Before we begin, let us get this out of the way: 2016’s Suicide Squad, at least the version that was released in theaters, was one of the biggest misfires of a movie in recent memory. While not totally irredeemable, whatever cut of the film (of which there were many due to a fraught production) that ended up being seen by audiences was shoddily assembled and woefully out of its depth. It all felt like a reconstructed attempt to be a Guardians of the Galaxy imitation, and it was a poor one at that.
That is why it both interesting and fitting that the newest The Suicide Squad (this time with an all important The at the front) is being helmed by James Gunn, who most notably wrote and directed the Guardians films. However, rather than just recreating his own prior work with new characters, Gunn gives us a wonderfully raucous and unhindered take on the ever-expanding superhero genre that is all its own. From the music to the tone, it is all incredibly well-executed and feels refreshingly unique.
Gunn’s distinct vision, which he certainly seems to have gotten total control to let loose with, is what sets the film apart from anything else that has come before it. It takes what seems like an initially straightforward superhero romp—go to a place to infiltrate a building to get a thing—and injects it with a shot of adrenaline. There are a plethora of striking sequences of extreme violence cut with a sense of emotional stakes and an engagement with reality that far too many superhero takes try to remain painfully unaware of (*coughs* Wonder Woman 1984). That is not the case here, as the story is actually engaging.
Said story is that a group of society’s villains are tasked with going on a covert mission as a part of the new Suicide Squad (sorry, Task Force X) to the fictional island of Corto Maltese. Harley Quinn (Margo Robbie), Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Peacemaker (John Cena), Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), and King Shark (Sylvester Stallone) are an eccentric group, sure. Still, when comparing them to another team that Gunn introduces with a wonderful misdirect of an opening sequence, they seem to be all that stands between the world and potential destruction.
The looming force of that destruction is known only by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) who has the same intimidating and heartless presence as in the prior film. Gunn ensures Davis has more of a role to play this time around, making Waller a deeply dire threat rather than a minimized distraction. Waller has again implanted all of the team with an explosive device in their head that she will use in the event there is any deviation from the mission. Gunn is blissfully efficient in establishing the familiar rules to ensure it doesn’t get bogged down in exposition, unlike the prior entry.
He also keeps some info secret, as the crew is blissfully unaware of the danger they are walking into. Bloodsport in particular doesn’t even want to be there, though after Waller threatened his daughter he found he had no choice. He initially just wants to get in and out with his life. He also has a deathly fear of rats, which puts him initially at odds with Ratcatcher 2, who can commune with the rodents and even has a precious sidekick that assists on the journey. However, seeing both Bloodsport and Ratcatcher 2 grow close becomes the heart of the film.
Those two obviously aren’t alone as all of the characters, both new and old, come together for a cohesive whole. Robbie gets more to do this go-around as the maniacal Harley Quinn. Even as it doesn’t really build off of her solo film, Birds of Prey, it all works, ensuring there is freedom for this film to go in its own direction without having to be tied down to other entries in the franchise. How else would you get to see a giant shark-man fight alongside someone who can shoot deadly polka dots? The answer is you wouldn’t. This film throws it all at the wall, creating an abundance of audacity and genuine humor. Not all of the jokes land perfectly, often drawing out the bit beyond a breaking point, though most still do.
What does work remarkably well is how a character who initially seems solely like a joke becomes something more. That character is Cena’s Peacemaker, a title that becomes increasingly ironic as it is clear how ruthless and cruel he is. A freedom-loving patriot who really seems to believe in the mission for the sake of protecting the good ol’ US of A from any supposed foreign threats, Peacemaker stands in stark contrast to the rest of the team who just want to complete the mission to live another day. For Peacemaker, there is the sense that he is in for reasons that hint Gunn is looking to say something more.
To elaborate further would be to rob the film of its impact, but the most clear parallel I can think of would be to the fantastic series The Boys. Yes, they both have gore and swearing, though it goes far deeper than that. What set The Boys apart was how it truly looked at how “superheroes” would be used for ill intentions in the world. Most centrally, it revealed the way power and governmental structures would most certainly use those with abilities to serve their own ends. While The Suicide Squad is not quite to that level, it clearly is grasping at something more, and approaching the genre’s prevailing idealogy with a critical eye. That eye just also happens to be frequently splattered with an abundance of blood, bright colors, and expertly constructed sequences that make it one of Gunn’s best works yet.
You can see The Suicide Squad in theaters starting this evening, and on HBO Max this Friday, August 6.