Suicide Squad is mostly terrible, and there’s little reason for either of us to dwell on that; you’ve read that review, and I’m tired of writing it, and the movie’s gonna make a bajillion dollars anyway. Suffice it to say that the usual complaints (about superhero movies in general but “DC Extended Universe” movies in particular) still stand: its tone is all over the goddamn place, but the default is grim and dark and dumb; the special effects are dodgy and weightless; it’s awkwardly, self-satisfactorily “cool”; it lumbers from scene to scene, stopping occasionally for teary-eyed backstories that we’re apparently supposed to take seriously; it’s loaded with interchangeable characters, which translates into scene after scene of clumsy exposition (so much so that they’re still explaining things about these people while they’re on their way in to the climax); it’s got a McGuffin so goddamn stupid, you wouldn’t believe me if I told it to you; the characterizations of women and Latinxs are, to put it mildly, gross; and it’s filled with countless yawn-inducing scenes of supervillains wrecking urban havoc, up to and including the final battle, a smeary mess of fire, fog, lighting, rain, and noise. Oh, and it wants very badly to be Guardians of the Galaxy, so it’s full of crazy incongruent pop songs, but they somehow manage to always select the most stunningly obvious crazy incongruent pop song (“You Don’t Own Me” for Harley Quinn’s entrance! “House of the Rising Sun” for a sequence in Louisiana! “Without Me” for a wacky suit-up scene! “Spirit in the Sky” as they chopper into the war zone!).
Anyway, let’s not talk about all that. Let’s talk about Jared Leto.
For a full year now, since the first set reports and the film’s panel at the 2015 San Diego Comic-Con, the most discussed element of Suicide Squad has been the Leto’s performance as the Joker, and all of the insane Method madness he’s brought to the role. He didn’t just disappear into the role, only communicating in character, only appearing in costume, the usual breathless indicators of an actor who takes their job Very Seriously; no no, Leto was doing extreme Method Acting (cue squiggly-do ‘80s heavy metal riff). His research showed him “things that it’s arguable if anybody should even see. “ He was sending his cast-mates “gifts”: a live rate, bullets, a dead hog. Oh, and also used condoms and anal beads. He was SO FUCKING IN CHARACTER, YOU GUYS.
And in interview after interview and public appearance after public appearance, he assured us how bonkers bananas crazy his Method acting is. “They’re going to lock me away in a box after this movie comes out,” he cackled in September. Of his immersion and antics, he told Empire, “It was fun, playing those psychological games. But at the same time it was very painful, like giving birth out of my prick hole.” And in a recent Rolling Stone interview, he insisted (“pretty much out of nowhere,” according to writer Brian Hiatt), “If the Joker did this interview, he’d definitely castrate you and make you eat your own testicles. Just for fun. That’s if he liked you.” (No wonder Viola Davis wanted to pepper-spray him.)
So considering his treatment of his crew and co-stars – borderline harassment, really – Jared Leto must’ve burrowed his way into a really dark place, and come up with a powerful piece of work that was worth all the trouble, right? RIGHT? Yeah, not so much. Leto is Suicide Squad’s Jesse Eisenberg, crafting a performance that’s painfully, embarrassingly self-aware – all tics and affectations and painstakingly calculated “scariness.” He’s doing his very best Heath Ledger (when he’s doing anything at all), but his work has none of Ledger’s dysfunction, dread, or menace; he’s about as scary as a fifth-grader making faces at himself in a Hot Topic changing room mirror. He doesn’t take over the screen the way the character has to, the way Ledger or Nicholson or even Cesar Romero did – but he sure thinks he does, and he snickers and preens with such misplaced self-confidence that you almost feel bad for the guy. (Almost.) But above all, he never achieves the kind of immersion that the Method is supposed to be about; you may momentarily suspend the awareness that you’re watching Marlon Brando and not Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, or Robert De Niro and not Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, or Daniel Day-Lewis and not Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. But you never forget, for even a second, that you’re watching Jared Leto in Suicide Squad, and that he’s trying very hard.
His role is also a strangely brief one, considering how much ink it’s generated; he’s only in a handful of scenes (and said scenes are played almost exclusively with Margot Robbie, which makes his trolling of the rest of the cast even more obnoxious). But that disparity spotlights what all of this nonsense really was, aside from indulging an overpraised actor’s considerable ego: it was marketing. Much like the endless deluge of “Making this movie was SO HARD” press that accompanied the run-up to The Revenant ’s release (and its subsequent awards campaign), “Jared Leto is so intense” made good copy for superhero sites eager to parrot any Suicide Squad news they could find, and had them talking about something other than its troubled production and shit-show predecessor.
What will be interesting, in the days to come, is to watch who audiences end up talking about in Suicide Squad. Will Smith, going a touch edgier than normal (he says “shit” a lot), does his level best to keep this 123-minute Juggalo infomercial together, landing a few solid burns and even a heartfelt moment or two. Ike Barinholtz gets some honest laughs as the head guard at the “black site” that holds them. Viola Davis is, well, Viola Davis (which is to say, magnificent). And Margot Robbie basically walks off with the movie, her psychotic cheeriness a welcome countermeasure to the parade of dudes sneering at each other. They all seem to pull off their winning performances by investing them with their considerable charisma, merging them (to varying degrees) with their established personas, and playing each moment as genuinely as they can. All in all, that seems like a better approach then spending a year being an asshole.
Suicide Squad is out Friday.