The story behind The Suicide Squad (the movie, not the squad itself) is one of those odd, childish pieces of contemporary culture that seems increasingly common. After a the much derided original film, which itself was cut together from what’s apparently a very different movie in order to semi-ape the tone of Guardians of the Galaxy, it was understood that the sequel, if there was ever to be one, would have to be a bit of a course correction. As this was shaking out, some dumbass right-winger borrowed from the dumbass left-wing cancellation playbook and tried to get James Gunn, writer/director of the Guardians films fired from his job writing and directing part three. This campaign was initially successful and Gunn was canned by Disney/Marvel. Almost immediately, DC swooped in and hired him to helm The Suicide Squad. Soon, after much pushback from both fans and cast members, Disney/Marvel rehired Gunn for Guardians 3, and everybody wins. It doesn’t seem we’ve learned much, but having Gunn handle two adjacent goofy superhero team movies is a pretty cool thing.
The Suicide Squad is both a sequel and a soft reboot of the original film, meaning that it takes place in the same universe, with many of the same people, but it wants you to kinda forget about the last one. The tone/style put forth here (and that was attempted via producer meddling last time around) will be what the series looks like henceforth, and although I wasn’t as down on the first film as many, this course correction is evidently the right move, because The Suicide Squad rocks extremely hard.
The rules of the squad remain the same as they were in 2016: highly skilled/superpowered prisoners are offered an opportunity to complete a deadly mission in exchange for a reduced sentence. If they accept, they cannot back out, or else a remote bomb planted inside their head will explode. This time around, the mission involves infiltrating a secretive laboratory in order to take down the seed of what is supposedly some sort of doomsday scenario. I won’t tell you what it is because that’s a spoiler. Also, I’m not sure if you’d even believe me.
The lineup for round two is different for a lot of reasons, but the core group of anti-heroes we now follow is absolutely delightful. The new faces include Bloodsport (Idris Elba), a guy with unmatched skills in the art of war, Peacemaker (John Cena), a guy with unmatched skills in beating everyone else’s unmatched skills, Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), a woman with the ability to control rats, Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), a guy who can, uhhh, shoot polka dots at things, and King Shark (Sylvester Stallone), a shark-man who does shark things. Returning from the first film we have Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), and of course, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). Plenty of other notable faces are littered throughout in side plots and Easter eggs, and a lot of the fun comes from recognizing some deep DC cuts.
While the Guardians of the Galaxy movies are truly a blast, The Suicide Squad is much darker, much more violent, and much more imbued with a “fuck authority” attitude that matches the material oh so well. Our heroes are not good people, and they sure as hell don’t behave like it. Smartly, Gunn weaves this idea into the thematics of the script, drawing a distinct line between following orders and doing what’s right despite personal cost. The squad doesn’t necessarily get along with one another, but they have one another’s backs when the shit hits the fan. The latter cannot he said for Waller, whose “only the job matters” outlook has morphed into something much more sinister, and often totally unhinged (a development which Davis absolutely CRUSHES). It’s fun to see such a contemporary resonance in a movie that could’ve just been empty fun —as we’ve learned in recent times, relenting to authority can be an evil all its own.
James Gunn, Troma alum, taps into his gruesome imagination in a way we haven’t seen since the era of Slither and Super. Pieces of comically heightened physical trauma occur every few seconds, and very rarely are these moments not completely drenched in blood and guts. There isn’t an ounce of preciousness about who gets offed either. The Suicide Squad is the rare superhero movie where it feels like anyone could be taken out at any second, regardless of their perceived pop-cultural rank. As such, the stakes feel high at all times — a rarity in the genre. The characterizations are all solid across the board, evoking contempt and sympathy in equal measure while also serving as the base for much of the humor. Cena’s Peacemaker need only appear onscreen to draw hearty laughs, while a scowl from Bloodsport (often directed at Peacemaker) can make any moment downright hilarious. Short of visual gags (of which there are plenty), there aren’t a lot of classically formed jokes. The humor is all character based, which makes the film much less quotable than you’d expect, but that much funnier overall. But even the most riotous sequences manage to maintain the urgency of the active plot while presenting countless moments for serious badassery.
The imagination carries over to the filmmaking as well. There are some truly insane images, as well as some clean, clever direction. Never does the action feel muddy or disorienting, nor does it ever feel like visual shortcuts are being taken. In fact, one fight scene is handled largely in a single take — a take we see solely through its reflection on Peacemaker’s helmet. Another sequence has Harley Quinn, in the balletic way only she can, murdering an entire building full of baddies, but instead of blood splatter we get colorful streams of spring flowers. It’s beautiful, fun, and when you consider Quinn’s mental state, extremely dark. These are far from the only pieces of inspired filmmaking contained within. In fact, even during its most aggressively computer-rendered sequences, The Suicide Squad still feels like part of a filmmaker’s vision rather than some bytes on a studio’s hard drive.
The sweet spot between crass and edgy is positively nailed, and even the bluer material has so much heart that I defy anyone to be put off by the madness. It’s a raucous good time, simultaneously mean-spirited and joyous, that never stops being a blast. Not for a second. Beyond that, the characters are compelling and thorough, and thus easy to care about. The action looks good, the imagination is high, and the thematic material lands uncommonly well. In one second I was freaking out at a bloody head explosion, and in the next I was moved by the friendship between a shark-man and a rat whisperer. I’m pretty confident that sentence can’t be said about any other movie at all.
Note: Once again I am blown away by Margot Robbie’s work as Harley Quinn. This, her third outing as the character, drove home a performance choice that I love so much I have to call it out. Her Quinn has such an infectious devil may care attitude that in the rare instances when she shows worry or concern, it really hits hard. This is employed to indicate truly dangerous threats as well as to show charming bits of humanity that remind us Ms. Quinn wasn’t always a lunatic. Well done!
Directed by James Gunn
Written by James Gunn
Starring Idris Elba, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis
Rated R, Runtime 132 minutes
In theaters and on HBOMax today (but you should see it in the theater if you can do so safely — it’s glorious on a giant screen).