Somewhere along the way, Hollywood decided that villainy is synonymous with camp. Evil, in its most uninspired cinematic forms, gets coated in showy extravagance. While a little outsize depravity can be fun, this weekend’s “Suicide Squad” proves we have hit a plateau where bigger is almost certainly not better.
Of course, I am referring primarily to Jared Leto, he of the insufferable rat-gifting, always-in-character method acting that led to an obnoxiously calculated take on the psychopathic Joker. Leto is proud of his performance ― the self-inflation radiates off of him every time he’s onscreen, which is far less frequent than one would assume, given how extensively he has teased this role for the better part of the past year. (Good move, Warner Bros.) Leto said he prepped for the project by watching footage of violent crimes on YouTube, but his works seems more like a the result of a checklist than a study in delinquency. His mantra must have been, “Wide eyes, empty hearts, can’t lose.” That slow, maniacal laugh? “All the best villains have one,” he probably said, practicing over and over in the mirror. And when it’s time to speak, oh, a guttural garble will do. “Here I am, boys, call me Mr. J!” (No, really. He made people on the set call him Mr. J.)
Leto cranks up everything he does in “Suicide Squad” to an 11. Surely, to some degree, despite the praise he’s doled out in interviews, Leto thinks he is one-upping Heath Ledger’s full-bodied “Dark Knight” performance and Jack Nicholson’s batty “Batman” turn. But he lacks their brooding complexity. The Joker of “The Dark Knight” was a terrorist with a cause, whereas the Joker of “Suicide Squad” is merely a joke. And an uninteresting one, at that.
Leto follows similar cues that plagued Jesse Eisenberg in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” earlier this year. Eisenberg was all mania and no motive. The actors intend to depict demented schizoids ripe for sociological examination; instead, they’re costumed brats. Not even comic-book movies should reduce the pathology of murderers to wacky stereotypes and tics. The Jokers of yore avoided it, as did, for example, Jim Carrey’s comedic timing in “Batman Forever” and Ian McKellen’s sympathetic take on Magneto in “X-Men.” But Eisenberg and Leto are smug and formulaic, and they are unaided by the grimy, ugly aesthetics of “Batman v Superman” and “Suicide Squad.”
A peppy Margot Robbie, playing the bat-wielding Harley Quinn, fares somewhat better. But by the second half of “Squad,” Robbie is used primarily for “quirky” one-liners and deranged reaction shots, and her hyperactive-but-too-cool-to-care schtick runs thin in what feels like the product of a teenage boy’s wet dream. There is, again, barely the slightest examination of the fear-inducing madness that makes villains intriguing, which renders these overly theatrical performances unintriguing.
It’s easy to see where superhero films have encouraged this deficit of nuance. As the genre’s budgets skyrocketed, so did the visual effects. So did the costuming behind which actors attempt to disappear. And so did the choppy editing and limited characterization that vexes the weakest elements of these movies. In “Batman & Robin,” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze trafficked mostly in lame puns. “The Amazing Spider-Man” fumbled the arc of Rhys Ifans’ over-digitized Jekyll-and-Hyde transition from Dr. Curt Connors to The Lizard. And in “X-Men: First Class,” January Jones was left to play Emma Frost as a vixen, resulting in a one-note exploitation that uses seductiveness as a key weapon.
I’m not a fan of the largely infantile superhero craze, but I was amped for “Suicide Squad” because of its premise. As a kid, I favored the villains in popular culture. I imitated the Wicked Witch of the West in my living room, dressed as Darth Vader for Halloween and opted to meet Cruella de Vil instead of Snow White at Disney World. Villains are more gripping, with their muddled psychology and preening dominance. I’m attracted to them because there’s something inherently queer about wielding such campy power in the face of a society that does not attempt to understand you.
So, at last, I thought, “Suicide Squad” is the comic-book movie for me. Its edgy first trailers, which arrived before reports of reshoots and backstage drama set in, seemed to promise a rich exploration of bad guys banding together to save the world. What a pleasantly cynical premise! One that, by way of incoherent editing and a gaudy soundtrack of pop songs, David Ayer’s film botches. This was the chance for the DC Universe to make its characters cool again, to tease out their inner workings like the best scoundrels of cinema: Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates, Nurse Ratched, Daniel Plainview, Annie Wilkes, Gordon Gekko, Alex Forrest, Baby Jane Hudson. Leto and Eisenberg are channeling the slithery Alan Rickman school of villainy, except they’ve replaced the collected gall of Hans Gruber and Severus Snape with an overcooked lunacy. Instead of slick, satirical camp, it’s unrefined, grandstanding camp ― all ham and no chill.
Give me back my nuanced villains. Other performers have pulled it off in this decade, with the help of decent dialogue and a touch of restraint. See: Adam Driver’s conflicted power trip in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” Lena Headey’s frosty drive on “Game of Thrones,” Donald Sutherland’s nonchalance in “The Hunger Games,” Tom Hiddleston’s understated acidity in “Thor,” Leonardo DiCaprio’s cheerful sneers in “Django Unchained.” But when villains are just on hand for quips and whips, they aren’t much of characters at all. And when they’re played with all ego and no poise, as they are by Leto and Eisenberg, it’s just not fun anymore.