We all know of James Gunn’s ignominious fall from grace. He went from shock-jock provocateur in his Troma days, which curiously led to him scripting the live-action Scooby Doo, followed by the Dawn of the Dead remake; he directed his own horror genre mash-up in Slither, proceeded to indict vigilantes and superheroes with his twisted indie Super, and then was handed the reins of an obscure Marvel franchise to call his own. Gunn’s career read like the unlikeliest of success stories.
Studio gigs are a dream come true for upcoming filmmakers because there’s an assurance to the work that doesn’t exist in independent filmmaking. If a director can meet all of the studio’s requirements for bringing in bankable stars, appealing to a PG-13 audience, merchandising and marketing, etc., then the studio will bankroll your “vision” and stand by you in both success and failure, supposedly. It’s the very assurance that Steven Spielberg had when Universal Studios secured him as a young talent through a multi-picture contract.
It seemed like Disney had Gunn’s back when Guardians 3 was announced months before Vol. 2 came out. And then they dumped him. I mention this because it’s the first time since entering the studio system that Gunn might have felt expendable—and perhaps why he was drawn to this expendable group of heroes.
None of this is literal context in The Suicide Squad, though it is a HUGE selling point for Warner Bros: “From the horribly beautiful mind of James Gunn.” In the opening minutes alone, it’s hard not to feel like Gunn is unleashing some of that inner turmoil to the tune of a raucous, unhinged comic book coming to life.
The Suicide Squad begins with a fake out. We meet the team we think will get the job done. We’re introduced to new characters like Savant, Blackguard, TDK, Javelin, Mongal, Weasel, and reacquainted with returning faces like Colonel Rick Flag, Captain Boomerang, and the indomitable Harley Quinn. But more than half of them will NOT survive the storming of the beach. It starts off Saving Private Ryan and Apocalypse Now then curdles into Deadpool 2’s X-Force scene. It’s both unexpected and yet, part of the dispensable trade, isn’t it? They’re the Suicide Squad; they’re not supposed to make it. And when the ranks fall, there’s another rag-tag motley crew to take their place.
That’s when we meet the real team in Bloodsport, Peacemaker, Ratcatcher 2, King Shark, and Polka-Dot Man. Gunn sure chose an eclectic bunch, but don’t get too attached to them either. The first 10 minutes are primed to piss off DC die-hards. The deaths are shocking, but also kind of exhilarating. In a day and age where every superhero gets their own trilogy or limited series, it’s refreshing to see characters get stripped of any plot armor, even if they die in exceedingly gruesome fashion. Their demises early on lend genuine weight to the rest of the movie because for once we’re not entirely sure who will make it to the end.
David Ayer’s Suicide Squad barely exists in the periphery here. (If you never saw it, congratulations!) What matters is that you know the setup: director Amanda Waller drafts from DC’s terrible, no good, very bad criminals of Belle Reve Penitentiary to carry out morally questionable missions in exchange for reduced sentences.
Ayer saw a dark and gritty corner of DC to flesh out and I don’t blame him because that’s what he does best. Warner Bros. kinda forgot that while they were copying and pasting Guardians of the Galaxy to the point of having a similar jukebox soundtrack. Who better to actually pull that off than the purveyor himself?
You can spot the trademarks from Marvel’s space opera, but Gunn succeeds simply by injecting all of the colors, the vibrancy, and sheer lunacy back into the premise. With the R-rating as the cherry on top, Gunn paints in such overt comic book strokes that would make pioneer Sam Raimi green goblin-like with envy. Gunn rewinds the movie at times, going back minutes or days prior for more context. Some might groan, but it’s a staple of comic book panels that stopped abruptly and revisited the same span of time through a new POV.
Rick Flag may be a returning player, but he’s already given so much more life as a character with Joel Kinnaman matching some excellent deadpan wit. You can also sense the spring in Viola Davis’ step; Waller now feels firmly like DC’s answer to Nick Fury. And Margot Robbie’s Harley is an alternate universe away from the boyfriend-obsessed Joker cheerleader we first met in 2016, and is very in-step with Christina Hodson’s penmanship in Birds of Prey almost like a mini-sequel for the Brooklynite court jester.
A fucked-up ensemble needs a fucked-up playground to let loose, and Gunn has crafted a near-nihilistic sandbox full of collateral damage. But don’t mistake this for glorification or a tacit endorsement. Amidst the chaos and body parts flying, Gunn slyly wields something critical to say. The island of Corto Maltese is basically a stand-in for every country America has meddled with and left worse off. Yes, the body count is A LOT of soldiers and civilians, but Gunn isn’t mocking genocide so much as he is critiquing American foreign policy.
“Typical Americans, you come in guns blazing,” says a rebel faction leader. The stark, hangar-wide American flag at the beginning of the movie may as well be a major red flag. What else do a bunch of operatives invading a foreign country look like other than a massive overreach of blanketed authority? The Corto Maltese dictators may be the literal targets of Task Force X, but director Waller is far more monstrously capable if you recall what she did in the first Suicide Squad. She’s the one who’s callously withholding, the one pulling the strings as she gets others to clean up the government’s mess. That’s the caveat three-quarters of the way; the squad wasn’t sent in to save lives, but to keep America’s culpability a secret.
OF COURSE Superman or Batman wouldn’t be tasked for the job; it would go against their moral judgement, whereas this rotten wild bunch doesn’t have any. This is about immoral people trapped in an immoral game, and further, using villains to expose the villainy of unchecked political power.
And boy, do I mean immoral. Peacemaker is the definition of a violent patriot, willing to kill as many people necessary to achieve peace. (The real Captain America, basically.) While Polka-Dot Man has perhaps the most breathtaking Oedipus complex I’ve seen in a comic book movie, and actor David Dastmalchian commits very hard to the comedic bit. The Suicide Squad is consistently funnier than its DC brethren combined. It’s the most I’ve laughed all year. I wouldn’t blame you if you labeled this a comedy first, superhero movie second.
Idris Elba’s Bloodsport will test the line of likability for the audience – a man very good at killing AND a worthless father to top it off. Elba makes Bloodsport’s antihero scrappiness every bit as compelling as some of his grounded television roles. It’s the kind of meaty, action-packed role that Elba has been yearning for. Because for all of Bloodsport’s personal failings, he’s still worthy of redemption somehow. This goes for all of James Gunn’s characters. They may be despicable, monstrous, and emotionally fractured, but they’re capable of something good. It might be a well-earned laugh. A heartrending moment or two. Or saving what’s left of a city’s populace.
King Shark is the perfect thesis here. Voiced by Sly Stallone, Nanaue is a character that’s straight up horrifying on the page. He eats people head to toe or severs their limbs and gnaws on it like cotton candy. He’s also quite lovable – a polar opposite that shouldn’t exist so casually but it does. This is coming from the guy who brought Rocket Raccoon and Groot to life, so it shouldn’t be surprising. I, however, can’t believe I’m ready to purchase a King Shark plushie.
Ratcatcher 2 is Gunn’s most impressive hat-trick by far. Her ability to control rats is an offbeat and seemingly throwaway one compared to her comrades, yet it proves resourceful at the end. The same could be said of Daniela Melchior’s runaway performance. The finale itself is SO DIZZYINGLY BATSHIT BONKERS INSANE that it would be a disservice to ruin it with words. You have to see the eye-popping absurdity to believe it. Gunn manages to thread Ratcatcher 2’s poignant origin story and unearths something beautiful about the character’s broken heart getting put back together again. John Murphy’s score is especially good here, paving the way for a rousing symphony of cartoonish spectacle (one that plays like a parody of The Avengers) and genuine human emotion.
The Suicide Squad is the superhero movie of the summer for me. I know that’s weird to say for someone who’s often critical of the superhero crop these days. More than anything I’ve been yearning for something different. As much as I love the MCU, Marvel is plainly guilty of making all their movies look and feel the same. The Suicide Squad is both the middle finger and ultra-violent shot of methamphetamine that the genre didn’t know it needed. Moreover, Gunn was somehow able to make a big budget Troma movie and got WB to foot the bill. Amazing.
Gimme creative title cards. Gimme comic book characters having sex. Gimme more heroes dying in the first act. If the DCEU felt like it was behind in the superhero game, then they’ve found a division where they’re radically ahead of the curve, exploding torsos and all.