Film

Review: With James Gunn at the Helm, The Suicide Squad Brings Characters with Depth and a Story with Plenty of Fun

After working almost exclusively for several years on the first two Guardians of the Galaxy movies (as well as contributing in no small part to the last couple Avengers movies as well), writer/director James Gunn was fired from Guardians 3 (after finishing the screenplay) when ancient, tasteless tweets resurfaced. No sooner did this soul-crushing (for Gunn and his fans) event happen than Warner Bros./DC snatched him up to take a stab at a sequel to the largely wretched Suicide Squad film, seemingly giving him carte blanche to get as vulgar and bloody as he wanted to with no Disney suits forcing him to keep things PG-13. The Suicide Squad mostly ignores the story and the majority of the characters of the previous film while doing a bang-up job paying tribute to second- and third-tier comic book villains that we all love to hate.

The Suicide Squad

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

Making a film in which no lives are sacred (with maybe one or two exceptions), Gunn has constructed a story in which we see a collection of villains doing government work under the moniker Task Force X and doing it poorly because they have no leadership. They have been pulled together by DC’s version of Nick Fury, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, one of the few holdovers from the first film). In truth, there are two teams: one that is used as a distraction (and is consequently mostly wiped out); and one that is more experienced and skillful, who mostly survive on the remote island of Corto Maltese, where the local government has been keeping a top secret weapon of some sort that it plans to reveal to the world in exchange for money and power—you know, the usual stuff.

Without giving away who lives and dies, the other returning team members include Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang, Joel Kinnaman’s Col. Rick Flag (technically a good guy, working for Waller), and, of course, the VIP, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn (without a Joker in sight). Newcomers include Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Peachmaker (John Cena), Savant (Michael Rooker), T.D.K. (Nathan Fillion), Blackguard (Pete Davidson), the gloomy Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), Weasel (Sean Gunn), Javelin (Flula Borg), Mongal (Mayling Ng), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), and King Shark (motion-captured Steve Agee, voice by Sylvester Stallone). For as many characters as there are in this film, The Suicide Squad never gets confusing or feels overly crowded, partly because a lot of people die.

Over the course of the movie, you can feel Gunn slowly taking off the kid gloves and slipping on brass knuckles with spikes built in. This is his turn to remind the world what he used to do and still can, in films that were both darker and funnier, like Slither and Super. But Gunn is also smart enough to know how to use tools like swearing and violence to accentuate his story rather than make the film only about those elements. Since his time on The Wire, there has always been something so special about hearing Elba swear, and this film reminds us how elegant and hilarious he can be letting four-letter words trip off his tongue. His banter with Cena’s Peacemaker is exceptional. Peacemaker literally represents everything that is wrong with America in a bloating, thick-necked package, and Cena embraces it in a way that is both quite funny and scarily believable.

There is something so comforting about having Robbie and Kinnaman back from the first film. They have a rapport that shows us how far Harley has come in trusting people, and Flag illustrates that his faith in these bad guys is worth building upon. I hate to be obvious, but my admiration for the depth that Dastmalchian brings to a nonsense character like Polka-Dot Man is boundless. He makes it easy for us to feel empathy for this man who must expel polka dots from his body a few times per day or risk exploding. The polka dots seem to erase whatever they touch, so he actually is one of the deadliest members of the team, but his brain is so broken that he sees the face of his long-hated mother in everyone he meets. It’s hilarious, as well as quite touching, and he’ll be a crowd favorite, without a doubt.

Similarly, the story behind Ratcatcher 2 and Melchior’s performance elicits a great deal of sympathetic vibes, even as he uses her powers to swarm tens of thousands of rats to do her bidding. The bond she forms with Bloodsport is unexpected and quite sweet, and her backstory involving her father (Taika Waititi, shown in flashbacks as the original Ratcatcher) inject her character with a great deal of pathos. The character work in The Suicide Squad is so strong, in fact, that the actual threat against them from Mayor General Mateo Suarez, a military dictator played by Joaquín Cosio, as well as a giant starfish kaiju, seems almost inconsequential. It turns out that DC doesn’t have much better luck with villains than Marvel does, but at least the final battle between evil and slightly less evil allows for a great deal of spectacle and splatter.

There were times where I couldn’t believe what I was watching with The Suicide Squad, simply because it was under the umbrella of a mainstream superhero movie from a big studio, by a director who has the capacity to get childish when he’s allowed to do whatever he wants. But he also has a true sense of how to entertain adult audiences who still find value in these kind of movies. Even when it doesn’t work, the fact that it exists is a triumph.

The film is now playing theatrically and is available on HBO Max.

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