As a twist on the superhero format, 2016’s Suicide Squad had plenty working in its favor. Add a couple of movie stars to increase the profile of some less-than-familiar supervillains, and a surefire hit may have been on its way. Well, that’s not exactly what took place. While a financial success, the film’s theatrical cut was compromised for various reasons resulting in a final product I would call embarrassing for a major studio release. Five years later, we now have The Suicide Squad from writer/director James Gunn, and the resulting feature is a total 180 change in direction. Thanks to a much clearer vision, this remarkably strong comic book movie pulls no punches in its attempts at pitch-black comedy, gory violence, and a total sense of irreverence matching up to a level of heart that is nicely earned. The Suicide Squad is the best DC comics film I’ve seen in quite some time.
Rather than relying on multiple intros for the same few characters and a long list of far too on-the-nose needle drops to over-explain a simple premise, this entry pretty much drops the audience right into the action. Viola Davis’ is back as the tough-as-nails, no-nonsense Amanda Waller. Using shady tactics, she recruits the worst of the worst supervillains for Task Force X, a team assembled to complete suicide missions in exchange for reduced prison sentences. If anyone tries to escape, a small bomb planted inside their skulls will explode. This time around, the Suicide Squad has been tasked to destroy all evidence of a secret government project on the island of Corto Maltese.
This is an ensemble movie, and it would appear Gunn had plenty of thoughts on which characters from DC Comics history fit into this film while staying true to John Ostrander’s tone for the 1980s Suicide Squad comics. A big part of the success of this cast is matching the different energies of everyone. Idris Elba plays Bloodsport, a mercenary with advanced weapons and deadly accuracy. For the role, Elba’s attitude is to behave as though he could easily complete this mission, does not want to do it, but will anyway. It’s a fine counter to a never-better John Cena as Peacemaker, an aggressive killer who desires peace at any cost, making him essentially a dude-bro version of Captain America.
It would be a chore to list all of the other characters featured (there are many supporting players), but the core group also includes a returning Joel Kinnaman as Rick Flag, field leader of the Suicide Squad, and now equipped with a better sense of humor. Relative newcomer Daniela Melchior shines as the most emotionally centered and constantly tired character, Ratcatcher 2 (think of her as a Portuguese Pied Piper). David Dastmalchian is wonderfully weird as Polka-Dot Man, one of the silliest DC characters who is now a key player in a major motion picture. And Sylvester Stallone voices King Shark, an anthropomorphized great white shark who is as dumb as a goldfish.
On top of all of this, Margot Robbie once again returns as Harley Quinn, seemingly doing all she can to make up for the first film by giving her all in 2020’s Birds of Prey and now this film. Given how the story factors Harley into the film, I enjoyed how Robbie has maintained a level of continuity for the character, showing how she’s grown over the course of three films. This is also a gateway to pointing out just how much Gunn gets right in terms of successfully incorporating action and humor.
Gunn has a firm handle on framing his visuals, as shown with his Guardians of the Galaxy films. It’s not that the fights have fantastic choreography, but audiences get a clear read on all that’s happening in a given scene thanks to deliberate shot choices and an editing rhythm that is not attempting to sabotage all the work done to set up these action beats. It’s also an incredibly varied and stylish film when looking at how many different locations, fighting styles, and other elements allow the film to never feel repetitive. Harley gets a key sequence where her gunfight begins to come alive with animated floral arrangements to evoke the craziness inside of her head. Another set-piece relies on the rain to come into play and give multiple characters big IMAX-friendly moments.
Speaking of IMAX, large-scale destruction comes into play heavily in the third act, but it’s not only well-designed, but it’s also far from being overlong or too overwhelming. Some clever choices in revealing specific narrative turns let the film feel very directed in a good way, for one thing, but the resulting chaos never lets the film get away from its own spirit. Instead, all attempts to build on certain characters and ideas come together in very satisfying ways while still being violent and eventually quite gross.
That is the touch that Gunn brings to a project like this. While the filmmaker obviously made a bigger name for himself thanks to his MCU credits, this is absolutely the guy who made the bleak horror-comedy Slither and the bizarro non-superhero vigilante film Super. With an R-rating and a huge budget, this feels like Gunn letting it all out. He essentially has the means to do anything and happily plays into the anarchic spirit of a film about a bunch of villains doing things on their terms.
Whether it’s about Bloodsport and Peacemaker trying to one-up each other, King Shark going on a feeding frenzy, or whatever it is that Polka-Dot Man does, the attempts to add a macabre level of comedy to everything never fades in terms of enjoyment. Even Davis gets her chance to have fun, balancing incredibly dry one-liners and frustrations seeping through, as she and her crew monitor the squad.
Again, The Suicide Squad feels like a singular vision that’s been brought to life. When considering how much the plot can meander and how little some of the actors have to go on, the mischievousness Gunn brings to the material elevates it so high. Big laughs are accompanied by solid action beats. Jokes set up early on not only pay off well in the kaiju-infused finale but build into emotional moments shared between the characters. It’s all so great.
Regardless of whatever the intended idea was for David Ayer’s original cut of Suicide Squad, it’s wild to think the DC film intended to be their version of Guardians of the Galaxy backfired so spectacularly, only to have the director of those Guardians films come in and fix it. It’s a much different result compared to bringing in Avengers’ Joss Whedon to redo a Zack Snyder film. That’s a good thing too, as the continued push toward singular DC stories guided by the visions of specific filmmakers has allowed for some pretty strong results in recent years. For The Suicide Squad, just by taking this misshapen lump of awful villains and doing something different with it has led to an exquisite final product.