DIRECTED BY: James Gunn / CAST: Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman
It’s clear pretty early on in The Suicide Squad that James Gunn’s standalone sequel is not only aiming to fix all the wrongs of David Ayer’s polarizing 2016 original, Suicide Squad (without the “The”), but is successfully doing so. Though Ayer shouldn’t bear all the burden of guilt for his own film’s shortcomings since the studio practically set him up to fail by giving the hard-R director a premise ripe for blood and violence, yet constraining him to a PG-13 rating. The limitations forced the writer-director to focus more on the emotional weight of villainsturned-heroes rather than playing in the sandbox that is “psycho villain protagonists.”
The first Suicide Squad not only played it safe, but did so with unfunny, brooding stagnation, seemingly acquiescent to include any sort of action whatsoever while simultaneously struggling to utilize all five of its caricatured antiheroes. Gunn, on the other hand, not only utilizes all of his characters effortlessly, but takes bold chances in every single scene, constantly challenging our expectations of what a superhero movie can be.
In the very first sequence of the film, half of the heavily-promoted ensemble cast gets wiped out. In the second, which takes place three days earlier, Idris Elba’s Bloodsport, a prisoner in Belle Reve penitentiary, engages in a profanity-laden shouting match with his teenage daughter when she comes to visit him. Where a typical movie would use this as a setup to the emotional stakes for a protagonist, The Suicide Squad literally has its main character yelling, almost guilting his own daughter, about how he never wanted to be a father to begin with, and, with Gunn’s near-perfect tonal control,
almost plays as comedy. Almost. Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller, spearheader of Task Force X the official name for the titular Suicide Squad—threatens to have Bloodsport’s daughter killed if he doesn’t accept her request for him to join her team in their mission to a former Nazi prison/laboratory in order to assassinate its current leader Silvio Luna (Diego Botto). The verbal melee between Elba and Davis is an incredible display of two great actors giving their emotional all to a scene that not only sets the intensity for the rest of the film, but is already better than anything its predecessor had to offer.
Bloodsport’s team consists of several other inmates, including Peacemaker (John Cena), a psychopath who’s willing to murder anyone in order to achieve peace; Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), with the ability to communicate and control rats; King Shark (Sylvester Stallone), an anthropomorphic shark with low intelligence and a hunger for human flesh; and Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), who has the ability to expel explosive polka-dots out of his body. Together they meet up with Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), the two survivors of the first team. By the end of the first act, every single character is showcased, and throughout the mission, those who survive continue to be utilized effortlessly.
Progressing the plot very swiftly, Gunn’s frenetic, relentless pace is no doubt his version of pedal to the metal, even if at times this course correct of the first film’s sluggishness comes at the sacrifice of actual character depth (which Ayer’s version did fairly well). There are moments where it feels like this plot isn’t even inhabited by characters at all, but chess pieces here to help move things forward. But at least there is little emotion threatening to undermine the evenly-distributed tonal flippancy. Tapping into his horror-comedy roots, Gunn gets to infuse The Suicide Squad with creative gore, carefully-choreographed action, and a darkly comedic schlock which the film is an embodiment of. Gunn still picks his spots to develop one or two of his characters, such as a bus ride where Ratcatcher 2 and Bloodsport exchange some enlightening dialogue (instead of literally taking a break from the action solely to have emotional conversations, as the first movie does in a bar), or later on with a single line about rats that conveys the full scope of depth that Ayer’s film took 2 hours to explain.
Rather than finding a villain who’s objectively worse than his criminal protagonists, Gunn focuses less on the villains themselves and instead plays with the idea of these protagonists fighting people as bad as they are. Rather than being force-fed sympathy for these antiheroes, we learn right away that they’re actually very bad people themselves.
Finding the payoff for a theme that almost betrays his main characters, Gunn doesn’t try to make superheroes out of villains, but shows them as the screw-ups that they really are. Tortured and relatively levelheaded, Elba’s Bloodsport is the heartbeat of the film even when we don’t love his character. As a straight-man, the actor doesn’t react for comedy, but as someone who’s authentically irritated with the fools around him. And yet he’s still capable f maintaining his own buried sense of humanity, with a pathos that embeds itself implicitly rather than hitting us in the face. Always a standout in any movie he’s ever in, Elba has never been better than he is here.
GUNN, ON THE OTHER HAND, NOT ONLY USES ALL OF HIS CHARACTERS EFFORTLESSLY, BUT TAKES BOLD CHANCES IN EVERY SINGLE SCENE, CONSTANTLY CHALLENGING OUR EXPECTATIONS OF WHAT A SUPERHERO MOVIE IS.
Establishing an identity to its comedy as well as the violence that’s ingrained into the action, The Suicide Squad is definitely a director’s film with Gunn as the auteur at work. Every moment is an extension of his creativity and vision: a colorful, slightly-hypnotic action-comedy with an unstoppable momentum, even to a fault. This is what happens when a studio gives carte blanche to a filmmaker—something DC has finally learned can be a benefit of not having any congruency or as tight of a grip over their own extended universe—and even something that Marvel won’t really allow for with their own tight grip. Gunn ensures that any flaws that arise because of his deliberate execution get overcompensated for with undeniable entertainment, no matter what gets sacrificed because of it. Joining the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road and Terminator 2, this is one of the most artistic popcorn flicks you’ll ever see, and one you won’t soon forget.