Back in 2016, David Ayer’s Suicide Squad was one of my most anticipated films of the year, I remember going to see it with a group of friends in the cinema and hyping up how great it was going to be, until it started. Now I do feel somewhat sorry for David Ayer with the information that has come out since then regarding studio interference and butchering of his film, but if you read my review of the 2016 effort, which you can read here, you’ll know that I still think it’s awful. Fast forward to 2021, and thanks to James Gunn I was actually excited for another Suicide Squad, I still had my reservations, but if you had told me that 5 years ago I would never have believed you, and if you had said that I’d actually enjoy a Suicide Squad sequel I definitely wouldn’t have believed you.
That’s right, you read correctly; The Suicide Squad is good! And frankly it’s easily the most unique, out-there and daring comic book movie that we’ve seen come out of DC or Marvel since the start of the DCEU & MCU. While James Gunn already took the MCU to new territories with Guardians of the Galaxy, and took its own brand of weirdness and identity further with the sequel, The Suicide Squad is James Gunn operating without creative limitations in all of the best ways. But unfortunately, for me, the film still retains some drawbacks, enough so that I struggle to call the film great.
Serving as a pseudo-sequel, The Suicide Squad follows the titular band of anti-heroes grouping up again under the leadership Viola Davis’s Amanda Waller, who sends the returning Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), to a South American island of Corto Maltese on a black-ops mission to take down Jotunheim, a Nazi-era prison which is used for experiments on political dissidants and the scientist in charge of it’s operations; the Thinker (Peter Capaldi). Alongside the returning members, we’re introduced to new additions to the team; Bloodsport (Idris Elba), a trained killer and expert marksman (think Will Smith’s Deadshot from the first film, but they make an on-the nose joke about the similarities so it’s fine), Peacemaker (John Cena), a jingoistic trained soldier and expert marksman (yes this is where the on-the nose joke comes from), King Shark (Sylvester Stallone), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchoir), Savant (Michael Rooker), Mongal (Mayling Ng), Weasal (Sean Gunn), Blackguard (Pete Davidson), T.D.K (Nathan Fillion), and Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian).
While it shouldn’t be a spoiler that not all of these character’s survive to the end credits, this is also one of my biggest criticisms of the film; which comes from the lack of agency and threat posed to the characters. Throughout the film it’s abundantly clear who is surviving, and while there’s always going to be characters who are less expendable than others, for the majority of the film it never felt like there was any risk or chance of a surprise death, especially after the way the film opens. Which left the film just feeling like a regular Superhero team-up film with morally-gray characters, which sure it’s nice to see vulgar superheroes killing without remorse, it felt too adjacent to The Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy for it to feel interesting for a lot of the time. Don’t get me wrong, the characters are great and their banter and brutal violence definitely adds a different vibe to what we’ve seen so far in these universes, it felt like a missed opportunity in the way this film is structured.
My other biggest criticism, and it’s the fault of the marketing, is that Peter Capaldi is not the real villain of the film, narratively he very much is, but the “reveal” (that we’ve seen in the trailer, and in the giant statute they revealed in London) is Starro the conqueror, a giant telepathic starfish that serves as the climactic villain. Starro is great, and showcases some of the best visual effects I’ve ever seen in a comic-book movie in recent memory, but this results in Capaldi being completely wasted. He’s set-up to be the antagonist but even when he’s present he doesn’t do much and is only there really to provide an exposition dump as the film heads into the final act. Even the Thinker’s brain plugs aren’t even explained as to what they are, sure it’s not a major thing but it was a real let-down especially considering that Capaldi’s off-the-wall style would have been perfect if used better in the film.
But despite these issues, The Suicide Squad is an incredibly fun film. The action is bombastic and gory in all the right ways, at times it feels like a polished Troma film, the company where Gunn got his first start in the industry; with faces being blown off, the gruesome after-effects of the human experiments, and the piles of bodies that the Squad leave in their wake all make the film worthy of it’s higher age rating while still retaining a comic-book feeling. This continues to the final battle which culminates in a fantastically skin-crawling moment that encapsulates the humour and style of the film wonderfully. All the core characters have really great character arcs, Harley Quinn especially has a great continuation from Birds of Prey which feels very natural and true to her character without sacrificing her flamboyency, and Idris Elba really excels in his role and encapsulates the “straight-man” role while still having fun with his character and the others. John Cena, for me, is the real surprise of the film, while I know he’s received good reviews in other film ventures he’s been part of I’ve never seen any of them but he brings his natural charisma to the screen while also fully embracing his role to full effect.
While I’m sure I’m not going to have liked The Suicide Squad as much as many others will, and I fully expect to see it topping lots of “best Comic Book Movies of all time” lists, what I do hope is that it ushers in a wake-up call to DC and Marvel to allow their directors to do the unexpected, to embrace the cartoonishness of comic books, and to give them creative freedom. While DC, following Birds of Prey and this, seem to already be taking this direction, but following The Falcon and the Winter Soldier mini-series and the recently released Black Widow, the heavy-handed imprint of the Marvel system is more present than ever, but what Gunn has done with The Suicide Squad really opens the door of what these films could, and should, be doing going forward.