Reviews for Suicide Squad, DC Comics' latest film, aren't great. Audiences may be confused by Jared Leto's Joker, basically a cameo in the film. They may be impressed with Margot Robbie performance as Harley Quinn, and possibly disappointed by the film's treatment of her.
But there's one actress who no one will be able to take their eyes off while watching Suicide Squad: Viola Davis. She is unquestionably not just the best reason to see Suicide Squad, but one of the only reasons to do so.
(Editor's note: Spoilers ahead for Suicide Squad.)
That's not only because Amanda Waller is the most badass character the How to Get Away with Murder actress has played to date, but because Davis is the only one who nails the tricky tone David Ayer is aiming for in this anti-hero team film.
As Waller, a high ranking government agent who makes it her mission to assemble "Task Force X" — a covert super villain group organized to fight super threats — Davis dives right into the ugliest aspects of her ruthless character. While the many villains around her come equipped with sympathetic backstories to balance out their bloodlust — a past tragedy, a sweet daughter, a schizo romance — Waller is given and asks for none.
"Everyone has a weakness," she says in the film. "And a weakness can be leveraged." It explains why in a movie filled to the brim with bad guys, she's the scariest of them all: She's unafraid to connive and manipulate those around to get what she needs and all that guides her is her own conviction that she's doing what needs to be done. In her own words, "Getting people to act against their own self-interest is what I do for a living."
Within the gritty world DC has been building on film in this and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, this also makes Waller the most realistic villain in the universe. Early on in the film, we see the poor conditions under which the U.S. government is keeping its villainous criminals. Belle Reve Federal Penitentiary is basically a stateside Guantanamo, stocked with Batman's foes.
"Let's just say I put them in a hole," she tells government officials she hopes will greenlight her project. "[Then I] threw away the hole."
Deadshot, Harley Quinn, El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) are all treated like subhumans, not worthy of dignities such as edible food, a decent bed, or an interaction free of insults hurled their way. In a cultural climate that is constantly seeing a barrage of images of police cruelty in jail cells, it almost seems like the film should come with a trigger warning.
Waller is the face of this operation, and as such, she represents the most despicable aspects of the government that rules over this DC Universe. It's a government that allows Waller to blackmail and lie to this group of bad guys in order to deploy them in combat. She even holds their lives in such low esteem that she's willing and able to dispose of them with, quite literally, the push of a button.
Davis's Waller represents the very essence of Ayer's treatment of Suicide Squad precisely because she remains a wholly watchable, and entertaining, character even when she epitomizes a vision of bleak, cruel, and punishing U.S. government overreach. She embodies the moral ambiguity the film is championing: What makes someone a bad guy, and do bad means justify good ends?
In comparison, the actual supervillains presented in the film act and talk like the type of characters we've met before in superhero films before. "We're the bad guys, it's what we do," Harley sighs at one point while stealing a purse from a window display. Their motivations are paper thin and obvious, not to mention predictable. Theirs are characterizations that still put romance, family, and redemption at the center of the story. Not so with Waller.
It is a testament to Davis' talent that Waller, even in light of all of this, is a character that you want to see more of. Whether she's chomping on a steak while laying out her plan, wielding and shooting a gun at her subordinates to keep government secrets secure or standing up to those powerful villains without batting an eye, Davis is as imposing as you'd imagine. It also adds to the much touted diversity that its cast and crew have been celebrating.
It's a particularly refreshing performance from the actress because it is so indifferent to your sympathies. As Davis explains, she tapped into her own self to find Waller. But not Viola at 50; Viola at eight years old, when she was an angry badass who could beat anyone up. As she explains, "there was a part of me that had to tap into that because with women, with me, I'm always apologizing. I'm shy. I'm always retreating. I never tap into my power and Amanda Waller is not that! She is unapologetically brutal!"
Waller's cruelty — to the villains she controls, to the underlings she oversees, to the colleagues she misleads — teaches us about the cruelty in the wider world that Ayer is attempting to diagnose. This is a broken world that doesn't fall neatly into good and evil, superheroes and villains. The film doesn't merely flip those, but examines how moral compromises are part and parcel of how the established governing structure works. While the film ends in a predictably redemptive note, these bad guys do know how and why to do the right thing when push comes to shove, Waller remains as morally compromised as when the film started.
Just as Waller just wants to get the job done, voicing orders in a calm but decisive demeanor, she has no need to raise her voice, Davis is impervious to the increasingly silly plot points and character beats that drive the film she's in. She's focused on giving depth and gravitas to a character who is both admirable and despicable. The actress sells herself short when she states that Waller "is a superhero that doesn't have superhero powers," because what she does with the character is nothing short of superhuman.