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Day-glo superhero circus in ‘Squad’

This image released by Warner Bros Pictures shows, Joel Kinnaman, (left), and Will Smith in a scene from ‘Suicide Squad.’ (AP)
This image released by Warner Bros Pictures shows, Joel Kinnaman, (left), and Will Smith in a scene from ‘Suicide Squad.’ (AP)

The superhero movie is at a strange crossroads. It generally either takes itself too seriously (“Man of Steel,” “Batman v Superman”) or delights in not caring a bit (“Deadpool”). the choice, dear moviegoer, is yours. Do you prefer your costumed heroes to brood or to break bad? Right now, good is out; self-proclaimed “edginess” is in; and a cape might get you turned away from the nightclub. Riding the trend is David Ayer’s day-glo superhero circus “Suicide Squad,” a gleefully nihilistic, abysmally messy romp that delights in upending the genre’s conventions and tries desperately to, like, totally blow your mind withits outre freak show. It’s less of a movie than a long trailer that doesn’t provoke as much as it thinks it does. It’s stitched together by an endless jukebox of everything from “House of the Rising Sun” to K7’s “Come Baby Come,” a soundtrack gimmick taken straight from “Guardians of the Galaxy” (which more successfully gave the superhero movie new moves).

It’s employed three times before the opening credits have even finished rolling, an early cue to the filmmaking talent at work. Despite the train wreck of “Batman v Superman” (the last DC Comics challenge to Marvel’s dominance), excitement is high for “Suicide Squad” thanks to a marketing campaign that rivals the presidential ones and the promise of some punk in the poppy, PG-13 realm of the superhero movie.

But the nastiness of “Suicide Squad” is superficial, merely fetishized gestures of ultra-violence that will impress few beyond 13-year-old boys. (Sorry, that’s unkind to 13-year-old boys.) Based on the comic created by John Ostrander, the film is a cartoonish yet grim “Magnificent Seven” in which a desperate government — for the moment without the services of Superman or Batman — turns to a handful of villains, locked away in prison cells, to combat a yet greater supervillain running amok.

there’s Will Smith’s sniper-for-hire father Deadshot, Margot Robbie’s psycho-in-pigtails Harley Quinn, Jay Hernandez’s fire-breathing gang member El Diablo, and others. They’re a gruesome bunch, reluctant to fight anyone else’s battle, but forced to when the program’s leader (the imposing Viola Davis, the film’s steely backbone) implants an explosive device inside them. They bond in conversation over whether they’ve killed kids or not. Lovely stuff , really. The standout is Robbie’s Harley Quinn, the most dynamic presence of the bunch: a clown cocktail of mental disorder and cheerleader pep.

Robbie pulls it off , but Ayer spoils the movie’s breakout character by continually reducing her to mere eye candy, ogling her as she bends over. Quinn is the demented girlfriend of the onthe- loose Joker (Jared Leto), who turns out to be a curiously small part of the film.

That, however, proves to be a relief. Leto, working in the sizable wake of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger, proves a massive disappointment in the role, lacking in both menace and wit despite the tall-tales of his Method extremes during shooting.

the film, as a whole, is missing the humor and spryness that was promised. Its best laughs are unintentional (all I’ll say is that there are souls trapped in swords) and the charisma of Smithand Robbie are drowned out in Ayer’s turgid tale. Ayer’s previous film was the WWII tank drama “Fury,” an overbearingly bleak movie that similarly followed a harsh band of warriors and flipped the good-vs-bad dichotomy of Americans against Nazis into a less heroic story. In “Suicide Squad,” Ayer questions whether a killer can be a hero and vice versa, even equating psychopaths with elite soldiers.

He would like to vanquish the triumphant superhero and reorder the comic universe for more complicated times. But the only thing he may have killed is the comic-book adaption. Watching “Suicide Squad” (which will nevertheless make hundreds of millions) is to see the superhero movie reaching rock bottom, sunk by moral rot and hollow bombast. Down, down and away! “Suicide Squad,” a Warner Bros release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “sequences of violence and action throughout, disturbing behavior, suggestive content and language.” Running time: 123 minutes. One and a half stars out of four

Blame it on Batman, but the DC universe has gotten awfully dark in recent years, especially compared withthe candy-colored competition over at Marvel. Rather than bringing levity and irreverence to the increasingly unpleasant comic-book sphere, as its psychedelic acid-twisted marketing campaign suggests, “Suicide Squad” plunges audiences right back into the coal-black world of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” picking up aft er the Man of Steel’s demise to imagine a government so desperate that its only hope to fight the next “meta-human” threat is by assembling a team of the gnarliest super-villains around.

While that idea doesn’t make a lick of sense — especially since the US wouldn’t be facing a meta-human threat if overzealous federal agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) hadn’t unlocked these bad guys to form Task Force X in the first place — implausibility alone doesn’t make it any less enticing to imagine how a director of Ayer’s caliber might pluck nine of the most ill-behaved characters from the DC stable for an intense spandex-clad, super-powered spin on

“the Dirty Dozen.” But for reasons beyond Ayer’s control, he’s beholden to the corporate vision of other recent DC adaptations, most notably Zack Snyder’s sleek-surfaced and oppressively self-serious riff s on the Superman legend. While it would have been amazing to see the director (fresh off WWII-set suicidemission movie “Fury”) push his own nothing to- lose anarchic boundaries, he’s ultimately forced to conform to Snyder’s style, to the extent that “Suicide Squad” ends up feeling more like the exec producer’s gonzo eff ects-saturated “Sucker Punch.”

Despite its nonsensical story and not-nearly- impudent-enough tone, “Suicide Squad” stands to become one of the summer’s biggest hits, with a graft ed-on appearance by Leto as the Joker likely to double the project’s already formidable box office potential — a shrewd addition, since no one but comic-book fans will know the other characters going in. Faced with having to introduce all these new players, Ayer opens the film by attempting to compress origin stories, unique abilities and “how they were captured” vignettes for nine different characters into the film’s overloaded first act, blasting hip hop to signify how “gangsta” they are. (As models for this sort of thing, Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” remains the gold standard, etching each of its heroic combatants as distinct individuals, though Hollywood examples “Ocean’s Eleven” and “X-Men” serve as more relevant models here.) At the top of the list are lethal gun-for-hire Deadshot (Smith) and Harley Quinn (Robbie), a beautiful Arkham Asylum psychiatrist with a tacky Bronx accent whom the Joker apparently subjected to both electroshock treatment and a disfiguring acid bath, revealing how both were arrested by Batman (still played by Ben Affleck). Most of the other characters run together, their mini-bios wedged in between bites of an undercooked steak dinner as Waller briefs a high-ranking war-room muckety-muck (David Harbour) on her crazy plan to tame these lunatics. (Agencies)

By Jake Coyle

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