When danger is afoot and there’s no hope in sight, who do you turn to? Probably Superman. Need a case solved? Batman is probably already on the scene. But what if you’re in need of some less-than-legal assistance to clean up a mess you’d rather the rest of the world didn’t know about? That’s when Task Force X, better known as the Suicide Squad, comes along. This time around, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has a new mission of, well, suicidal proportions: destroy Jötunheim, a Nazi-era prison and laboratory in the South American island nation of Corto Maltese. Recruited — read: blackmailed — for this latest mission are a handful of ragtag weirdos, including familiar faces like Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) as well as new captives like hitman Bloodsport (Idris Elba), violent patriot Peacemaker (John Cena), and nom-nom fan King Shark.
It seems pretty clear from their lavish ad campaign — as well as the easy-to-confuse title — that DC Comics and Warner Bros. view The Suicide Squad as a fresh new slate for their semi-villainous ensemble. While it’s technically a sequel to David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (no ‘the’), references to that movie are minuscule. DC learned a lot of lessons from that film. While it made its money back, it was also evidently the victim of harried micromanaging, multiple edits, and an erratic shift in tone. Ayer has made it clear that Suicide Squad is not the movie he wanted to make, and is instead the end result of a studio with no confidence in its creative direction and desperately trying to correct course following prior critical maulings. Well, one thing you can definitely say about The Suicide Squad is that it’s the brainchild of one guy: James Gunn. Hell, they tried so hard to reverse-engineer Suicide Squad into a gritty Guardians of the Galaxy rip-off, so why not just cut out the middle man and get that same director to work his magic?
With Guardians of the Galaxy, Gunn, a former Troma director, imbued Marvel’s well-oiled machine of tropes and arcs with a gently gonzo sensibility and a bit of freewheeling mania. As the genre has become a multi-billion-dollar titan of utmost seriousness, Gunn’s willingness to puncture the balloon and make it the butt of the joke cannot help but be refreshing. Here, he has his hard-R Dirty Dozen-esque frenzy of blood, exploding heads, and banter. He certainly earns that rating too, with King Shark ripping bodies in two, bullets flying into every part of one’s body, and several poor souls burning to death. Much has been made about Gunn receiving George R.R. Martin-esque levels of freedom to off whoever he pleases, and hoo boy, does he enjoy himself with this. Hey, they are the Suicide Squad. Even Waller’s team of beleaguered tech nerds take bets on who will die first. While Gunn has fun with the inherently disposable nature of this team, and there are some hilariously mean moments amid this bloodbath, it’s impressive how much emotion still remains.
Gunn has always had an affinity for the losers, whether it’s the Troma crew of proud schlock masters or a team of intergalactic rogues that includes a sassy raccoon and a tree with a three-word vocabulary. His new squad is made up of some of DC’s more ludicrous creations, most notably Abner Krill, a.k.a. the Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian.) Yes, his superpower is that he can fire polka dots. He seems handmade by the comic gods to be killed off in the first two minutes, but Gunn is more interested in turning a one-joke non-entity into an effectively tragic figure. It helps that Dastmalchian has the most perfect face for such a character, equal parts tortured sad sack and neurotic murderer. It’s a fun balance between serious and irreverence, the kind that the superhero genre often struggles with these days, but it also makes him ideal for this kind of ensemble piece.
Idris Elba is the closest The Suicide Squad gets to a lead, and Bloodsport allows for that kind of moody charisma that Elba can project in his sleep, although it does feel pretty obvious that this part in the narrative was intended for Deadshot before Will Smith said goodbye. Joel Kinnaman gets way more to do here, as well as a sense of sardonic weariness, that was sorely absent from his first appearance with the Squad. Daniela Melchior almost walks away with the film as Ratcatcher II, a sleepy thief who can control rats and who helps keep the team together as the dudes all but throw it on the table for a d**k-measuring contest. She has enough wide-eyed optimism and youthful drive to make you believe that these curious allies would stick together. It’s also refreshing to see another woman in this dude-fest, with both Margot Robbie and Viola Davis clearly having the time of their lives as Harley Quinn and Waller, respectively.
Robbie spends most of her story away from the team, wearing a fabulous dress and dealing with some sh*tty men issues. It’s a shame we don’t get to see her gel more with the ensemble, although I did breathe a sigh of relief when the end credits rolled and I realized that we didn’t see a single leering ass shot or male-gaze gawk of the camera at Robbie’s body. The bar is low, but hey, they cleared it! Gunn also mercifully doesn’t erase the vibrant frenzy of Harley that Cathy Yan brought to the character with Birds of Prey. Her big action scene sees her blow up in anger, with a multicolored shower of flowers spurting from the bodies of the men she takes down. All that’s missing is a great needle-drop (although we get some solid tunes here, as is befitting the guy who brought us the Awesome Mix Tapes of Peter Quill.)
This is a comic book movie, not an adaptation vaguely embarrassed to be rooted in such source material like Joker or some of DC’s more po-faced efforts. Here, the villains wear brightly colored costumes that seldom make logistical sense. (King Shark is in golf shorts!) A man fires polka dots from his fingers. There’s an adorable rat named Sebastian who waves at his friends. Some moments, especially in the third act, feel like they were lifted straight from a Silver Age story. The politics, however, are more clear-eyed than that.
In DC Comics, Corto Maltese is a war-torn Central American island that is frequently featured in stories of geopolitical strife regarding America’s self-styled status as the world’s chief of police. Rebel uprisings and coups against the government are quietly supported by the States. In Frank Miller’s Dark Knight universe, Superman is sent to Corto Maltese to secretly fight the Soviet presence on the island (it ends badly). This time around, Waller is sending more Americans with guns onto the shores of a nation currently under a less politically convenient military rule in the hopes that they can clean up a few messes. Waller has made their mission clear: Keep America safe.
It’s an ethos echoed by Peacemaker, who sees no conflict of interest between his buzzword-heavy preaching for peace and his thorough military destruction. War is peace, especially when you can make it happen with exploding bullets. John Cena feels as if he was ripped from Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers as Peacemaker, a man would happily salute the flag and then set off a bomb. He proudly admits that he would do anything for his country, a familiar platitude that is fully exposed as preposterous when all he does is shoot first and then ask questions later. Waller is especially chilling here as the bureaucratic middle manager who has no qualms about potentially irrevocably destroying a marginalized nation in the name of American exceptionalism. DC has hinted at these themes before, particularly with the post-9/11 paranoia found in Man of Steel, but this is as close as they come to something really daring. Of course, the demands of the genre and those ever-important sequel possibilities mean that the movie does inevitably flinch. Still, at a time when many of The Suicide Squad’s contemporaries are still keen to gloss over such ethical quandaries, it’s a nice couple of steps forward, even if Gunn does stumble back a touch.
Gunn isn’t entirely free of DC’s demands. The film is jerky in its pacing at times. The gags about Polka-Dot Man’s mother issues seem too mean in a way that is out of step with the character’s fine balance between tragedy and comedy. There’s not enough of the Weasel. Crucially, however, the film is strong enough to balance out those weak spots. This isn’t the joyless slog that Suicide Squad was, a film that Warner Bros. had no idea what to do with. James Gunn clearly made a James Gunn movie, and it’s one that could help DC to carve out a definable identity for itself in future franchise installments. When you see enough of these films that are clearly made on rails and achingly precise in their adherence to the formula, a splatter to the wall like this just lands differently. I can’t claim that The Suicide Squad is a masterpiece of the genre or one that will change the game for Warner Bros., but jeez, it was fun.
The Suicide Squad premieres in theaters and on HBO Max in the United States on August 5, 2021..
Header Image Source: YouTube // Warner Bros.