James Gunn’s R-rated take on the doomed supervillain team is one of DC’s very best
Back when acclaimed Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn was fired by Marvel Studio, rival superhero competitor DC snatched the filmmaker up and (in a rare move) gave him near complete creative control over their new Suicide Squad movie. The original 2016 film, directed by David Ayer, was a box office hit but received a considerable beating from critics and even fans, which was certainly a factor in DC’s decision to seek out a change of pace.
Gunn’s film is technically a sequel – characters like Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller, and Joel Kinnaman’s Rick Flag all return – but it also serves as a standalone film / soft reboot on its own. New characters include Bloodsport (Idris Elba), who is basically just a reworked version of Will Smith’s Deadshot from the previous film, albeit this time around his daughter hates his guts. John Cena also stars in possibly his best film role as Peacemaker, a far more brutal and jingoistic version of Captain America.
The plot remains largely the same. Government official Amanda Waller enlists incarcerated supervillains to act as black ops squads for top secret missions – should they refuse to comply, Waller simply presses a button that detonates a bomb implanted in the back of their necks. If they miraculously manage to survive and complete the missions, they’ll get time taken off their prison sentences. For this particular operation, Waller puts together a group that includes Bloodsport, Peacemaker, Rick Flag, Harley Quinn, a quiet and bizarre loner called Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), and a young woman who can control rats named Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior). Oh, and there’s also a giant anthropomorphic shark known as Nanaue played by Steve Agee and voiced by none other than Sylvester Stallone.
This gang of deadly weirdos is sent to the South American island of Corto Maltese in order to destroy a mysterious laboratory that holds something known as “Project Starfish”. The Suicide Squad takes a good amount of aesthetic from war movies, like its opening scene of a botched assault on the beach and its later sequences set in a ravaged city, but the numerous over-the-top deaths are played more for laughs than anything else. Gunn’s film is very, very funny and the surprise R-rating allows for more crass ridiculousness than usual. Some of the humor is self-aware, others feel like riffs on the superhero genre itself, and the rest embraces the obvious goofy, Troma-influenced violence that Gunn is going for. It’s basically a splatterfest with heart.
That beating heart of the film largely comes from Hollywood newcomer Daniela Melchior, who understands that Ratcatcher 2 is the source of empathy that holds the story together. The Suicide Squad might be a bit too outrageous to tug on the heartstrings quite as efficiently as Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, but some moments do genuinely feel emotionally resonant amongst all the blood, guts and jokes. A large amount of the credit has to go to the immensely talented cast, who deftly weave their way between slapstick humor, intense action, and tragic drama, but it’s Gunn’s script that proves to be the real deciding factor between the quality of the 2016 film and this new one. It’s a vast improvement.
This kind of direction for DC – more standalone, adult-oriented stories – is a welcome change after a slew of disappointing films and a sorely mishandled cinematic universe. The proof is here that these characters, even the relatively unknown ones, are capable of carrying their own movies and becoming fan favorites when put in the hands of filmmakers that have a genuine love for them. It’s arguably the strongest of all the recent DC films so far, and a hopeful sign that the studio has a brighter future ahead.
‘The Suicide Squad’ is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max through August.