Waller wants to make use of a bunch of villains instead of leaving them trapped in a black site at taxpayer expense
- Enchantress wants to resurrect her brother, Incubus, and break free of Amanda Waller's control
- Incubus wants to rule the world after being imprisoned for millennia
That's a lot of different competing motivations and is one reason why the movie ends up being muddy. The other reason is that the audience rarely knows what the stakes are, especially for the mystical elements. Is there a reason why Diablo is afraid of losing control of his powers or is it just an issue of emotional regulation? Why do Enchantress and Incubus want to take over the world and what do they plan to do with it? Is there a deadline on Katana's vengeance? Why is she even connected with Suicide Squad to begin with?
Without knowing the stakes, it's hard to achieve dramatic tension. This is a particular problem for Diablo's storyline, which is why it comes as a complete (and frankly, meaningless) surprise when he morphs into a Mexican fire god to battle Incubus. We had no idea it was possible, we have no idea if this means Diablo is sacrificing himself or his personality, and we don't know if this is Diablo leveling up on his powers or something completely unrelated.
The only stakes that are clearly spelled out are for Deadshot, Harley, and Waller. Deadshot wants to be reunited with his daughter and provide for her. If he goes along with Waller's proposal, he'll be able to do that. However, following Waller's instructions mean breaking his own moral code. That's a good tension set up.
Harley wants to be the Joker's wife and have a fairytale life with him. She is using the Squad as a means to escape, but risks having her head blown off by the explosive boobytraps installed by Waller. She thinks the Joker dies in an explosion, leaving her to find her own goals and path. That's a journey of self-discovery and one the audience can empathize with.
Waller's main motivation seems to be power and efficiency. She's got no problem with using dangerous people to further what she sees as laudable goals. She's also got no problem with discarding them (by blowing their heads off) if they step out of line. She's a manipulator but has a lot of enemies waiting to see her fail and take her power. The audience knows that if the Suicide Squad doesn't succeed, she faces a professional crisis. As the film's main antagonist and the only one where we understand why she's taking the actions she is, she serves to keep the plot moving.
For everyone else, it's really foggy what's supposed to be going on or why we're supposed to care.
I'm a huge comic nerd. And if I can't figure out what's going on, then that's a pretty sad condemnation of the storytelling.
Now comes the fun part: how I'd change the movie to make it a better story.
First, I'd trim down the cast. My Suicide Squad would be Deadshot, Harley, Killer Croc, and Diablo. My villains would be Amanda Waller and Enchantress, with Joker thrown in for chaotic intervention. I would keep Rick Flag as the token "good guy" on the squad, but change it so that he thinks Enchantress killed his girlfriend, June Moon.
I would start with Amanda Waller proposing the Suicide Squad and getting rejected. The government has decided to move the villains out of her control and put them in some extremely isolated place (out in the ocean or even a space station). The proposal could be used to introduce the various characters in the Squad and what their skills are.
Next would be the transfer. Deadshot, Harley, Killer Croc, Diablo and Enchantress are loaded into the transport. Flag and Waller are overseeing it. The audience knows that Joker has gotten wind of the transit and is planning to intercept. I would include a terse conversation between Flag and Enchantress about how she destroyed the one person he loved (June) and Enchantress gives him a knowing smirk. Lots of insulting petty bickering between the villains (because I love that kind of thing). Enchantress keeps promising that they'll all die painfully.
The Joker intercepts the transport. During his attack, Enchantress breaks loose. She transforms the guards into the stone creatures, which then attack the remaining human guards. Harley leaves with the Joker and Waller tries to activate her booby-trap bomb. It doesn't work. Deadshot and Killer Croc both react with "we're getting out of here." Enchantress blasts them (not killing them), then sends a blast after Joker and Harley in the helicopter, bringing it down. Next she turns on Waller, but Diablo stands between Waller and Enchantress. Instead of attacking him, Enchantress vanishes.
This would set up an understandable conflict, plus give the group a reason to stay together. They want to stay with Diablo because Enchantress is afraid of him. Flag and Diablo insist that Waller be allowed to come along. They find Harley near the wreckage, in tears. Killer Croc convinces her to come with them. She wants vengeance on the Enchantress for killing her Puddin'. Waller tells them that the new prison will be hell on earth and their new warden won't see their potential the way she does, so this is their only chance to prove themselves. She offers them privileges if they get her to safety (this is where Harley could get her expresso machine, Croc gets BET, etc.).
There could be adventure and conflict as they move through the city, which is rapidly filling up with the Enchantress's stone creatures. There's a conflict between Deadshot, Flag and Waller as to who is in charge. There's the conflict of getting Diablo to reveal his story (which would need to include some kind of mystical element for his powers to set up the god reveal properly) and that he is protecting others because he doesn't want his soul to succumb to the devil, since the afterlife is the only way he'll ever see his daughters and wife again. Again, this would set up a relatable tension between using his powers and his own goals.
The Enchantress is building some kind of portal device that will allow her to escape this Earth and thus never be at the mercy of people like Waller ever again. (This is a much more understandable villain goal than just ruling the world.) If she opens the portal, the world will be destroyed, giving our motley crew the motivation to stop her.
There would have to be an acknowledgment of why Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc. aren't able to fight the Enchantress themselves. Maybe we get a report of them attacking and failing, because they're not willing to kill the Enchantress. Or they're occupied with something else and the Enchantress is blocking them somehow (a dome over the city, which means the Suicide Squad is the only one in position to stop her).
Finally, we get down to the climatic conflict. The Squad is preparing to attack the Enchantress when she tries to bribe them with their deepest dreams, including Flag, who is promised that he could have June again. Flag is furious and goes to attack Enchantress, who then reveals that she is in June's body. He hesitates and is struck down.
Waller tries to get the Squad to attack, but they are ignoring her (if this has been set up properly, the audience should be tense as to whether or not they'll step up and save the world). Enchantress contrasts herself with Waller: "I just want to go home. She wants to control all your lives."
I would keep the climactic twist of Harley attacking Enchantress just when we think she's going to accept the offer to have her dream life with the Joker. The Enchantress's hold is broken and Diablo surrenders himself to the fire god. The two gods battle it out while the Squad and Flag fight the stone creatures. Waller is conspicuously absent from the battle.
Diablo is winning the fight when Flag approaches. Diablo expects Flag to try and stop him, but instead Flag helps him to defeat Enchantress. He blasts her, driving her out of June's body. Diablo then collapses, returned to his human form and gravely weakened.
Fresh troops arrive. The Squad is faced with a choice of surrender or fight their way out. Flag steps up for them, protecting them. The Squad surrenders, under the condition that they stay with Waller rather than get transferred to the middle of nowhere.
Epilogue, we see everyone happily enjoying their rewards. In particular, Diablo, who is hoping that saving the world will be enough to offset his gangster past. Final scene is Waller meeting with the Joker, revealing that she's the one who told him about the transport because she wanted an opportunity to demonstrate her Suicide Squad idea. She asks him if he wants Harley back and he ends with "I always want what's mine."
Because this story isn't overloaded with characters, there's time to properly develop each arc and make sure they complement the overall story instead of seeming forced or unnecessary. Sometimes writers have really cool ideas, but those ideas don't fit, so we have to be strong enough to let them go. And we need to focus on the elements that we do choose to include to make sure that they're given a proper opportunity to shine.
I am going to be curious to see what the writers and director have done with Suicide Squad 2, which is supposed to release in 2021. It'll be interesting to see if it's another chaotic, overloaded romp or if they're willing to pare their ideas down to ensure each one shines.
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