Five years ago, I was a freshly minted New Yorker on his last dime and every trip to the movies was a serious investment. At the time, I rarely missed a major comic book movie and most of my friends were rallying to go on opening weekend, so despite my empty pockets and the warning of practically every critic in the business, I bought a ticket to see Suicide Squad. The film was a barely-coherent mess, still the worst feature I’ve ever sat through in theaters. But as lousy as I felt during the film, mentally scraping for anything to enjoy out of the experience and finding very little, I felt much worse afterwards because I’d just spent 20% of my checking account balance to see a movie that I knew was going to suck. I was furious at myself. To this day, the memory of Suicide Squad makes me angry.
All this is to say that writer/director James Gunn had a very low bar to clear with his new standalone sequel, The Suicide Squad, which debuts in theaters and on HBO Max this weekend. I entered this experience craving something that would wash the stale taste of the 2016 film out my mouth, and I got that. The Suicide Squad is a brutally funny comic book movie, good in nearly every way that its predecessor is bad, but for all the blood it spills, there’s not much left to fill its heart.
He’s Called “Bloodsport,” It’s Not Complicated
If you’re unfamiliar with the premise of The Suicide Squad, it’s like this: the US government maintains a secret black ops squad made up of supervillains. If they complete their missions successfully, they get years off their prison sentences. If they disobey orders or try to escape, they are executed via a bomb implanted in their heads. Like the comics series on which it’s based, the film is populated with the DC Universe’s least marketable, most expendable characters, plus Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, who clearly loves this character to death). For this film’s incarnation of Task Force X, James Gunn has dug so deep into the toybox that even I, someone who gobbled up DC titles for two solid decades, hadn’t heard of half of the lineup, and that’s part of the fun. Superhero comics adaptations sometimes forget that most of these characters and concepts were designed to be so simple that they could be explained with a single image and a two-sentence caption box. The Suicide Squad embraces this simplicity and is all the better for it.
The plot, too, is fairly straightforward. Task Force X is dispatched by amoral spymaster Amanda Waller (American treasure Viola Davis) to the (fictional) South American island of Corto Maltese, where a coup has replaced a cruel dictatorship with another, equally cruel dictatorship that’s less friendly to American military interests. The team must infiltrate and destroy a laboratory on the island in order to keep some sort of doomsday weapon out of the hands of the new government, and while it turns out to be a bit more complicated than that, the plot is still far less twisty than your average bloated superhero flick. The Suicide Squad does run past the two hour mark, but it’s a pretty breezy 132 minutes.
Where the previous Suicide Squad film spends its first half hour giving most of its characters multiple introductions (what a mess), this version is far more focused and far less confused, with just two main viewpoint characters. The first is Harley Quinn, who most viewers are probably already familiar with to some extent but whose whole deal is pretty easy to understand at a glance — she’s crazy, she’s vivacious, she’s great at violence. The other is Bloodsport (proper legend Idris Elba), a stranger to all but the most dedicated of comics nerds, who’s here because Will Smith did not want to do another of these movies. Like Smith’s Deadshot before him, Bloodsport is a skilled assassin who is manipulated into joining the Squad for the benefit of his young daughter (The Invisible Man’s Storm Reid, whose brief scene with Elba is the movie’s funniest). Otherwise, Bloodsport reads as a new, much more entertaining character tailored towards Elba’s own brand of action-comedy charm.
Details about the rest of the team are parsed out gradually throughout the film, but for the most part they can be taken at face value. Peacemaker (16-time WWE World Champion and newly minted member of the Toretto Family John Cena) sums up his entire character in one line of dialogue: “I cherish peace with all my heart, and I don’t care how many men, women, and children I have to kill to get it.” Ratcatcher 2 (Portugeuese TV star Daniele Melchior) controls rats, like her beloved father before her. Polka-Dot Man’s (David Dastmalchian, Ant-Man) body shoots colorful, destructive balls and he’s terribly depressed about it. Captain Boomerang (a returning Jai Courtney) throws boomerangs, Javelin (Flula Borg, Pitch Perfect 2) has a javelin, Weasel (Sean Gunn as a CGI rodent, again) is a five-foot fucking weasel. What more do you want?
Have Gunn, Will Travel
In hindsight, James Gunn directing a Suicide Squad movie was inevitable. Not even counting the Guardians of the Galaxy films, which are superhero-adjacent space adventures, The Suicide Squad is the second irreverant superhero comedy he’s directed (after Super) and the third he’s written (after 2000’s The Specials). Based on the warm social media reception to the second theatrical trailer for the 2016 Suicide Squad film, which aped the more comedic tone of Gunn’s Guardians, Warner Bros. went all in and hired the trailer company to re-edit it in kind. Trailer Park’s attempts to cut David Ayer’s gritty drama into something more fun created such a dissonance that it shook the film apart. Unsurprisingly, Warner Bros. scooped up Gunn to guide the sequel shortly after Disney fired him from Guardians 3 for his bad posts. (He has since been rehired.)
With the genuine article now at the helm, The Suicide Squad succeeds nearly everywhere that its predecessor fails. This time the comedy is baked in from the beginning, starting with a punchy, joke-dense script that lavishes in the absurdity of its world. I can’t recall the last live-action DC or Marvel movie that is so clearly unashamed to be based on a comic book. This shit is silly and weird and that’s clearly what Gunn likes about it. The cast is all completely game as well, most of all Margot Robbie, whose Harley Quinn is the only good thing to come out of the first Squad. As in the excellent Birds of Prey, Robbie has delicately tuned her character to fit her new circumstances, always just the Harley that each scene needs. While top billed, she’s not really the center of this film (that would be Elba’s Bloodsport), but there’s a wickedly funny stretch of The Suicide Squad during which Harley basically absconds to her own movie in which she is the star.
This is about as faint as praise gets, but this is also a much, much better looking film than the first Suicide Squad. Gunn and cinematographer Henry Braham (who also shot Guardians Vol. 2) establish a palette for The Suicide Squad that evokes a sandy 70s grindhouse vibe but still highlights the bold primaries of its more colorful comics characters, and of course all of that red, red blood. The cutting of the action is occasionally a little jarring, but never so much that I lost the geography of a scene. Gunn prioritizes comedy even in the action sequences, and while there are few shining moments of stunt or effects work, each blow or bullet landed feels worthy of at least a chuckle. Gunn’s song selections are also on point, as usual, featuring lesser-known but bang-on needle drops unbound from the early ‘80s constraints of the Guardians soundtracks. (Is it disrespectful to use Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died” over the opening credits? Maybe, but it definitely nails the tone of the film.)
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Comedy – Time = Tragedy
The Suicide Squad is a comedy that hardly ever lets up. That sounds like a compliment — and it is, mostly — but it’s also the movie’s biggest flaw. Throughout the film, there are beats that acknowledge the terrible atrocities being committed casually by the protagonists, their adversaries, and the governments they represent. For example, Bloodsport and Peacemaker get into a pissing match and take turns blowing away members of a Corto Maltesean revolutionary group, some of whom are unarmed and just going about their day. This is all played for laughs and works (as much of the film does) as a satire of American intervention in South America and films thereabout. That intent is made clear when it turns out that this group is actually their ally, and we then cut to their leader, Sol Soria (Alice Braga, Queen of the South) looking out over the carnage with a tear running down her cheek. The problem is that we’re locked into this humanizing moment for about three seconds, and then we start doing jokes again. The whiplash is a little rough, and the film’s climax plays a similar trick on a much larger scale, asking for empathy and then drowning us in blood shortly thereafter.
For all its gallows humor about how little America values the lives of people behind bars or beyond its borders, and despite lip service paid to the Corto Malteseans’ right to govern themselves, The Suicide Squad still suffers from the sins of the films and policies it’s riffing on. The citizens of the island the protagonists have invaded are still just cannon fodder rather than characters. Even the resident villains — new Presidente General Luna (Juan Diego Botto, White Lines) and Mayor General Suarez (Joaquín Cosio, Gentefied) are merely a sideshow. (SPOILER AHEAD, skip to the next paragraph if you want to go in fresh.) When the protagonists are offered an opportunity to hold the United States accountable for their role in the plot, they, predictably, pass on it. There is, at least, an empowering moment in which Ms. Waller’s support staff prevents her from condemning an entire city to a horrible death.
Gunn counters some of this cynicism with heartfelt moments between the main cast, echoing his success in binding together another found family of psychos in Guardians of the Galaxy. There’s genuine affection to be found between Bloodsport and Ratcatcher 2, and a number of playful moments with the childlike monster King Shark (a computer-generated character embodied by comedian Steve Agee on set, but voiced by Sylvester Stallone purely for novelty). Compared to the sweetness of his Marvel movies, though, moments like Ratcatcher’s memories of her adoring father feel a bit perfunctory. Not false, but unimportant. A final message about the value of even the lowliest creatures doesn’t really land after two hours of delighting in death.
Still, it’s clear how much Gunn and the cast love these characters, and the fun they’re having is contagious. Whatever criticisms I may have after viewing, I was rarely dissatisfied in the moment. As I confessed from the beginning, I set a low bar for The Suicide Squad and it sailed over it. If I had spent my lunch money to see this movie in 2016, I would have gone home happy.