April 2024

The Suicide Squad (2021)

DIRECTOR: James Gunn

CAST: Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Daniela Melchior, David Dastmalchian, Peter Capaldi, Alice Braga, Sylvester Stallone (voice)


With The Suicide Squad (with a “The” tacked on to differentiate it from David Ayer’s sporadically entertaining but scattershot 2016 hot mess), James Gunn has become the second high-profile Marvel director to moonlight in the DCEU, and fortunately his DC detour is more successful than Joss Whedon’s misbegotten Justice League. In fact, while not entirely escaping some of the flaws of its predecessor, Gunn’s rendition of the titular squad of supervillains is enough of an improvement over Ayer’s that it’s possible to disregard the previous film’s existence (this one exists in a vague unspecified territory between a loose sequel and a quasi-reboot, and features a few returning characters and actors, but no previous events are directly referenced, so familiarity with the “first” movie isn’t necessary to enjoying this one). Gunn delivers the same quirky, breezy tone that helped make his Guardians of the Galaxy so popular, but combined with his warped, blackly comical, and often gory tendencies now being given free rein by an R rating that Disney/Marvel would never have allowed. This isn’t a movie for the kids, but for adults who aren’t squeamish, it’s flawed but a blast of wild irreverent fun.

Like the previous installment, we follow the further misadventures of “Task Force X”, a.k.a. “The Suicide Squad”, a gang of incarcerated supervillains recruited for a suicidal mission in exchange for early release, and assembled by shady black ops director Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), who’s arguably the most ruthless person in the movie (as before, she’s implanted tiny explosives to blow the heads off anyone who tries to abandon the mission, and removes any doubt early in the movie that she’s not afraid to use them). This time around, most of the team are different faces (no Will Smith), although wackadoodle Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and stalwart team leader Captain Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) are still onhand, joined by newbies elite assassin Bloodsport (Idris Elba), the trigger-happy, inappropriately-named Peacemaker (John Cena), the nerdy Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), who suffers from an “interdimensional virus” that enables him to shoot polka dots at people (it’s more lethal than it sounds), man-shark hybrid Nanaue (voiced by Sylvester Stallone), who’s friendly until he gets hungry, and Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), who seems harmless but has the nasty power of commanding an army of rats. Their mission: infiltrate the (fictional) Caribbean island of Corto Maltese, which has recently been taken over by the newly-installed President (Juan Diego Botto) and his General sidekick (Joaquin Cosio), who have now gained control of “Project Starfish”, a mysterious superweapon housed in the military base Jotunheim (no relation to the Asgardian realm). To this end, the Squad must kidnap Jotunheim’s lead scientist The Thinker (Peter Capaldi), force him to help them infiltrate the base, and destroy Project Starfish. Needless to say, everything doesn’t go smoothly.

This represents a triumphant return for James Gunn, who was eagerly snapped up by DC after his short-lived firing by Disney over past controversial tweets (the day after being hired by DC, Gunn was also reinstated by Disney as director of the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy 3). Reportedly, DC gave Gunn a fairly free hand, allowing him to adapt any DC comic property he chose (it initially offered him Superman, but Gunn preferred the Suicide Squad) and allowing him to kill off any characters he wanted. Considering that the Suicide Squad is DC’s answer to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s only natural that they’ve now ended up being helmed by the same man. The Squad is a good fit for Gunn’s warped, darkly comic sensibilities, now given free rein by an R rating. The same group dynamic, quirky humor, and busy soundtrack that Gunn brought to the Guardians is also on display here, but blood and violence flows freely in a way it’s hard to imagine Disney ever allowing, to an almost cartoonish, Tarantino-esque extent (in fact, the best fight scene, featuring Harley Quinn singlehandedly massacring a mansion’s worth of soldiers, recalls Uma Thurman’s battle with the Crazy 88’s in Kill Bill). Faces get blown off and throats slashed, people are swallowed whole by a man-shark, and heads explode at a push of Viola Davis’ finger. It’s also the kind of movie where it doesn’t pay to get too attached to some of the characters, and isn’t afraid to flout predictability and expectations (SPOILER WARNING Michael Rooker, for example, gets a colorful introduction, then does nothing and dies early). The final boss “villain” Starro—a giant alien starfish—manages to simultaneously be both ridiculous and frightening, with even a semi-tragic backstory. None of this is ever taken too seriously, and Gunn finds comedy in the gleeful carnage. While a lot of the action is undistinguished in and of itself, the movie provides plenty of laughs (albeit often of the dark, gallows variety), more in fact than many straight comedies. This is not a comic book movie to bring small children to (although one can imagine it being popular with teenagers).

Where to Watch 'the Suicide Squad' Online: Stream the Movie on HBO Max

As in her other appearances in the role, Margot Robbie dives right in playing Harley Quinn with bubbly, maniacal glee, although the ensemble doesn’t let her steal the show to quite the same extent as Birds of Prey. Idris Elba is an able “straight man”, even if he’s a thinly-veiled replacement for Will Smith, and it shows (originally, Elba was a recasting of Smith’s Deadshot, but eventually Gunn made minor tweaks to the script to change him to a different character). His appearance here puts Elba, along with several other cast members, in the position of now having appeared in both the Marvel and DC cinematic universes (although his role here is bigger than as the gate guardian Heimdall in the Thor trilogy). Elba butts heads enjoyably with John Cena’s dense—and inappropriately-named—Peacemaker, who might be the most nonchalantly bloodthirsty member of the Squad (Gunn described the character as a “douchey Captain America”). Joel Kinnaman reprises his role as team ringleader Rick Flag, as does Viola Davis in full ice queen mode as the Machiavellian Amanda Waller, who is arguably more “villainous” than the villains she’s recruiting. Lesser-known Daniela Melchior winds up being the heart of the film (insofar as it has one) as the rodent-commanding Ratcatcher 2, while David Dastmalchian is the tragicomic Polka-Dot Man (with his breakout role as a deranged Joker goon in The Dark Knight, a supporting role in Ant-Man, and now this, Dastmalchian has gone from DC to Marvel and back again). Sylvester Stallone provides the few utterances of King Shark, the Suicide Squad’s answer to Groot, who’s somewhere between cute and a little frightening (he has some cutesy Groot-esque moments, but in keeping with the edgier R-rating, also a penchant for devouring people whole), although his voice is almost unrecognizable. Various familiar faces pop up in bit parts, including Jai Courtney briefly reprising his role as Captain Boomerang, along with Peter Capaldi, Alice Braga (as the leader of the Corto Maltese rebels with whom the Squad joins forces), Michael Rooker (among various actors here now appearing in both DC and the MCU), Pete Davidson, Nathan Fillion, Flula Borg, Sean Gunn as the CGI Weasel (sharp-eyed viewers might notice he also cameos “in the flesh” as Belle Reve inmate Calendar Man), and Taika Waititi as Ratcatcher 1. Sharp-eyed viewers might notice another Gunn collaborator, Pom Klementieff, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2‘s Mantis, as a dancer in a nightclub.

While more competently-crafted than its predecessor, The Suicide Squad doesn’t entirely escape some of its flaws. There’s some awkward self-indulgence, and some jokes that are forced or gags that don’t quite work. The movie’s few attempts at injecting a little “heart” sometimes feel mawkish and perfunctory. But while imperfect, The Suicide Squad joins Shazam and Wonder Woman 1984 as growing evidence that the DCEU is moving beyond the shaky foundations laid by Zack Snyder’s dreary vision (although Snyder remains credited as an executive producer), and demonstrates that it’s possible to combine an edgy R-rating with enough action and comedy to still be crowd-pleasing. If one was left with doubts about the Suicide Squad’s return to the screen after their first cinematic outing, Gunn taking over the reins should allay them.

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