It feels like we’ve been here before. A C-list DC Comics villain has been brought to life by a major Hollywood talent—Idris Elba as Bloodsport in this case—only to be saddled in a seemingly generic scene with the character’s adolescent daughter. When we saw a variation of this cliché in the first Suicide Squad movie, it stood in for barebones character development; a familiar story beat which allowed Will Smith’s Deadshot to prove he really just wants to make his little girl proud. But that was then, and this is now. This is James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad.
Hence when Elba’s incarcerated baddie takes a look at his daughter through prison plexiglass, and she reveals that she too has gotten pinched and is now awaiting a court date for nicking a smartwatch, he has only one question: Why did she get caught for swiping something so stupid? “A year in juvie will do her good,” he sniffs later. “She’s always been a little ditzy like her mother.”
Welcome to Gunn’s familiar yet wickedly singular take on a valuable piece of Warner Bros. intellectual property. In a sign of the strange times that studio executives find themselves in, Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is a hard tonal reset on a film that grossed nearly $750 million five years ago. To be clear, it’s also a sequel to David Ayer’s 2016 movie despite what talent has said to the press in recent months, with passing references to both the previous picture as well as Margot Robbie’s solo stint as Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey. And yet, even with its setting in the DC Extended Universe, The Suicide Squad is on a planet created by, ruled over, and ultimately tormented through the prism of Gunn’s singular sensibility. Not since Super has the filmmaker’s vision been so unchecked or subversive, making for a whole movie that’s a lot like Gunn’s humor: dark, crude, and paradoxically heartfelt.
That Warner Bros. would surrender one of their biggest franchises to that kind of voice is a minor miracle.
The setup of Gunn’s vision for The Suicide Squad is narratively simple enough. Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller is still pursuing the seriously awful idea of taking convicted supervillains and putting bombs in their necks before ordering them to go save the world or die trying. But unlike the chaotic mishmash from five years ago, Gunn doesn’t want his antiheroes to look cool while doing it… at least most of the time.
Waller’s victims still include familiar faces like Robbie’s bubbly Harley Quinn and point man Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman). There’s also a slew of new meat for the grinder, chief among them being Elba’s stoic Bloodsport (a hitman who can turn any object into a weapon); John Cena’s Peacemaker (Captain America if he watched Fox News all day); Daniela Melchior’s Ratcatcher II (a young woman who can control rats); and David Dastmalchian’s Polka-Dot Man (a sad sack who can control… polka-dots?). Sylvester Stallone also voices a walking talking Great White Shark, which is as adorable as it sounds.
The team is sent to the fictional island nation of Corto Maltese to destroy evidence of something called “Project Starfish.” Madness and a whole lot of killing ensues.
At its essence, Gunn’s story is what the Suicide Squad concept has always leant itself toward: a men and women on a mission adventure. Indeed, Gunn homages the narrative structure of numerous “infiltrate and escape” ‘60s blockbusters, with The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Where Eagles Dare (1968) being the biggest touchstones. One could even squint and see Elba’s cynic with a heart of gold in Bloodsport and Cena’s patriotic-to-a-fault Peacemaker as dueling riffs on the same Lee Marvin archetype.
But for all those narrative allusions, Gunn’s not going for something particularly high-minded or even middle brow. He’s happy to crawl through as much mud and gross bits as the shark, and to have his pen gleefully unshackled from the constraints of Disney. More so than his Guardians of the Galaxy flicks, The Suicide Squad feels apiece with his early work, including for indie shock horror studio, Troma Entertainment, and perhaps more aptly his first Hollywood movie, the gruesomely mean-spirited Slither. Like that comedy-chiller about invasive aliens and body horror, there’s something faintly perverse and even juvenile to the set pieces in The Suicide Squad, especially near the beginning.
I suspect many audiences will love how hard The Suicide Squad goes in the opening 15 minutes or so, albeit more than a few will find it abrasive, gratuitous, and a tad immature. Which it is. Fortunately, Gunn is able to thread the needle between his excesses, balancing the primal joy of watching a Great White Man-Shark rip a dude in half with the emotional authenticity he’s long been underrated for. It’s what made his Guardians movies the strangely most sarcastic yet sincere films in the Marvel oeuvre, and it’s what keeps The Suicide Squad from being just an exercise in style.
While Robbie has fine-tuned Harley to perfection in this third outing—thereby raising the question of how much further she can take this character barring a possible Poison Ivy movie—and Elba makes for a rock solid charismatic anchor, it is relative unknowns Melchior and Dastmalchian who shine brightest. The actors are tellingly saddled with the most pitiful sounding superpowers ever committed to screen—rat mind control and the ability to throw colorful polka-dots—but Gunn’s affinity for outcasts and losers elevates them to the folks we most want to spend time with. There’s real pathos here, and in Melchior’s case, grace in this otherwise loopy cacophony. Ratcatcher II begins as an amusing riff on “millennial jokes” in a superhero movie while Polka-Dot Man is aptly nicknamed “Norman Bates,” and yet both nearly walk away with the whole movie.
Of course, with as much zaniness as there is in this flick (I haven’t even gotten to the giant starfish!), it’s hard for any single element to really overshadow the others for long. The movie is so overstuffed with ideas and gags, it’s downright overwhelming at times. For some that will be a detriment, but that Gunn is able to keep all the balls in the air, and manages to make most of these misfits engaging, and even endearing, is its greatest asset.
For too long, superhero movies have grown toothless, innocuous, and sandblasted clean of any strong sense of identity. Many are fine in a blandly inoffensive way that allows them to vanish from memory quicker than they entered. With its weirdness and warm-heartedness, The Suicide Squad is distinctly the outcome of a singular filmmaker given free rein over one of these fiscal calendar linchpins. I’m not sure if that makes for good business, but it makes for mighty fine cinema, polka-dots and all.
The Suicide Squad opens in theaters and on HBO Max on Friday, Aug. 6.