How is James Gunn one of the only people that actually seems to know how to make a comic book movie feel like it was built out of a comic book? Sure, the excellent Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse did it, but it took making one of the most impressive animated movies in years. Writer/director Gunn, who’s hopped over to DC after making a pair of Guardians of the Galaxy movies for Marvel, achieves some of the same delirious multimedia fidelity in live-action with The Suicide Squad, his bombastic, silly and self-aware revisionist take on the super-group of screw-ups coerced into jobs too tough, dangerous and/or undesirable for the conventional wetworkers of our humble government.
Gunn’s action has such a clear and confident tone that it can pepper in filmmaking winks—like quick Bourne-like zooms when Task Force X director Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) plays God with the lives of costumed crooks from the safety of her command center—to add a little more visual flavor to its already over-the-top, R-rated, downright enjoyable adaptation.
He achieves this in part through things none of his source comics (mostly taking from John Ostrander’s definitive ‘80s run) could include: Some of the best needle drops in the business, gore like Troma gleefully remade Saving Private Ryan and F-bombs galore. But Gunn’s secret—aside from the fact that he’s the rare filmmaker that’s superhero script credits lack ampersands—is that he’s able to deploy these so effectively because he’s already snuck in the takeaways that made the comics dance in the imaginations of their readers: Bantery team-building; an ability to turn a newcomer fifth-stringer into your new favorite character; inventive chapter titles interspersed over splash page-like frames; and cartoony-yet-competent fights and design work that balances big colors, slick costumes and character VFX to toe the finely-inked line between hilariously overwrought and dramatically tangible. The latter elements were what the majority of the DC films (especially the first on-screen incarnation of the team in question) lacked. Garnishing all that with Gunn’s jokey juvenile flair is just a bonus.
Part of the joke is the sheer quantity of goofball Legion of Doom rejects shoved into the mix. Sure, you’ve got the familiarly chaotic clown-about-town Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, who’s by now thoroughly made the role her own), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) and straight-laced military man Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) alongside the new A-listers (John Cena’s Captain America pastiche, Peacemaker; Idris Elba’s gruff sharpshooter Bloodsport). But there’s a Golden Corral buffet of questionable riffraff introduced as well, including but not limited to: King Shark (Sylvester Stallone, channeling a dumber and hungrier Groot), Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), Blackguard (Pete Davidson) and a human-sized weasel (Sean Gunn). They’re all distinct and most of them are distinctly, joyfully hateable.
And over the course of The Suicide Squad’s solid tropical island action movie—one that’s politics are almost as sharply cynical as its true-to-source treatment of its protagonistic supervillains—Gunn isn’t afraid to dole out the kind of consequences that have mostly been relegated to the fun-poking, franchise-flouting realms of TV superhero meta-critiques like The Boys and Invincible. These aren’t unfamiliar to Suicide Squad readers, but they’re increasingly shocking, strange and bracing (not to mention fun!) to find in AAA studio movies. As the team moves from FUBAR beach operations on Corto Maltese to sabotaging its local lab’s super-science, actual tension develops—a rarity among The Suicide Squad’s contemporaries.
Because it has that tension, its performers and humor are allowed to break and exploit it. Robbie and Elba are clearly having a hell of a time, bristling with energy, but Melchior is the true standout. Sure, Dastmalchian and Stallone nail their punchlines (one’s a depressed Polka-Dot Man and the other’s a big ol’ monosyllabic shark in shorts), but Melchior nails her gags and has to find the emotional center of the film. While this doesn’t always work—partially the fault of Deadshot’s ultimately lame arc, supposed to resonate with hers—Melchior underplays soft and tough and sweet, emotive yet worldly, so well she could stand out from pretty much any script. Remember what I said about Gunn’s skill with unexpected favorites? Of the cast, Cena’s work is perhaps the most one-note. It’s not that it’s not occasionally funny (a one-liner about the phrase “eat a dick” is a deadpan riot), it’s just the same straight-faced schtick no matter what the character’s up to. “Homicidal G.I. Joe says unexpected thing” only goes so far…and it’s already a star-spangled version of GotG’s hyper-literal Drax (which Dave Bautista made sure stood far above any pretenders).
The long-standing news that Peacemaker is getting his own HBO Max show is disappointing because of this and because its announcement undermines one of The Suicide Squad’s biggest selling points: You really don’t know if anyone’s going to make it out alive. A plot having some of the wind taken out of its sails by a business deal? Now, that’s a comic book movie move I recognize!
Yes, while it makes some great strides towards treating Task Force X and its apparatus as realistically evil and exploitative, throwing copious jabs at the good ol’ black ops-happy U.S. of A., even The Suicide Squad can’t fully escape its penned-in genre trappings. The third act feels like most other superhero third acts and it clumsily sets up its requisite future projects. This is just as indicative of its source as its aesthetic and tone: As inventive as big comic titles might get, they will always have rules and, if they sell, those rules will always be focused on keeping them going. The pacing also suffers from introducing so, so many spinning plates, which are then ignored at the film’s convenience. It’s not a unique problem—especially with plot-laden action-thrillers—nor is it an entirely distracting one, but it stands out when the stakes’ game of Red Light, Green Light is at a particularly long standstill.
Gunn and crew have made that vibe, alternating between inventive and bloody battle and ballbusting hang-out sesh, their delightful spandex hallmark—and The Suicide Squad’s intensification of it from the GotG films feels like it’s been let loose on a particularly rowdy vacation. Following the similarly imperfect but unique Shazam! and Birds of Prey, The Suicide Squad most directly shakes off the baggage of the DCEU, especially considering that it shares a title and a team with one of its most maligned entries. Whatever power its additional The gave it couldn’t completely divorce it from some expected genre limitations, but it’s helped continue and solidify the way Warner Bros. is responding to Marvel’s utter dominance of the form: Not by getting more serious, but by seriously investing in the idiosyncrasies of its comics.
Director: James Gunn
Writers: James Gunn
Stars: Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Jai Courtney, Peter Capaldi, David Dastmalchian, Daniela Melchior, Michael Rooker, Pete Davidson, Nathan Fillion, Steve Agee, Mayling Ng, Flula Borg, Sylvester Stallone, Viola Davis
Release Date: August 6, 2021
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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