The inmates are running the asylum in 'Suicide Squad'

Common, Jared Leto, and Margot Robbie

Common, Jared Leto, and Margot Robbie Clay Enos/ TM & (c) DC Comics

Most comic-book movies are, at heart, about the nature of heroism. Superman is born into it, Batman chooses it, Wolverine has it thrust upon him. Viewed through that lens, Suicide Squad must have the genre’s most alluring premise in years. The villains are the heroes in David Ayer’s ensemble piece.

Unfortunately, the film takes a great “What if?” question and fails to answer it in a compelling way. Was the Riddler not available?

Known officially as Task Force X, the squad is the brainchild of one Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), a governmental higher-up who dreams of purging the homeland of terrorism both domestic and supernatural by co-opting our most dangerous citizens. With a motley crew of “metahumans” locked away at a black site prison in Louisiana, she proposes extorting them into serving on the front line of her battle. Chief among these would-be pawns are Deadshot (Will Smith) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), though there’s also the archaeologist whose body is sometimes possessed by a centuries-old, all-powerful witch named Enchantress (Cara Delevingne).

The ostensible promise of a film led by such a rogues’ gallery is something edgy and irreverent, a corrective to the why-so-serious strain of superhero movies we’re so often bludgeoned with. Batman v Superman’s funereal vibe is nowhere to be found here, replaced by loud colors and louder characters. Joker’s maniacal laugh, Harley Quinn’s sexed-up viciousness, Deadshot’s lethal accuracy — if anything, Suicide Squad should suffer from an abundance of personalities that can’t be contained by its two-hour runtime.

That’s not the case. We don’t have time to properly get acquainted with either this world or its inhabitants. No one’s asking for each character to be introduced in their own standalone films à la the Avengers, but the brief primers on our (anti)heroes set to rock anthems of yore aren’t as captivating as you might hope. Most have tissue-thin backstories — Deadshot’s a ruthless hit man whose emotional complexity is signaled by the fact that he (gasp!) loves his daughter — while others have none at all. (All I can tell you about Killer Croc is that Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who thrived as Mr. Eko on Lost, deserved a meatier role to sink his teeth into.)

This doesn’t stop Robbie from going all out with Harley Quinn’s mix of naïveté and bloodlust, and in her performance the film finds its energetic center. Described as “a whole lotta pretty and a whole lotta crazy” by one of the unfortunate guards tasked with handling her, she’s like an evil Barbie come to life: runny makeup, blond pigtails, and a pistol whose chambers cycle between the words love and hate.

Jared Leto’s Joker, conversely, is Hot Topic edgy rather than genuinely unnerving — you almost expect him to yell “It’s not a phase, mom!” The actor had no choice but to take the iconic baddie in a different psychological direction than his gone-too-soon predecessor Heath Ledger did in The Dark Knight. But this latest iteration of the sociopathic clown is too thinly written for Leto’s showy performance to feel deserved.

He’s joined by the likes of El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a reluctant firestarter whose facial tattoos and violent history as an L.A. gang-banger belie his nascent pacifism, and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), an Aussie who... throws boomerangs.

The normal world commingles with the supernatural here in strange, unremarked ways. Not only is there the “extra-dimensional” character Enchantress, but there’s also a sword belonging to the enigmatic Katana (Karen Fukuhara) that contains the souls of all those who’ve been killed with it. This latter fact is mentioned offhand and readily accepted by all; not a single character questions or even seems surprised by it.

This is part of what makes Suicide Squad both unique and out of step with its genre peers. For better and often for worse, this is a comic-book movie in a way that Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies were — it’s weird, obnoxious, and so tonally inconsistent that we lose sight of what it’s striving for almost as quickly as it does.

Suicide Squad
Directed by David Ayer
Area theaters, now playing