Deadly, but In an Amusing Way

The Suicide Squad (2021)

When it comes to the DC Extended UniverseStarted as DC Comics' answer to the MCU, the early films in the franchise stumbled out of the gates, often mired in grim-dark storytelling and the rushed need to get this franchise started. Eventually, though, the films began to even out, becoming better as they went along. Still, this franchise has a long way to go before it's true completion for Marvel's universe. very few of the early films in the run are well loved. None of them, though, had the tortured production history of Suicide Squad. That film, directed by Davis Ayers, went through three different cuts -- his version, a mangled version done by the people that made the trailer, and a third studio version that mashed up everything. The director has been quite explicit in saying that the version put out in theaters is not his "vision" at all. Fair or not to the director (he does have some good films under his belt, like Training Day, but he did also make Bright), the first attempt at a DCEU Suicide Squad film ended up as an absolutely disaster. It is watchable in its own ways, a guilty pleasure of sorts, but it's far from good.

Enter James Gunn. We talked previous about Disney firing the director over (in fairness, pretty off-color) jokes he'd made years before on Twitter ad then scrubbed at some point. He seemed very contrite about what he'd said back then and issued a number of apologies, but Disney still took him off (the still, at that time, nascent) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. That was all the incentive Warner Bros. needed, though, as they didn't much care about things in Gunn's past so long as he'd truly moved on and made amends. They snatched him up and essentially gave him carte blanche to make whatever movie he wanted next for them. His decision: another stab at the Suicide Squad.

Gunn taking on the Suicide Squad makes a certain amount of sense. He'd taken a little known Marvel property, the Guardians of the Galaxy, and essentially made them into the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. version of the Suicide Squad, so him coming over to DC Comics and handling the "source material" made a certain amount of sense. Everyone was hyped for what Gunn could do with a studio that didn't care so much about being "family friendly" and, as far as their movies were concerned (for good or ill) was positioned to be the "anti-Disney" when it came to superhero films. This seemed like the perfect fit for studio and director, the right way to relaunch the DCEU going forward.

In practice, Gunn's new version, titled The Suicide Squad, feels like a merger of two themes: his work on Guardians of the Galaxy and his time spent as a director for the low-budget studio Troma. This film is crass, gross, and completely not what you'd expect if all you knew of the director's works was his two Guardians films. And yet it fits perfectly within his oeuvre when compared to films like Slither or Super. This is a dark, grungy, funny but also disgusting, and absolutely not appropriate for children film that somehow still ties itself into the DCEU. What I struggle to figure out, though, is if its actually any good.

The film opens with Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) landing on the beach of Corto Maltese with his team of supervillains forced to fight on the side of good as part of Taskforce X. This team includes Harley QuinnCreated to serve as "Joker's Girlfriend" as well as his primary minion for Batman: The Animated Series, Harley Quinn quickly grew to be one of the most popular characters of that show, eventually finding a solid life beyond the cartoon in comics, movies, and media. (Margot Robbie), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Savant (Michael Rooker), Blackguard (Pete Davidson), T.D.K. (Nathan Fillion), Javelin (Flula Borg), Mongal (Mayling Ng), and Weasel (Sean Gunn) -- so they can infiltrate the Corto Maltese island and get an piece of alien kit out of their highly secure research base, Jotunheim. Sadly, they're immediately betrayed and most of the team does, indeed, die (as their name would imply). Thankfully, Taskforce X overseer, Amanda Waler (Viola Davis), had a second team on the ground: Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Peacemaker (John Cena), King Shark (Sylvester Stallone), Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), and Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior).

On the island the plan doesn't go exactly as they'd expect. Finding out that Flag is still alive (captured by Corto Maltese freedom fighters), Team B first has to go and rescue him. Then they find out tat Harley Quinn is still alive, too, so she gets added to the list. Plus they have to find a way into Jotunheim, and that requires kidnapping the base's leader, The Thinker (Peter Capaldi). And once they get in, well, they're in for a big surprise indeed. It's going to be one hell of a bloodbath and, appropriately, most of the team won't be alive by the time the credits roll on this adventure.

In a lot of ways this film works exactly as you'd expect from James Gunn (director of Slither as well as Guardians of the Galaxy). It has the hallmarks of his directorial sense: crude humor mixed in with big action; gross moments that make you squirm, followed by interesting character beats; team building that then is followed by that team being tested almost immediately. Gunn is in his element here and the movie flows with an assured tone and pace. This is, I'm sure, the exactly what Warners wanted when they brought the director into the DCEU fold.

At he same time, though, something is missing from this movie. Say what you will about the original DCEU Suicide Squad but it did have a great sense of its characters. Those characters might have sucked but it did give you plenty of fodder to understand them and knew who they were when they got on the team. Due to the larger cast of characters (most of whom, yes, die), this sort-of-side story doesn't invest as heavily with its characters as the previous film (even though most of the cast is new). Even when it does give you time with them, its in fleeting flashes or in moments that make them hard to like (like Bloodsport yelling at his daughter between the prison windows).

Some of the characters are more interesting than others. Ratcatcher 2, for instance, has a pet rat (named Sebastian) that's adorable as hell and you like her because she seems sweet and nice and cares about her rats. What you never learn is why, exactly, she's in the prison for dangerous supervillains or why she had to be put on Taskforce X. We never learn much about Peacemaker other than his talk about "Liberty" and "Justice" and his back-story remains a complete mystery. The characters that fare best in the film are Polka-Dot Man, simply because we get some development of him and he's played remarkably well by Dastmalchian, and Harley Quinn, and that's because we've already spent two previous movies with her.

Watching The Suicide Squad, I was entertained by their shenanigans and I laughed at the crude humor and awful things that were happening, but I didn't actually invest in anything that was going on. There are too many heroes in the film and that needed to be pared back (even more than just killing half the team in the first five minutes) but there are also too many villains. There's Waller (who's a villain no matter what she might say), the current President of Corto Maltese, his General, and the Thinker (not to mention their science experiment that I won't spoil her but totally was spoiled in the trailers). Because of this, none of the villains (not even Thinker, who is a pretty high-up member of The FlashStruck by lightning while working in his lab, Barry Allen became a speedster known as The Flash, launching an entire set of super-fast superheroes.'s rogues gallery) get enough development that you want to know more about them (let alone care if they succeed in their evil plans or even, for the most part, tell one of them from the next). Without anyone to invest in, good or evil, I just didn't really care if anyone actually won.

It sucks because there's a lot of fun being had in this film. All its crassness, gross-out humor, and foul language works to delight and entertain the lizard brain. This film has a big climax that ends in probably one of the nastiest villain defeats I've ever seen. It's all just a huge, horrible, awesome delight and I really wanted to enjoy it at a base level. But as someone that expects something more than just lizard-brain entertainment I found myself wanting here. There's a lot going on in this film but the substance is missing from the bones.

The Suicide Squad is a very loud, very big, very crass sight to behold and can enjoy it for all of those reasons. But as a movie that showed the versatility of the director, that illustrated why Warner Bros. needed Gunn for their films, and just how the studio (and, presumably, the director) were going to relaunch the DCEU, this film is lacking. It's a shallow, if fun, entertainment but way too much pressure is on this film to be more. If this had come out in the middle of a twenty film arc that was assured and comfortable and needed something to shake up the formula I think this film would work as-is. But as a film that had to help the shaky DCEU stand up and maybe, for the first time, finally take one assured step towards glory, The Suicide Squad just doesn't have what it takes. It's amusing, but fleeting, and it just doesn't hold a candle to even what Gunn was doing over in the MCU.