The director’s ode to comic book nonsense is violent, absurd, and refreshingly cinematic.
I don’t know if you were aware of this, but comic books are ridiculous nonsense. They’re full of mutant freaks and interdimensional monsters who only stop punching each other long enough to engage in the kinds of extravagantly melodramatic storylines typically found on daytime soap operas. Even Watchmen, often pointed to as the ultimate what-if-superheroes-existed-in-the-real-world comic fable ends with the flattening of Manhattan by a colossal telekinetic space squid. The retconnong of that scene is the most notable change in Zack Snyder’s otherwise faithful panel-for-panel film adaptation, a commitment to oppressive grimdark realism that would extend to his entries in the DCU. Even the relatively lighter tone of the Avengers saga still managed to sacrifice genuine weirdness on the altar of drab plausibility.
A few directors like Shane Black, Taika Waititi, and James Wan have attempted over the years to drag the comic book film back to its goofy camp roots, but it took the gonzo sensibilities of James Gunn with Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 1 to well and truly force the superhero genre into not taking itself so seriously. Gunn’s brand of candy-colored absurdism suffused with choice needle-drops proved so successful in 2014 that competitors at Warner Bros. disastrously attempted to cram David Ayer’s 2016 film Suicide Squad into Gunn’s mold. Cut to 2019, after Gunn is fired (and ultimately re-hired) from Disney in response to a right-wing-fueled Twitter controversy, and Warners seizes the chance to infuse its much-maligned franchise with that genuine James Gunn magic. As a bootleg Bugs Bunny t-shirt in Gunn’s The Suicide Squad proclaims, “obstacles are opportunities,” and Gunn has used this opportunity to create a violent and absurdist yet refreshingly cinematic ode to comic book nonsense.
The film opens with a breakneck (literally) sequence where project leader Amanda Waller (Viola Davis in a perpetual state of barely-repressed rage) assembles her team of third-tier supervillains who, in exchange for a reduced sentence and not getting their heads blown off by an explosive implant, agree to participate in highly dangerous covert missions in the name of U.S. security. There’s Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), arrested for robbing a bank with her loyal army of rodentia; and jingoistic Peacemaker (John Cena, still somehow delightful despite market saturation) who is devoted to peace “no matter how many men, women, and children I have to kill to achieve it.” Then there’s the self-explanatory Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), whose mommy issues are almost as disturbing as the technicolor rash covering his body; and monosyllabic King Shark, AKA Nanaue (voiced by Sylvester Stallone with physical performance by Steve Agee), who enjoys biting people’s heads off while wearing cute bermuda shorts.
This motley band of barrel-scraping bad guys is in need of a leader, which Waller finds in expert marksman Bloodsport (Idris Elba, doing the heavy lifting as straight-man to this rogue’s gallery of weirdos). Though his claim to fame is in having successfully shot Superman out of the sky with a kryptonite bullet, Bloodsport has no interest in being run through Waller’s meat grinder. Waller is not the type to take no for an answer, however, and blackmails Bloodsport by threatening to imprison his estranged daughter (Storm Reid). Meanwhile, Waller’s second-in-command Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman, redundant) heads up his own team that includes devilishly ditzy Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, resplendent), both reprising their roles from the previous film.
Their mission is to infiltrate a research facility run by cold-blooded scientist Thinker (Peter Capaldi) on the South American island nation of Corto Maltese. The country’s original president-for-life ruthlessly executed dissidents yet was otherwise agreeable to American interests. It is only after a violent coup by the equally-oppressive but brazenly anti-American General Silvio Luna (a smoldering Juan Diego Botto) that Waller feels the need for intervention, and even then only to secure potentially balance-of-power-shifting technology.
Threatening Bloodsport’s innocent child is the least of what Waller is willing to do to achieve her aims, and by extension the aims of the U.S. government. The Suicide Squad takes a refreshingly critical view of a U.S. foreign policy that is less interested in aiding the oppressed than in securing its own interests abroad. Gunn never gets too heavy-handed with it — this is a goofy superhero movie, after all — but nonetheless it’s encouraging to see this type of mass-appeal tentpole film push back against the kinds of rosy pro-America storylines disseminated by Marvel in accordance with its hand-in-glove relationship with the U.S. military.
Questionable devotion to the Fatherland is just one of the many parental hangups explored in Gunn’s screenplay — a recurring theme in his work. Bloodsport’s relationship with his daughter is less-than-loving if their screaming match in the prison visitors area is any indication. He finds an opportunity for a second chance through a bond with Ratcatcher, who herself had a strong connection with her now-dead father (played in a welcome cameo I won’t spoil). And then there’s Polka-Dot Man, whose traumatic upbringing by the scientist mother who experimented on him as a child is the source of the film’s most surreal, what-the-fuck visual gags. Even Flag and Peacemaker, both square-jawed company men, compete in a sort of sibling rivalry over loyalty to Waller and her cause.
Any one of these character elements and themes would be interesting on its own, but the inclusion of so many plot threads only serves to highlight the screenplay’s existential crisis. Does The Suicide Squad want to be about American imperialism, or daddy issues, or maybe whether the people society has deemed the most wretched are worthy of redemption? In trying to be about all of these things it fails in making a cohesive point about any of them.
Similarly, for a film called The Suicide Squad it rarely feels like Bloodsport and the gang ever really bond as an actual squad. For the bulk of the film the characters are split into smaller groups, and when they do come together they act more as individuals who happen to be fighting next to each other than as a cohesive team. I would have loved to see how Polka-Dot Man’s skills complemented Harley’s, or how King Shark and Ratcatcher could work together to solve a problem they couldn’t otherwise handle on their own. It’s fun to watch these characters let loose as individuals, but why be part of a team if you’re not going to work as one?
If The Suicide Squad is simply a collection of individuals, then no individual forces her way into the spotlight like Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. If the original Suicide Squad did anything right, it introduced Robbie’s vivaciously violent villainess into the otherwise dour, self-serious DCU. Robbie’s humane, pop-punk take on the character continues to be the bright star around which the Warner Bros. comic book universe revolves. As in last year’s Birds of Prey, a masterfully choreographed sequence where Quinn single-handedly decimates a building full of baddies in a literal explosion of color is the centerpiece of a film filled with visual delights.
After years slogging through the murky gloom of the Snyderverse and the flat, soulless efficiency of Marvel’s visuals, what a joy it is to bask in The Suicide Squad’s honest-to-god cinematography. Title cards separate the film into chapters, the typography integrated into the environment via tree roots, pillars of fire, or even splattered blood. The camerawork is similarly inventive as DP Henry Braham’s lens swoops, spins, whips, and zooms while also knowing when to keep still and allow the film’s clean, legible action sequences to speak for themselves.
But even snappy camerawork can’t salvage the completely unnecessary, tacked-on finale. It’s the kind of high-stakes CGI-fest studios seemingly demand for these films, as if the audience hasn’t really gotten their money’s worth unless a few high-rise buildings topple onto the heads of fleeing civilians. It’s not a complete slog, as Gunn still manages to wring a little bizarre fun out of the proceedings, but it was the only time during an otherwise engaging and fast-paced film that I found myself checking my watch.
There’s been some controversy in the UK over the decision to rate The Suicide Squad as acceptable for viewers 15 and above despite its extreme violence (the film is rated R in the U.S.). Given the intensely cartoony nature of the film as a whole I think most young people will be capable of seeing the violence for the over-the-top spectacle that it is. I worry about what the bland, sexless homogeneity of the corporate superhero machine is doing to young moviegoers more than filmmaking with a confident visual aesthetic and a strong ideological point-of-view. My hope is that Gunn’s The Suicide Squad will do for the DCU what Guardians of the Galaxy did for Marvel by giving studios permission to make movies exactly as silly and weird as the comic books that inspired them.