Over the last few years, the DC Extended Universe has seemingly – and finally – come into its own. With dud after dud from Batman v. Superman to Justice League, the ship really feels like its been righted, thanks to the overwhelming success of Wonder Woman, Birds of Prey, and Shazam!. There’s still a misstep or two to be had (*COUGH Wonder Woman 1984 COUGH*), but for the most part, DC has truly hit its stride.
The latest example of this is The Suicide Squad, differentiated from 2016’s Suicide Squad by the addition of the word, “the,” and the fact that it’s really fucking good, mostly because it’s crystal clear that with James Gunn at the helm, you can tell that actual effort was put into the project, rather than the DCEU’s previous business model, which apparently was, “Throw whatever bullshit together that you can and sell it like it’s the greatest thing ever, which hopefully will bring OUR fanboys out in force to defiantly declare war on Marvel.”
Now, I didn’t hate the first movie, especially not as much as others in the critical press (for instance, despite the misfire, I actually think Jared Leto’s take on the Joker was a risky, unique interpretation), but it was littered with problems, from the unjustified spectacle that tried to force excitement without logic (what’s the point of flashcard exposition for the characters if we can’t read it), to the copy/paste giant beam in the sky climax, to Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller being a terrible villain, to basically everyone in the cast apart from Margot Robbie and Jai Courtney completely phoning in their performances. I’m all for style, but there has to be substance. Don’t just throw shit at the screen for the sake of it. Give it a purpose, even a flimsy one, and you have a much better chance of getting the audience to come along.
James Gunn, having injected some much-needed levity into the Marvel Cinematic Universe via the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, understands this principle, and as such, has given us a film that’s just as over-the-top as its predecessor, but with just enough heft behind it to make it all seem oddly reasonable. And more importantly, there’s just a greater sense of fun with this installment, with the able ensemble cast playing it like they’re doing more than cashing a paycheck.
In the fictional South American nation of Corto Maltese, Waller has once again assembled “Task Force X,” better known by its titular nickname, to quell a rebellion. She uses the same tactic used in the previous film, recruiting supervillains with the carrot and stick of a 10-year reduction in sentence and the threat of execution via explosives in their neck. The process is seen through the eyes of Savant, played by Michael Rooker, the first of many Guardians cameos throughout the film. In a bit of brilliant misdirection, there are double and triple crosses, leaving us with our core group for the film. It’s a super exciting bit of action, establishing a rule that no one is truly safe, not even Robbie’s delightful Harley Quinn (with her third character design in as many films, perfectly illustrating how she can evolve while also demonstrating her extremely mercurial nature). And even better, we get to see Pete Davidson get his face blown off. What’s not to love? I’d actually answer that question, but I’m doing my best to avoid spoilers in a movie where the plot just BEGS for them.
Our erstwhile protagonists eventually coalesce into the hilariously diverse team of Harley, Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman, one of the few returnees from the last film), Bloodsport (Idris Elba playing a better version of Will Smith’s Deadshot after Smith pulled out, but allowing for a future return), literal soldier of fortune Peacemaker (John Cena), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior, with Taika Waititi playing the first Ratcatcher in flashbacks), King Shark (Sylvester Stallone), and Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian). Their true objective is to stop the new government from making a weapon out of Starro, a giant, telepathic space starfish who assimilates people into its hive mind by launching its face-hugging offspring on the masses (Glory to Glorzo!). The plot is led by the villainous mastermind The Thinker, played by the 12th Doctor himself, Peter Capaldi. The adventure is filled with humor, well-executed action set pieces, and straight up gore. It cannot be said enough how funny some of these highly-graphic kills are.
Some of these disparate characters work well, and others not so much. For example, while Capaldi gives a great performance as Thinker, his design is ugly as sin, and not in a funny way. I can’t tell if the things on his head are electrical nodes or impossibly tight braids on an obvious bald cap. Similarly, Polka-Dot Man’s major quirk is that he sees his overbearing mother in the faces of all around him, which motivates him to break through at points for comedic effect, but other times just comes off as creepy. And as far as King Shark, Stallone has some fun with him, and there are some truly hilarious moments, like when he points to random dead minions and asks, “Num num?” of Ratcatcher 2, literally checking if they’re friend or foe and getting permission to eat them. But for me, I guess I just got too used to Ron Funches’ softer, more capable approach to the character on the animated Harley Quinn show to take him seriously as the burly dimwit Stallone does here (really it’s comedian Steve Agee, who plays one of Waller’s assistants, doing the stand-in work for King Shark on set, while the character is voiced by Stallone and Agee is covered in motion-capture CGI).
Still, this very odd group works with this weird bit of chemistry, even when they’re split up. Cena and Elba play off each other brilliantly, Robbie can lighten up any tension without resorting to cheap humor, and even the more minor characters can build just enough pathos to make you hope they aren’t as disposable as the team was last time out. Hell, even Rick Flagg gets to do more than scowl and dump exposition this time.
I think the reason it works is because this is a much deeper, more obscure roster than most mainstream audiences are used to. We all know Harley, sure, but Polka-Dot Man? I’d literally never heard of him before this movie. The same can be said for Ratcatcher 2. Hell, I only knew of Ratcatcher 1 because of a tossed off scene in the Harley Quinn cartoon. This is about as ragtag as you can get, which means the possibilities for plot and characterization are practically endless. This is also why the Guardians movies work so well within the MCU. They’re not the Avengers. They’re not the first heroes you think of when rattling off a list. But when the effort is put in to breathe life into these second- or third-tier characters, you can really make them pop, which for Polka-Dot Man’s powers is almost literal.
Compare that with the last movie, where you had fairly well-known DC villains like Deadshot and Killer Croc, and the movie gave them basically nothing to do in order to put more focus on Harley and Joker, even though Joker only had something like eight minutes of screen time. Killer Croc is an all-time favorite for fans, especially those who watched Batman: The Animated Series or played the Arkham video games. And when it came time to put him on the big screen, he was little more than a background character and was casually dispatched during the climax.
Here, there’s no real expectation other than that Harley is going to get some good moments to shine. Other than that, the sky’s the limit. Any of these relative no-names can be hero, villain, redeemer, backstabber, survivor, or cannon fodder. Nothing is off limits, and because of that, Gunn gives us all we can handle from each of them, be it a snappy one-liner, a kick-ass action sequence (Harley’s escape from the military regime’s prison is a thing of beauty, complete with animated flowers and butterflies substituting for the blood of her captors), or genuinely suspenseful injuries and deaths. It also doesn’t hurt that the producers weren’t afraid of an R-rating, so the violence and language feel much more realistic for these characters than the muted PG-13 of the first movie.
There are problems to be sure. Waller is still a wasted character that you spend the whole movie wishing she would die. Some of the CGI is much more believable than in other parts. Some of the action physics and ex machina conveniences definitely stretch the bounds of suspension of disbelief. Literally every main character has some form of daddy issue where the exposition takes up WAY too much time. Flula Borg only gets to be in the movie for five minutes. There are flaws.
But on the whole, this is a lot of fun because James Gunn knows how to deliver a memorable experience through the combination of unique visuals and humorous, well-developed misfits. He’s already proven his expertise in that regard, to the point that fans demanded he be reinstated to direct Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 after Disney got a woke pole stuck up its ass and temporarily fired him. It also can’t be overstated that expectations were much, much lower this time around due to the first film’s failure. Because of that, I and many others were just hoping for something passable. Gunn gave us so much more, because even in the most absurd moments, you can tell that he’s actually trying to make something out of nothing, just like the Task Force itself. And when that happens, we can not only appreciate it, but outright enjoy it.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Has this film redeemed the previous one in your eyes? What would you do if someone just handed you a javelin? Let me know!