The Suicide Squad is a critical darling, for the most part deservedly so. James Gunn’s third superhero outing is armed with an R-rating and no real responsibility to larger continuity (or so it claims). The creative freedom allows Gunn to go as icky, weird, and angry as his earlier work, Slither and Super, without losing the “angry little boy all growed up” heart that made his Guardians of the Galaxy films hits. Still, freedom isn’t all its cracked up to be: With Gunn dialed up to 11, the movie itself becomes an exercise in excess and somewhat repetitive.
It’s well known that Gunn’s Guardians films were the template Warner Bros. hoped to emulate when they wrested control of 2016’s Suicide Squad from director David Ayer, ultimately churning out the worst movie in their generally underwhelming D.C. Cinematic Universe. The fact that Gunn’s The Suicide Squad follows essentially the same plot beats, only better, is a pretty ironic ending to the saga of these amoral villains-turned-heroes making their way to the big screen in something actually watchable.
This time around, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) sends Task Force X to secure a secret Nazi weapons lab, Jotunheim, on a small, politically unstable South American Island. For those unaware: Task Force X, aka the Suicide Squad, is a team of dangerous imprisoned super-villains who are sent on missions no hero would undertake. Waller implants bombs in their heads to ensure compliance. The reward, should they survive, is freedom and a blank slate back into the world. Every mission calls for a different roster. The body count? High.
Of course ,Waller always has secret motivations, the Squad gets mad at her, etc. etc.
Idris Elba stars as Bloodsport, the leader of this iteration. He’s a replacement for Will Smith’s Deadshot in the 2016 movie, and shares the “daughter at home” motivation. Margot Robbie returns as Harley Quinn in a role far too sporadic given her magnetism as the character (it’s a shame that Birds of Prey didn’t do better – she’s on-point as the character, and that movie is better, on balance, than this one). Also returning from the first movie is Joel Kinnaman as Rick Flagg, Waller’s own man on the team. There are innumerable other members of the Squad this time around, including Gunn stalwarts like Nathan Fillion and Michael Rooker, but the big standout is John Cena as Peacemaker, a man so dedicated to the cause of peace that he’d kill every man, woman and child he had to just to achieve it. Cena’s had a run of solid roles in recent years, particularly in comedies like Blockers, and he’s simply excellent here in full meathead form.
I didn’t mention King Shark (Sylvester Stallone), who is initially a standout but, like everything in The Suicide Squad, kind of overstays his welcome by the end.
The question is, of course, which of these characters will survive. There are a few surprises but nothing exceptionally shocking. Honestly, that’s part of the problem with The Suicide Squad: Beneath the viscera and sexual humor, not much of the Gunn’s story strays from the superhero mold or even what we saw in Suicide Squad. The villains learn their lessons (although they kill quite a few innocents along the way), the foes are defeated and most of the people you expect to die bite it. Several of the characters have mommy or daddy issues that need resolved, a staple of superhero fiction, but are expressed much more violently here than in Gunn’s Guardians films.
Admittedly, the grand finale featuring a Kaiju-sized Starro the Conqueror is really cool, but it drags on interminably long and feels far less organic than the preceding character-based set pieces that drive the film’s stellar first two acts.
What works in The Suicide Squad is what works in all of Gunn’s films: He understands characters, particularly angry men. Angry boys, especially. Boys mad at their mommy, boys mad at their daddy, boys mad at themselves. Boys, and the women who help redeem them. Thankfully there’s nothing quite as lame as the Gamora and Star-Lord stuff from the Guardians films, in which the most dangerous woman in the galaxy goes out of her way to fall in love with a manchild, but it’s still present in The Suicide Squad in the form of Ratcatcher 2 (Daniele Melchior), who serves as a surrogate daughter for Bloodsport. She has her own story, and it’s a good one, but one that still feels constructed to teach the boys a lesson.
This review reads negative, or perhaps overly critical, so I want to be clear: The first two acts of The Suicide Squad are hysterical, violent and fun. I viewed it on HBOMax due to the current pandemic situation but wish I could have seen it along with my buddies in IMAX. It will likely be listed at the top of superhero film rankings for years to come, and referred to as a stylistic benchmark for future R-rated Superhero comedies. It’s certainly funnier and more thoughtful than either of the Deadpool films.
If anything, The Suicide Squad‘s closest comparison is Zack Snyder’s Justice League — a creative mind being given the space to do whatever he wants with corporate IP, for better and for worse. It’s also pretty fucking funny.