DC finally recovers from its worst movie with a followup that leans into the irreverent comic-book mayhem of its source material (and its director).
In the last decade, there have been numerous shitty attempts to replicate the success of the Marvel Studios formula, but Suicide Squad (2016) may be the worst of the worst. Writer/director David Ayer’s dark and gritty tone clashed with the pop music-heavy trailers, marketing that included songs already used by – and meant to remind viewers of – Guardians of the Galaxy. In the end, the studio hired that same trailer company to re-cut the movie, which was released into theaters as an incomprehensible mess. Noticeably missing a “2” in its title, The Suicide Squad is essentially a 200 million dollar do-over. It’s the movie Warner Brothers should’ve made five years ago.
Like in Ayer’s version, “The Suicide Squad” is officially designated “Task Force X,” a top-secret program for incarcerated supervillains. In exchange for time off their sentences, teams of C-and-D-list DC characters are sent on dangerous, classified missions; they’re kept in line by director Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) and remote explosive devices implanted in their skulls. This time, Waller needs Task Force X to infiltrate and topple the (fictional) South American island nation of Corto Maltese, though I surely won’t spoil anything that happens after the team reaches its shores.
WB wanted a copy of Guardians of the Galaxy when they set up this franchise. Now they’ve cut out the middle-man by hiring the guy who made those movies: writer/director James Gunn, in the midst of an… unplanned hiatus from his Marvel contract. To his credit, Gunn doesn’t just play the hits – this isn’t a simple Guardians knock-off. Proudly sporting an R-rating, his take on this material is a little raunchier, a little sillier, and a little – wait, make that a lot – gorier.
But it’s Gunn’s mastery of the fundamentals that really matter. A ruthlessly efficient storyteller, he wastes no time introducing and establishing Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Savant (Michael Rooker), Peacemaker (John Cena), Ratcatcher (Daniela Melchior) Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) and King Shark (a giant, computer-generated shark man voiced by Sylvester Stallone). Instead of just throwing these characters on-screen, we get a good understanding of their perspectives and personalities, and in a way that makes sense. Gunn’s also able to incorporate the returning members of Task Force X – Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and Harley Quinn (the ever-excellent Margot Robbie) – without letting The Suicide Squad get bogged down in extended universe bullshit.
Proudly sporting an R-rating, his take on this material is a little raunchier, a little sillier, and a little – wait, make that a lot – gorier.
This mile-a-minute, constantly cross-cutting style can feel overstuffed, especially after two-plus hours. How much costumed ultraviolence is too much? Worse, the frames get greyer and greyer as the climax approaches – the over-the-top third act is mostly the color of concrete.
Thankfully, the strength of this ensemble always keeps the movie engaging. Elba makes a compelling protagonist: his motivations aren’t exactly unique (they’re nearly identical to Will Smith’s in the last one), but with his gruff swagger he’s an entertaining straight man. His performance keeps the story grounded even as the stakes rise and buildings fall. Unlike in F9, Cena gets a role that lets him flex his considerable comedic chops, while Robbie’s Harley remains one of the very best adaptations of a comic book character for the big screen.
From its opening scene, you get the sense that Gunn is trying to make something a little less predictable than the dozens of other superhero movies out there today (including the ones he’s directed). He doesn’t reinvent the wheel – The Suicide Squad doesn’t break through the barriers of its genre, but that doesn’t stop it from being a lot of fun. If its predecessor demonstrated the worst of modern blockbusters, Gunn’s version is a showcase for the crumbs of inspiration still able to slip through the cracks.
The Suicide Squad gets airdropped into theaters (and HBO Max) to cause some comic-book mischief on August 6th.