Josh Reviews Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay
In the latest direct-to-DVD/blu-ray DC Animated movie, Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay, we’re presented with the latest incarnation of the Suicide Squad. Amanda Waller dispatches her Task Force X (the “Suicide Squad”) to obtain for her a mystical “Get out of Hell free” card that allows anyone who perishes while holding the card to have all of their sins forgiven, no matter how dastardly. This iteration of the squad is, as always, made up of villains — this time the team consists of Deadshot, Bronze Tiger, Harley Quinn, Killer Frost, Captain Boomerang, and Copperhead. Over the course of the movie, they cross paths with many other villains from the DC universe, including Vandal Savage, Professor Zoom, Two Face, Count Vertigo, and Professor Pyg.
I don’t have anywhere near as deep a love for the DC Universe as I do for the Marvel Universe, and so I’m not nearly attached to this group of supporting DC Universe characters as I might have been to a corresponding group of Marvel villains. I’ve always thought the Suicide Squad was an interesting concept in the comics, but I’m only passingly familiar with John Ostrander’s well-regarded run on the title from the eighties. (Mr. Ostrander created the modern iteration of the Suicide Squad.) This animated movie is the third movie version of this concept that we’ve gotten in the past few years. There was the live-action film, of course, which I thought was a big mess, and we also got a prior animated version in 2014’s Batman: Assault on Arkham. Frankly, I haven’t really loved ANY of these versions!
This new animated movie is not in continuity with Assault on Arkham… but while the details are different, overall I found this version of the Suicide Squad to be quite similar to that version, so much so that I’m not sure why they didn’t just make this film a sequel to Assault on Arkham. I guess they wanted this new film to be a part of the new continuity of the past few years’ of DC animated films, a version based on DC’s “New 52” reboot of their universe. (As reboot that has already been abandoned by the comics, which makes these new animated films feel curiously behind the times.)
There are elements of Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay that work, but its tone is all over the place. Sometimes the film feels like it wants to be a tongue-in-cheek play on violent crime capers. There are some moments when the film is edited to resemble an old “Grindhouse” B-movie; moments which are silly and loose even as they are hyper-violent. The whole premise of a “Get out of Hell free” card is so ridiculous that its seems to indicate that the filmmakers aren’t taking any of this too seriously. But that loose, comedic tone doesn’t mesh well with the times when the film veers into brutality (the film’s opening sequence is eye-raisingly blood-soaked) or attempts at emotional pathos (such as the mid-movie digression in which Deadshot visits a crack-house looking for his daughter).
This film is R-rated, something which I never believed would be the case with an animated American superhero movie. (The fantastic Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker animated film from back in 2000 was famously delayed and viscously edited before its release due to fears regarding its content. Thankfully, years later the original unedited version was eventually released.) Following the R rating given to the extended DVD version of Batman v. Superman, several recent DC animated films have also been R rated. I’d long thought an R-rated super-hero story might be cool — allowing one of these movies to enter into the more serious/complicated territory of some of the great comic book stories — but these last several animated films have not been well served by the R rating. Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay is tamer than you’d expect for an R rated film. Yes, there is a ton of blood in the film, especially in the bloody opening sequence — but for the most part the violence is so over-the-top that it’s silly, not scary. I thought all the blood was a little ridiculous, actually, and I thought that opening sequence would have been more effective had it been edited to tone down the blood and instead focus on the tension/suspense rather than the violence. Other than that, the only aspect of the film that seemed to merit the R rating was a surprising split-second of nudity. It’s the very definition of gratuitous, as it serves no story point whatsoever, and is so quick that it doesn’t contribute in any way to making the film be erotic or adult or whatever the filmmakers might have been aiming for. It feels to me like something thrown in, simply as a way to get an R rating (or, alternatively, added inonce they knew they were getting an R rating). Here again, the film would have been stronger without this, and with that scene edited to emphasize the sensuality, rather than the quick flash of body parts. (The DC animated TV shows overseen by Bruce Timm in the nineties and the aughts were often very sensual and boundary-pushing in a way that felt very adult and sophisticated, all while — dare I say, because of — maintaining a kid-friendly rating.)
The cast, as is usually the case with these DC animated films, is very strong. Christian Slater anchors the film as Deadshot and he’s great, tough and cool but also human and real. (Though, as good as Mr. Slater is, I think I preferred Neal McDonough’s take on Deadshot from Batman: Assault on Arkham.) Vanessa Williams plays Amanda Waller and she’s great, tough and fierce. (Though, weirdly, Ms. Williams sounds a LOT like CCH Pounder, who played Waller in the Bruce Timm animated TV shows — so much so that I was sure it WAS Ms. Pounder, reprising her role, until I got to the closing credits!) Tara Strong plays Harley Quinn, and she’s solid. She’s no match for Arleen Sorkin, the original voice of Harley, but she’s entertaining in the role. I preferred her over Melissa Rauch, who voiced Harley in Batman and Harley Quinn from earlier this year. (Ms. Strong has played Harley in a number of other recent DC animated projects, including the Justice League Action show as well as on DC Superhero Girls. She also played Barbara Gordon/Batgirl in the animated film, Batman: The Killing Joke.) Greg Grunberg is a standout as the bumbling wannabe superhero Steel Maxum.
I got a little tired of the film in the meandering middle section. I don’t think I ever need to see the weird Steel Maxum male stripper scene ever again. (I applaud the filmmakers for showcasing the male figure in addition to the female nudity they threw in — but whoof, that scene in a male strip club was way overlong and awkward.) I will say that I loved the surprising reveal at the end regarding Professor Zoom, and the surprising connection to Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox (which kicked off this current series of connected DC animated films). I didn’t see that coming! I was pretty happy with the film’s final 15 minutes. There are some surprising deaths and dark turns that worked far more effectively than the cartoony blood-soaked opening.
So, in the end, Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay is OK but not great. It’s been a while since I have really loved one of these DC Animated films. One of these days I should probably jump off this wagon. But I tend to enjoy each one just enough to keep hoping that maybe the next film will be the one to somehow recapture the magic of the Bruce Timm animated series that lasted for so long from Batman: The Animated Series, through Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, Justice League, and then Justice League Unlimited. We’ll see…!