The opening scene to Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay, the latest DC Animated original film, is bloody and borders on gratuitous. It involves the titular Task Force of deadly villains hijacking a train in order to retrieve some intel, and ends in the death of nearly every character we’ve met so far. Something else happens though, at the close of the film’s introductory stage. Amidst the exploding heads and bloody, mangled bodies, our protagonist stares down a terrified criminal who’s rigged to blow and shoots her mercifully.
The protagonist is Deadshot, here voiced with a gruff, raspy edge by Christian Slater, whose story arc gives the film a much needed emotional center even if it’s largely background noise to the carnage of this explosive, 70’s-inspired road-trip. Soon after the opening scene, Amanda Waller enlists a group of criminals, to be led by Deadshot, for a new mission; she wants them to find a literal “Get Out of Hell” free card. It’s a card that, upon death, grants whoever is holding it entrance into Heaven even if Hell is where they belong. It’s incredibly whacky yet it works because it throws everybody’s loyalties into question. Which of all of these bad people wouldn’t want an opportunity like this? None of them are under any illusions as to the nature of their lives and the things they’ve done.
The team that Waller (Vanessa Williams) assembles is made up of Harley Quinn (Tara Strong), who exists in the film solely to cash in on her immense popularity but provides some light enjoyment regardless; Copperhead (Gideon Emery), a snake-like man who adds a skin-crawling comedic element to the dynamic; Killer Frost (Kristin Bauer van Straten), abused at a young age and an icy adult because of it; Captain Boomerang (Liam McIntyre), a less exaggerated than usual Australian villain with a ridiculous gimmick; and Bronze Tiger (Billy Brown), the honorable murderer that imagines himself above the other members of the team. Of the group, Bronze Tiger and Deadshot are the highlights and the focal points of the story. They act as foils for one another, which results in an unexpectedly bittersweet finale for both characters.
The film strengthens as it wears on. As it’s busily establishing its balls-to-the-wall world and the wild characters within it, it lacks the emotional stakes to truly have us invested. Once it puts aside the world-building, Alan Burnett’s script manages to narrow in on the more interesting facets of the film. The humour hits more often than usual in DC’s films (both animated and live-action), though the occasionally stilted animations themselves fail to do both the drama and the comedy justice. What they do nail however, is the action sequences, which matched with some great cinematic direction by Sam Liu, manage to pack the desired punch.
The fight sequences are a definitive highlight of the film with a visual flare that takes advantage of its higher rating. They would however remain lackluster were it not for the level of heart infused into them. No better example exists than a midpoint clash between Deadshot and Bronze Tiger, who have a battle of wits and wills as they face down their own demons and attempt to take their frustrations out on one another. The script’s greatest accomplishment is managing to keep a leash on its many elements, keeping things tight even when so many different characters are fighting it out for the same thing. As such, we get every character’s reasons so that none (apart from Harley who, again, is kind of just there) are wasted.
The early part of the second act features the film’s strangest sequence and character, as we meet a Doctor Fate who is “lying low” as an Entertainer in Las Vegas. His backstory is a trip in and of itself, although his role in the film is too dominant for what little he truly adds to the plot. Unfortunately, the sequences in which we watch on as he dances on stage to sleazy, adoring fans is more cringe-inducing, where it is assumedly supposed to be funny. As for Waller, her needs for the device could have added further weight to the character’s motives but her less competent and commanding portrayal here fails to give the character much strength to stand out amidst the surrounding cast members.
And while the concept of having the Suicide Squad going cross-country in an R.V. sounds great on paper, it doesn’t quite deliver. By extension, the film’s use of Vandal Savage as the ultimate big bad gives the film the scope it needs in order to have us see the Squad’s task as insurmountable, yet the immortal fiend has little substance and he’s overshadowed by another trio of antagonists. Flash villain Zoom plays a central role and has ties to a previous film in DC’s animated line that is sudden and, at least for more attentive fans of the franchise, a satisfying little bonus addition.
Hell to Pay has moments of pure quality that overcome its negatives, and as a whole the film is an enjoyable and genuinely refreshing experiment by the folks making the frequent (and frequently well-made) DC Animated films. The home-video release comes with a look at the next feature, The Death of Superman, as well as some character featurettes and bonus episodes from older DC cartoons. As a package, it’s another worthwhile journey for DC aficionados – this time into a grittier, bloodier corner of the mythos. And its intent on using a plot device that tempts the darker inclinations of genuinely evil characters goes to further prove how far off the mark the live-action 2016 rendition was.
Film ’89 Verdict – 7/10
Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay is available on Blu-Ray, DVD and digital download now.