Will Suicide Squad be the film that reinvents the comic book movie?

21st century squad: Jared Leto as The Joker.
21st century squad: Jared Leto as The Joker.
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Tony Earnshaw meets the creative team behind the blockbuster.

Men-on-a-mission movies are almost as old as cinema itself. Yet their appeal is evergreen and lends itself to arguably the summer’s most anticipated blockbuster.

Suicide Squad resembles a 21st century comic book version of The Dirty Dozen. The difference is that the bad guys and gals that make up the squad are less anti-heroes than anti-villains. Their foe is perhaps the ultimate comic book bad boy: the Joker.

If it sounds vaguely familiar with echoes of Batman – yes, he’s also in the movie – then be prepared to have such notions shattered. For Suicide Squad gets added edge from writer-director David Ayer, who previously tackled everything from LA cops to a Second World War tank crew in films like End of Watch and Fury. The backdrop is familiar, with Viola Davis recruiting the worst of the worst – various nutjobs, assassins, and a killer croc – to take on an evil genius who’s off the scale.

The DC Comics entry into mega movies has not been smooth. Marvel is more than a decade ahead with the creation of its inter-connected universe, plus its characters have been sexed up for the screen.

Of course Batman was cool back in the late 80s and has been reinvented twice since then, with Christian Bale and then Ben Affleck. But Affleck’s entry with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was roundly panned. So what does that say for the DC offer?

Enter David Ayer. A writer with a solid reputation (The Fast and the Furious, Training Day, Dark Blue) who segued into some of the best hard-edged dramas of recent years (including Harsh Times and Sabotage), he brings a touch of reality to a most fantastical scenario.

“More than anything, it’s about the fans, and the fans decide,” says Ayer, reaching out to address audience expectation that has risen to fever pitch.

“You can be the director and you can have your vision, but you have to listen to the fans. I grew up as a fan, I read the comics and I also listened to the fans. It’s a good reality check for me. I think the movie is going to give the fans what they want.”

That’s the first box ticked. The second is the casting. Suicide Squad is overflowing with talent. Top of the pile is Will Smith who, despite his position as an A-lister with 20 years’ experience of toplining big movies, forms part of the wider ensemble. Smith plays an assassin, Deadshot. Then there’s girl of the moment Margot Robbie, born to play baseball bat-wielding maniac Harley Quinn. Think Hannibal Lecter, but female. And in hotpants.

At 47, Smith is heading towards character parts. And a glance at his recent CV shows a distinct lack of smash hits. Moreover he was passed over for an Oscar nomination for his crusading doctor in Concussion, a contentious decision that led to him boycotting the Academy Awards. Suicide Squad brings him back to mainstream, populist fare.

“It was fun on the set when we were trying to figure out the line. What was the line between somebody who was bad and somebody who was evil?” says Smith. “What we came down to was [that] this was a movie of ‘bad’ versus ‘evil’ and the distinction was a bad guy is redeemable. Someone who is evil is unredeemable. The Joker is evil but Harley Quinn and Deadshot are bad. It was really fun playing in that dark world.”

There’s often a suspicion that when actors have fun on a movie the audience doesn’t – that the energy was expended on set and doesn’t translate to the end product. Smith appears to be aware of that. His attitude to his character – an assassin who’s also a father – is that he’s the movie’s anchor and quasi conscience.

“The story physics are such that one character holds the emotional line, [and] my character does that. It’s way more fun to play the other characters if you don’t have to carry the emotional line of the movie. You get to do anything.”

Ayer agrees: “Will carries a lot of it because he’s kind of the emotional heart.”

Jared Leto is the latest actor to play the Joker. Many fans feel the character was firmly established by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight – a natural successor to Jack Nicholson in 1989’s Batman.

But Leto, on screen for little more than 20 minutes as the cackling, green-haired loon, makes a huge impact and dominates the film. “When he was on set he was the Joker, and everyone treated him like the Joker. Jared kind of disappeared. Then, all of a sudden, we finished shooting and he turned up again,” says Ayer.

Leto knew that playing the psychopathic clown would be a defining moment in his career – for good or for bad. “The Joker is iconic, a legend,” he says. “He’s been around for 75 years and there are so many variations of the story. The Joker is Mount Everest: one of those impossible ideas where you most likely can’t achieve what you set out to do. It was terrifying and exciting and a total honour to take on that role.”

Like Will Smith (but unlike Robbie), Leto grew up reading comic books. That connection and the promise of working with David Ayer brought him to Suicide Squad. “When you dive into these worlds, your imagination is just lit on fire. You need a lot of passion and decisiveness when you’re reinterpreting these stories. From my first conversation with David it was clear to me that he wanted to make something special, something different. I knew I’d be inspired and find ways to make the character my own.”

Suicide Squad is on saturation release.