As those of you who have read my Civil War review will know, I’m not the world’s biggest fan of superhero flicks. But I was still looking forward to this – the cast was impressive, the trailers displayed a distinctive visual style, and the synopsis was intriguing. The smarter films in this, in my opinion, largely tedious genre suspect that our obsession with superheroes is more than a little disturbing, because these ‘heroes’ always insist upon operating above and beyond the law – they are, in essence, fascists. So The Dark Knight trilogy and the brilliant Watchmen comic (but not the insipid Zack Snyder adaptation) pose us troubling questions about our adoration for these superhumans who believe in violence as the ultimate form of justice, blurring the boundaries between good and evil in the process. Suicide Squad, with its cast of evildoers, promised to raise moral quandaries in a similar vein: is the only possible way we can fight evil with more evil? In a political climate where the only solution we’ve got to crises in the Middle East is to bomb the hell out of the region, that is an extremely pertinent question, and I had tentative hopes that this film would manage to be both entertaining and interesting.
Instead, as is sadly the norm, Suicide Squad aims to cater more for DC fanboys than anyone else, meaning that it has been quite rightly ripped to shreds by critics. The opening half an hour, in which we are introduced to each of the main antiheroes and ‘treated’ to their back stories, may be enjoyable for those who have read all of the accompanying comics, but for those of us not in the know it comes across, frankly, as one of the most baffling passages of cinema in recent memory. It is a rush of poorly edited images of death, mayhem and carnage intended to show us just how evil each of these imprisoned supervillains are, but, rather typically, the filmmakers get distracted and are much more interested in wanking over images of Margot Robbie in pornographic outfits and Will Smith blasting guns than in building any semblance of coherent characterisations. The introduction of each one is accompanied by groan-inducingly obvious song choices that are supposed to highlight their personalities, presumably so that director David Ayers doesn’t have to bother. Too busy orchestrating the explosions and bloodshed, you see. Far more important.
That it fails as thought-provoking drama may surprise you less than it disappoints me, but that it fails also as entertainment has proven unforgivable to most. Despite avoiding moral debate, it still had the potential to be a subversive and gleefully wicked black comedy in the vein of Kickass or Deadpool, but in this admittedly cynical viewer it only managed to raise a chuckle once, with Deadshot’s reaction to the miraculous survival of Viola Davis’ intelligence officer near the end.
So much talent is squandered: Will Smith as Deadshot, an actor who frequently outshines the dire films he chooses to make, and whose commitment here is unquestionable but drowned out by an overcrowded screenplay; Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, whose comic ability was demonstrated in The Wolf of Wall Street and briefly (but memorably) in The Big Short, and it is apparent again but this time hidden behind a one-dimensional portrayal of ‘craziness’ and cheap jokes about her physical attractiveness; and Jared Leto as the Joker, who is only tossed a couple of bones in the form of a few minutes of screen time, and unsurprisingly fails to leave a mark – if you think Heath Ledger was much more interesting as that infamous creation, you’d be right, but just consider how much better the script and director he was working with were and spare a thought for poor Jared. Other, less famous actors are also left for dead by the dull dialogue and pedestrian filmmaking – you certainly won’t be able to recall anything interesting about Captain Boomerang or El Diablo, given the thankless task of being brought to life by Jai Courtney and Jay Hernandez, after leaving the cinema.
At the end of the finale, which consists of CGI fighting itself for twenty long minutes, your patience will probably have been worn thin, and any residual excitement from the slick trailers and marketing campaign will have completely evaporated. I won’t get into the argument over whether the DC flicks need to learn some lessons from Marvel – I feel that recent outputs from both have been spoiled by a very significant failure: letting the fanboys dictate the films. Trying to please a very vocal minority, by cramming in as many characters, subplots and in-jokes as possible, and frustratingly feeling the need to provide every character with a lengthy origin story, is making Hollywood forget how to construct a pleasing, consistent, structurally coherent film, which for many of us is of primary importance.
But these films are completely critic-proof, and no amount of grumbling will prevent this film from making shedloads of money. So you can be sure that the same mistakes will be made again by the studios and mediocre directors, and no matter if audiences are mostly bored with what they see, they will continue shelling out for it. So be it: I will hold out hope in the coming years for more anomalous greats in the genre such as The Dark Knight, whilst dreck like Suicide Squad will dissolve into cinematic obscurity.
Note: I discovered these two artists last year through an EP they released together online called Lice. It can be downloaded for free – it’s only 17 minutes long and pretty great, I’d recommend checking it out:
The Impossible Kid – Aesop Rock
New York’s underground king, Aesop Rock has been acclaimed on the alt-rap circuit for more than twenty years now, his reputation mostly resting on having the largest vocabulary going in rap, the most verbose style of music there is. His chops aren’t strictly lyrical – he loves big beats, obscure samples, and hooks a-plenty – but they are the primary reason for both his fame and, contradictorily, his lack of it. Aesop has earned great respect amongst hip hop aficionados for a multisyllabic flow that, because of its lack of compromise, will forever deny him entry into the upper echelons of mainstream rap glory. Not that I suspect he has any intention of ending up there: it both delights and pains him to be known as The Impossible Kid. My own relationship with Aesop is a mixed one: love the beats and the brains behind the words, but find those words often too obscurantist at the expense of raw emotional involvement in the music.
I believe The Impossible Kid is his most satisfying outing to date, and an ideal introduction, for the simple reason that the hooks-to-words ratio has been upped significantly, thereby balancing the thinking with the feeling for the first time. Hooks such as the oscillating synths on ‘Rings’, the yelped chorus on ‘Water Tower’, and the suave riff on ‘Dorks’ really do stick, whilst a dark, synth-laden musical palette unifies this work even more than the lyrics. Every track is rooted in personal experience, sometimes in a way that is alienating to outsiders, such as on ‘Mystery Fish’, about an alley where he used to live and which is too obscure in detail to be his ‘Penny Lane’, but other times in an inviting manner: I find myself absorbed every time by his relation of living in the woods for a year with his girlfriend on ‘Rabies’. I still think Aesop could make more concessions to popcraft without losing any of his trademark intellectual prowess, but hey, I just want to have a good time and be cerebrally challenged by music, a balance which some artists find difficult. But I respect him for trying, and I dare you to listen to ‘Supercell’ or ‘Lazy Eye’ without bopping around (if not then turn up that bass). Plus, The Impossible Kid contains the best rap song about a pet cat in existence: ‘Thanks Kirbs, looking like a milli/Keep an old man sharp, keep a cold Chantilly.’ How can you resist that?
Kindness for Weakness – Homeboy Sandman
Homeboy Sandman is, like Aesop, easy to like but difficult to love. He represents all that is best about hip hop currently as a genre: endlessly inventive musical collaging, endlessly extensive rhyming and wordplay, endlessly danceable beats. Rap is by far the most exciting and experimental form of music around, with artists such as Outkast and Lil Wayne, amongst many others, relentlessly spanning genres and time zones with their sampling in a never-ending quest for fun and layers of meaning. Homeboy fits in well with this mindset, as evidenced on 2008’s Actual Factual Pterodactyl, where he spat out rhymes to a backdrop of jazz, musicals, mambo, and Muse, all in a mad quest to try out everything on record, so long as it has some dope beats behind it. But this method frustratingly throws out quite a few misjudged moments – like The Life of Pablo, not all of the experiments work, and although it’s well worth digging through his oeuvre for the highs, it can be tough sometimes getting through the lows. So on Kindness for Weakness we have two instrumentals that are left undeveloped and seem reckless in their inclusion, as well as sung choruses on ‘It’s Cold’ that are just plain irritating, whilst a couple of neat ideas such as the fusion elements of ‘Earth, Wind, Fire’ and the Soul Sista sample of ‘Seam by Seam’ don’t quite coalesce in practice. But you also have the rapid rhythms of ‘Real New York’, the acoustic percussion of ‘Sly Fox’, the whistled nursery rhyme-styled chorus of ‘Speak Truth’, and the mellow 90s R&B vibe of ‘Heart Sings’, all confident productions well worth your time and scrutiny.
Whenever you focus on the words, too, Homeboy always emerges as an interesting character, scathing of all chart music and avowedly ‘Not Pop’, as he announced on 2010’s The Good Sun, but also highly critical of the underground circuit and the kinds of people whose respect he has gained, especially hipsters: ‘Hipsters love independent movies/Shit, I love independent movies!/Actually, I just like independent movies/So I think I’m cool there’ he jibed on 2014’s ‘Problems’. These themes emerge in full force again on Kindness for Weakness, as he tears into the ‘Fake ass posture’ of mainstream gangsta rappers on ‘Eyes’, whilst simultaneously dissing alt-rap fanatics on ‘Talking (Bleep)’: ‘please don’t ever in your life come to me with suggestions/You’ll get dismissed’. I share his aversion to the snobbery and superiority complexes of hipsterdom (although I do love independent movies), but not his belief in the worthlessness of all pop music (although I do hate most gangsta rap), which is a daft belief ironically shared by most of the hipsters he so firmly detests. This inherent hypocrisy, or at least a central confusion about what music should be about, perhaps explains why I have never completely warmed to the Sandman. But, like many rappers, he has a central belief that you should ‘speak truth instead of some shit that’s made up’, as a matter of principle, because there’s simply far too many people ‘Talking (Bleep)’ in the world, and even if his own brand of truth is not as piercing or as multilayered as, say, Eminem’s or Kendrick Lamar’s, it still brings great human interest to many of his tracks. It helps that his musical instincts are generally tight as well.