The ongoing series of DC animated movies, officially known as DC Universe Original Movies, are a strange bunch. Released roughly quarterly, the series alternates between standalone adaptations of famous stories from the comics (the excellent Justice League: New Frontier and the…ummm…less than excellent Batman: The Killing Joke) and ones that adapt comic stories to fit a specific, ongoing continuity. Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay falls in the latter category, and it’s the ninth of the “in continuity” series since the practice began with 2013’s Justice League: War.
These in continuity adventures have been inconsistent from the start, often simplifying and condensing well known stories into 70 minute chunks, and making the necessary sacrifices along the way. There have been some standouts, though, and high points include Justice League: Throne of Atlantis, Justice League Dark, and Teen Titans: The Judas Contract. And now you can add Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay to that list of high points.
You can point to any number of problems with 2016’s big screen Suicide Squad movie, but its most unforgivable crime was never embracing the inherent ridiculousness of its “Dirty Dozen with supervillains” concept, instead shoehorning them into a fairly sanitized, middle-of-the-road superhero movie plot, complete with the kind of half-assed “sky portal” special effects climax that went out of style five years previous. Even with its body count and a definitive Harley Quinn performance, it felt sterile.
There’s no danger of that with Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay. From the opening scene featuring dialogue between Count Vertigo and Black Manta, and the first mission which introduces obscure 1960s villains Punch and Jewelee (who were, coincidentally, recently revived and repurposed for DC’s Watchmen sequel, Doomsday Clock), this movie is a b-movie bloodbath, fully embracing the utter ridiculousness of its concepts (and the expected body count), with its madness only enhanced by how casually it treats the bonkers elements of the DC Universe as an everyday, casual part of life. That’s just a prologue, though, and the real story is that the Suicide Squad (Deadshot, Harley Quinn, Killer Frost, Captain Boomerang, Bronze Tiger, and Copperhead) needs to retrieve a mystical item for Amanda Waller, and their mission becomes a wild road trip (in a frakkin’ Winnebago, no less!) around both the shadowy, mercenary world of the DCU and its even seedier, skeevier underbelly.
I’ve long advocated that other than the costumes and maybe the special abilities of its characters, any Suicide Squad adaptation should be almost indistinguishable from a late ’80s/early ’90s b-level action movie. Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay actually proves me wrong, with the team looking to retrieve a literal “get out of Hell free” card for Amanda Waller and running afoul of Vandal Savage, the Reverse-Flash, and a very different Doctor Fate along the way. The bizarre sense of humor on display throughout the film feels less like the Suicide Squad and more like Gail Simone’s brilliant run on the Squad-adjacent Secret Six, which is appropriate, because the “get out of Hell free” card is lifted right from one of those stories, and Secret Six stalwarts like Scandal Savage and Knockout are prominent players on screen here.
There’s usually a solid voice cast with these DC Universe Original Movies, and this is no exception, with standout performances by Vanessa Williams (Amanda Waller), C. Thomas Howell (Professor Zoom), Greg Grunberg (ahem…”Steel Maxum”), and James Urbaniak (Professor Pyg). The real star here is a perfectly cast Christian Slater as Floyd “Deadshot” Lawton, and now all I can think about is what a Batman vs. Deadshot movie circa 1992 with Christian Slater would have looked like.
Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay is, if nothing else, an absolute blast. An almost grindhouse-esque animated experiment, earning its R-rating with gratuitous violence and gore, its camera routinely lingering on the aftermath of a headshot, framing DC heroes and villains through a hole in someone’s brain, offering no shortage of profanity and even some blink and you’ll miss it nudity along the way. It’s a riot.
It’s also one of the better looking recent DC animated features, with lush animation and colors, and some inventive action sequences and direction from Sam Liu. But its real strength is in the script by Alan Burnett, which is lively, occasionally shocking, and genuinely funny. I’m not sure what lessons the beleaguered DCEU could learn from a movie like this, tailored to a more specific audience and coming with an entirely different set of expectations, but in any case, Hell to Pay is the best Suicide Squad adaptation yet, and I hope we get a sequel. Preferably one that brings in even more Secret Six members.