One more time for those in the back: DC/WB have no idea what the hell they’re doing.
Is this latest Suicide Squad movie a sequel or a reboot of the previous film? Does anyone need to have seen that one before going into this one? The answer is exactly the same as with the Birds of Prey film that came out last year: Nobody knows and nobody cares.
WB is several billions of dollars in debt, they’ve been unloaded onto Discovery Inc. three years after their catastrophic acquisition by AT&T, one (possibly two) of their biggest-name filmmakers fled to Netflix after the disastrous HBO Max rollout, and WB has handled their DC properties with all the intelligence and skill of a man shaking and beating a vending machine after it ate his dollar bill.
All of this has been well-documented in the mainstream news, and discussed extensively in earlier blog entries here. At this point, it should be absolutely zero surprise that DC/WB is continually rebooting their franchises with no long-term plan, keeping only one or two functional pieces in the futile hope that they’ll work just as well in the new context. God knows DC has done that enough times on the comics side of things.
Luckily, it appears that DC/WB may finally be turning things around. Their long-awaited Flash movie is finally in production, ditto for Aquaman 2 (though Ezra Miller and Amber Heard have both picked up a lot of bad press in the past couple years) and a forthcoming sequel to Shazam! Next year’s The Batman looks promising, and there’s been some fascinating news about a couple of new potential takes on Superman.
Perhaps most importantly, WB landed James Gunn. Yes, Gunn will soon be going back to Marvel so he can finally and properly close the book on the current iteration of the Guardians of the Galaxy.
(Side note: In the comics, at least a couple dozen different characters have teamed up under the name. Given all the central characters in the MCU who’ve passed their respective torches in Phase 4, it’s a safe bet that some new Guardians team will be assembled under a different filmmaker further down the line.)
But before and after Gunn goes back to tie up loose ends at Marvel, he’s got this film to make, in addition to a spin-off HBO Max series for Peacemaker (more on him later) and the promise of more DC content to come.
For my part, I immediately think that Gunn is an upgrade. In the past, I’ve made it clear that I’m no fan of David Ayer and the overly cynical worldview of his films. And I’ve never forgiven him (or Jared Leto, or the execs at WB) for allowing and even celebrating the utterly reprehensible workplace environment on Suicide Squad that would get literally anybody else in any other workplace fucking arrested.
Gunn’s hiring for this project is a positive sign that DC/WB are finally learning from their public, costly, numerous, humiliating mistakes. They need a Suicide Squad movie that’s lighter than the first attempt, but without overcorrecting to a childishly simple extent like they did with the theatrical cut of Justice League or Wonder Woman ’84. If you need a film about a sarcastic bunch of violent misfits, but it has to be fun and humorous without losing the dark and bloody edge, respectful to the fans yet accessible to newcomers, then James Gunn is your guy. That’s been proven extensively.
Then again, DC/WB has already tried emulating Marvel by poaching one of their filmmakers, and look how Joss Whedon ended up.
Still, The Suicide Squad was built from the ground up for James Gunn, and he was a phenomenal choice for the project in theory. In practice, we got all the subversive creativity of GotG with all the profane, gory, R-rated glee of Gunn’s earlier work (Slither, Super, etc.). DC/WB let James Gunn off the chain, and he gave us yet another game-changer for the genre.
Recapping the film will be difficult for three reasons. First is that the basic premise — Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) recruits a team of supervillains to help secure the nation by taking on supremely dangerous missions in return for a decreased prison sentence — is all that you need or want to know about the premise going in.
Secondly, there’s something like 15 different members of the Suicide Squad to introduce. And half of those characters are dead within the first fifteen minutes. That’s the third point.
Yeah, it turns out that “Suicide Squad” isn’t just a catchy nickname. And it bears mentioning that with the exception of Harley Quinn, *none* of the characters in this flick are household names — they’re all obscure Z-tier footnotes like Blackguard and The Detachable Kid. Everybody is expendable here, and that’s made abundantly clear with the opening bloodbath.
Yet the kills are so over-the-top nasty and delivered with such flawless comedic timing that every single death is darkly amusing. (Of course, it certainly helps that pretty much all of the characters are unsympathetic by design.) In this manner, the opening bloodbath also helps to set the tone for the rest of the film.
Anyway, the bottom line is that I can’t possibly give every character and actor their due credit. After all, I’d hate to completely spoil how long each character lasts. Moreover, I don’t want to keep typing “(s)he was tragically underutilized, but made the absolute most of every second available”, because that describes pretty much the entire roster. Seriously, the cast and the filmmakers are so incredible that a character could be killed off at the ten-minute mark, and we already know enough about them to give the death some emotional heft.
So instead, I’ll stick to the highlights.
Viola Davis should probably get the first mention, as Amanda Waller is the antagonist of the film in many ways. Davis deserves no shortage of credit for effectively portraying a woman who’s completely and totally lost her soul. Waller is a stone-cold sociopath who doesn’t give a damn about what anyone thinks of her, who gets sent to die, or anything except what she perceives as the greater good.
More importantly, Waller is primarily concerned with the USA’s well-being above all else. Toward that end, she makes some outrageously cutthroat unilateral decisions about when and how it’s appropriate to interfere in the affairs of foreign governments. It’s really quite subversive and diabolically brilliant how the film uses Waller and her unabashed hypocrisy to make a statement about American colonialism and military intervention in what’s supposed to be a goddamn comic book movie. Especially when so many of the films in the genre — namely those produced by competitor Marvel — are regularly blasted as propaganda for America’s military. But I digress.
Speaking of which, let’s move on to Peacemaker (John Cena). The basic gist of this guy is that he’s a vigilante who wants world peace so badly that he’s willing to murder everyone on the planet to attain it. In other words, as one character aptly observes, he’s a homicidal narcissist looking for an excuse to kill people and act like a high-and-mighty douchebag. As I’ve observed before, John Cena has built his entire career on the fact that he’s a joke, and this role lets him lean into that with tremendous effect.
This brings me to Idris Elba in the role of Bloodsport. He’s a black guy and a world-class marksman, given a position of leadership on the team, and he’s got a young daughter (Tyla, played by Storm Reid) used by Waller as leverage against him. On paper, it’s easy to see how he’d be mistaken as a stand-in for Will Smith’s portrayal of Deadshot from the previous film.
In practice, Bloodsport is a gruff and jaded bastard like Will Smith couldn’t possibly play. To wit: Shortly after his introduction, Bloodsport engages in a no-holds-barred shouting match with his daughter. Through the rest of the film, Bloodsport engages in a constant dick-measuring contest with Peacemaker, with the both of them on parallel and opposite development tracks regarding what it really means to be a leader and a man. Idris Elba has the stage presence to sell that in a way that Smith — for all his talents as an actor — simply doesn’t have in his range.
That said, as much as I liked the character, I could’ve used more detail as to precisely what his abilities are and how he got them. Sorry, but when I see a mercenary whip out all sorts of miraculous shape-shifting Tony Stark technology, I’m gonna need details about where the stuff came from and how it works.
What of Harley Quinn? Well, it’s pretty obvious that the film was written and made with no knowledge whatsoever about Birds of Prey, as the events and characters of that film never even get a mention. More importantly, Harley’s stand-alone film placed a lot more prominence on the character’s underappreciated intelligence and her psychological prowess, both of which are wholly absent here. That’s a terrible shame.
Then again, it bears remembering that this was built from the ground up as an ensemble picture. While Harley is of course an important member of the team — she’s certainly the most famous character, played by the most bankable actor — she was never going to be the star of the show. Overall, the filmmakers do a well enough job of striking that balance. Harley is only really present in a handful of action scenes and the climax, but she’s a central presence when she’s there. In particular, her infamous doomed romantic past with the Joker is cleverly utilized, and her jailbreak scene at the halfway point is a mind-blowing showstopper. Seriously, that one sequence is a master class in itself.
Then we have Polka-Dot Man, played here by David Dastmalchian. In the comics, this highly obscure Batman villain threw brightly-colored dots that would unfold into various gadgets. In the movie… well, that’s a long, embarrassing, wildly improbable story. To sum up as best I can, his mother was responsible for getting him involved in a mad science experiment, so now he expels brightly-colored dots that explode on impact. Basically put, he’s a great big bundle of mommy issues, a soft-spoken social misfit who carries himself like a time bomb on a short fuse. This is well within Dastmalchian’s wheelhouse and he plays it well.
King Shark is on hand, here voiced by Sylvester Stallone. He’s an Aquaman/Flash villain introduced in the ’90s, relatively obscure until his appearance as a main character on the thoroughly awesome Harley Quinn animated series. Far from the eloquent and empathetic portrayal on that show, this King Shark is a primal brute with prodigious strength, a terrifying appetite, and precious little in the way of intelligence. Stallone — with his vocal range and sense of humor — was ideally suited to play the character.
Peter Capaldi plays an unusual role here, in that he’s the only superpowered individual with a direct and specific role in the mission. To clarify, Capaldi plays The Thinker, a superintelligent metahuman with direct access to the weapon that the Suicide Squad is after. While Thinker is certainly no Malcolm Tucker, he’s still a certified Magnificent Bastard, and nobody can play that like goddamn Peter Capaldi.
Incidentally, because the trailers have already spoiled this point, I have no problem divulging that the big secret weapon is in fact Starro the Conqueror. It amuses me that the Suicide Squad is here pitted against a traditional Justice League villain, and that power disparity makes for fantastic tension in the climax. Though it also depresses me that Starro — famous among comic book fans as the very first supervillain the Justice League ever faced — is obscure enough in the mainstream to fit in a movie with the likes of Captain Boomerang and Rick Flagg.
Speaking of Rick Flagg, Joel Kinnaman does a fine job as the hapless straight man to all the craziness of the supervillains that he’s ostensibly in charge of. He’s admirably assisted in this by Alice Braga, in the role of a local freedom fighter. (It’s a long story.) In point of fact, the massive width and depth of the cast is probably the best thing this movie has going for it. There’s such a wide variety of personality types on display here, it’s genuinely compelling to see them all mix and match, fighting each other, supporting each other, building friendships, mourning each other, and so on.
This brings me to the film’s secret weapon: Ratcatcher II, superbly played by Daniela Melchior in her English-language feature debut. She’s by far the youngest member of the team, prone to fatigue at the least convenient times, and her ability to telepathically control rats is more or less brushed off by the rest of the team. Yet Ratcatcher II is the only one of the team who can strike up a genuine rapport with King Shark, and she bonds quite well with Bloodsport over their respective daddy issues, in spite of Bloodsport’s crippling musophobia. I might add that she telepathically controls rats through technology invented and bequeathed by her father, played by a cameo guest star I don’t dare spoil here.
(Side note: Speaking of noteworthy cameo players, don’t miss the Guardians of the Galaxy alum with the prominent musical cameo appearance in a gentleman’s club. And of course Sean Gunn gets his customary cameo appearance in his brother’s film, pulling double duty as the CGI Weasel as the perennial Batman rogues gallery laughingstock, Calendar Man.)
Most importantly, as one character points out late in the film, rats are typically seen as small, weak, filthy, undesirable creatures, yet they still have a purpose. And if something so lowly as a rat has a purpose, then that means everyone does. In this eloquent, heartfelt, uplifting way, Ratcatcher II perfectly represents the central thesis of the Suicide Squad and why this team matters. It’s done so incredibly well, I can’t possibly praise that enough.
Of course the action is great fun across the board, and the music is loaded with wonderful needle drops as anyone should expect from a James Gunn picture. The comedy is fiendishly effective from start to finish, the film is graphically unapologetic in its R-rated nature, and while none of the characters break the fourth wall or act in a self-aware metatextual manner, the whole film is loaded with self-aware post-modern touches that heighten the film in a nicely stylish way.
Consider that this is an R-rated action/comedy comic book movie about crass, violent, loudmouthed killers, presented in a self-aware manner, yet it’s completely and totally distinct from Deadpool. Can we take a moment to appreciate that?
I don’t agree that The Suicide Squad is the greatest superhero film ever made, or even the greatest superhero film released this year, because I don’t agree that it’s a superhero film at all. That would imply the presence of a superhero, a concept that runs entirely counter to the Squad itself and its appeal. Still, it’s undeniably fun, with great humor and an abundance of heart throughout. It’s still deeply refreshing to see a tentpole big-budget summer blockbuster that’s unapologetically adult in nature, violent and profane and raunchy in a huge way without ever coming off as brain-dead.
Hell, the central premise of the film is so aggressively over-the-top that the term “gratuitous” is practically meaningless anyway. The sky’s the limit with this property, so kudos to the cast and crew for going as big as they could while actively mining the lesser-known DC characters for anything worthwhile. Congratulations are also due for cramming so many characters and so much story into a brisk yet relatively scant 130 minutes.
This is absolutely not a film to be missed. Be sure to check it out as soon as you can leave the kids at home.