Another week, another Hollywood brand extension. Conventional wisdom has it that the lukewarm fan reception to "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" put inordinate pressure on "Suicide Squad" to right the course of Warner Brothers' DC Cinematic Universe, the Pepsi to the Marvel Cinematic Universe's Coke (or the other way around, depending on your allegiance). This might explain why "Suicide Squad" -- a Batman spinoff of sorts -- seems to be trying so hard, with overwrought badass-ery that's liable to leave you cold.
As summed up by writer-director David Ayer, "Suicide Squad" is "a 'Dirty Dozen' with supervillains." Also known as Task Force X, Suicide Squad has been kicking around DC Comics for decades, with a rotating cast of rogues pressed into top-secret quasi-military service by ruthless government official Amanda Waller (a pleasingly fierce Viola Davis). In recent years, the lineup has leaned toward villains most commonly associated with Batman: assassin Deadshot (Will Smith, as ever motivated by a tyke), the Joker's mad-love girlfriend Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), and genetically tortured Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje).
Waller tasks war veteran Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) with supervising these attack dogs, as well as his girlfriend June Moone, possessed by the witch Enchantress (Cara Delevingne); Boomerang (Jai Courtney), a traditional adversary of the Flash; and the pyrokinetic El Diablo (Jay Hernandez). Like a too-soon "Ghostbusters" sequel, the Squad deploys to downtown Midway City to blast away at a supernatural menace. Given that the team comprises loose cannons, Flag has his work cut out for him, as the baddies constantly threaten to desert (one does so almost immediately, with dire consequences).
There's plenty of potential in the concept, and that ensemble proves solid, but the ADHD execution here seldom makes clear the team's strategy, generally a hallmark of "mission" movies. As with the Marvel outings, "Suicide Squad" gets a little extra juice from overlapping with once and future DC movies: next year's "Justice League" gets teased (again), Batman puts in cameo appearances, and his primary adversary gets rebooted in the form of Jared Leto's Joker. With the word "Damaged" tattooed across his forehead, a grill stamped on his crazed smile, and bling everywhere else, this misbegotten Joker symbolizes the whole movie as insistently dark and seedy but not as fun or arresting as it desperately hopes to be (and should the Joker really be showing off his toned chest and rock-hard abs? Just askin').
Perhaps part of the problem is that we've come to expect more from Ayer. "Suicide Squad" reflects the crime-ridden ghetto aesthetic of Ayer's "Harsh Times," "Street Kings," and "End of Watch," but lacks their storytelling discipline, and it's not in the same league as his confident 2014 war film "Fury." The result is a novel but muddled supervillain action movie, decidedly not for kids, and not very fun for adults. The decades-spanning anthology of tough-guy (and gal) songs on the soundtrack is another sign of a filmmaking team that knows its film needs some artificial respiration. Some comic-book fans will lap it up, but "Suicide Squad" is all sauce and no meat.