I think I’m the only person in the world who kinda sorta liked the 2016 film Suicide Squad. I mean, I guess that technically isn’t true, it has a 26% on Rotten Tomatoes so a quarter of all critics liked it but I’m not really sure what happened to those other people because I don’t hear from them much nowadays. Truth be told I do get why people disliked that movie because it did make some glaringly obvious mistakes and had some very annoying habits. But you know, maybe I was in a forgiving mood when I saw it because, man, I couldn’t get too mad at that fucking movie. There were elements of it which I liked a lot like the performances of Viola Davis and Margot Robbie and I also thought Will Smith was in fairly good form in it. Beyond that, there was just a certain attitude to that movie… an attitude that likely disgusted a lot of people but which I saw a certain nostalgic charm to. It was a movie that was unapologetically made to appeal to the ids of fourteen year olds… specifically fourteen year olds from the mid 2000s… which was maybe an odd audience to target in 2016 but man my own personal inner fourteen year old sort of vibed to it. Still, even I was more than willing to say “maybe don’t do that again” and despite that movie having been a financial juggernaut (seriously, the damn made $133 million in its opening weekend) Warner Brothers seemed to realize they needed to go in a different direction if they were going to make a sequel. As such they hired Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn in a complicated game of musical chairs with Disney and had him make a movie that would still be within the continuity of that earlier film while having a much different feel to the point of feeling like a reboot. That movie is The Suicide Squad (not the definite article), and it has just been unleashed on moviegoers.
The film begins some number of years after the events of the original Suicide Squad and its spinoff Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) and Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has once again come across a suicide mission to send a group of super-villain convicts to send on. This one concerns an island nation called Corto Maltese whose regime has just been changed by a violent coup. The new regime appears to be militantly anti-American, which is viewed as a threat, in particular because there’s a laboratory fortress on the island where a mad scientist named Gaius Grieves (Peter Capaldi) has been doing some sort of scary powerful experiments they don’t want falling into the wrong hands. So, a rather large team is sent to infiltrate the island and take down the new regime and/or the laboratory. Many are sent to the island but the film ends up primarily focusing in on Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and fellow carryover from the previous film Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman), a mercenary named Bloodsport (Idris Elba), another mercenary called Peacemaker (John Cena), a woman named Ratcatcher (Daniela Melchior) who can make a swarm of rats do her bidding, a dude called Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) who can throw exploding polka-dots at people, and a bipedal walking shark named Nanaue (voiced by Sylvester Stallone).
In my review of the 2016 Suicide Squad I said “for the most part they’re more like a special forces team of sorts than a conventional superhero team and it seems a bit odd to be sending them against this magical supernatural apocalyptic villain [when] these guys should be sent to take out a dictator or a cartel or a colorful gangster or something.” Sure enough, while this sequel does eventually have them taking on a more fantastical villain eventually, the bulk of this movie does send the Suicide Squad after a more down to earth villain in the form of a Latin American dictator rather than the sorceress lady with an army of monsters they were fighting in the first film. That kind of goes a long way and it’s in large part the result of Warner Brothers having let James Gunn make his Suicide Squad movie a hard R rated film as opposed to the lighter rating that previous movie struggled to earn through giving its squad CGI opponents to kill. But beyond that, the harder rating here allows for a certain attitude that pervades this movie, there’s a meanness to it that isn’t quite there in Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy movies. Characters are killed off here in a way that is downright flippant and the movie also dabbles in some political content that you don’t expect from a lot of studio tent poles. The similarities between this plot and America’s history of Latin American interventionism is not lost on Gunn and the film doesn’t relegate this to subtext or blame an organization like Hydra for this, it’s flat out shady behavior by the American government behind everything.
Aesthetically one of the bigger differences you’ll notice between this and the 2016 film is actually the costuming. You look at that movie and you notice that most of the squad aren’t really dressed like superheroes, they’re either wearing regular streetwear or they have some sort of modern looking armor and director David Ayer was generally trying to make sure everyone involved looked really cool. Here they mostly take the opposite approach; most of the squad are dressed in very gaudy and very silver age comic book-like superhero outfits that are meant to emphasize the ridiculousness of some of these characters. There are exceptions; Bloodsport’s costume is not dissimilar from what Will Smith was wearing in the first film, Harley Quinn’s outfits are in line with what she usually wears, and Ratcatcher is mostly dressed like a normal commando, but Peacemaker is decked out like a parody of Captain America complete with a silver helmet that gets compared to a toilet seat at one point and Polka-dot Man is in a crazy outfit covered in… polka dots. Ovcr the course of the film you will detect something of a pattern in who is allowed to wear normal stuff and who isn’t (hint: you’ll notice that a lot of the people you meet earliest in the film are dressed the most ridiculously) but the choice points towards a larger change in the movie’s tone: it’s trying to be irreverent rather than badass… though there are also certainly badass moments.
The thing is, at this point we’re almost as over-saturated with violent and irreverent superhero movies as we are with regular vanilla superheroes. We’ve got Deadpool, we’ve got “The Boys,” we’ve got “Invincible,” and for that matter we have Birds of Prey, so a lot of this movie’s “craziness” isn’t going to hit as hard as it might have five years ago or thereabouts. Spoiler. Introducing a team of heroes only to immediately kill them off is a move that would seem absolutely outrageous if not for the fact that Deadpool 2 already did it, similarly turning a flag waving Boy Scout like Peacemaker into a psycho for the establishment would seem wildly subversive if “The Boys” wasn’t already all about that. But that’s not to say there aren’t some legitimately clever things here. Ending the movie with a fight against a giant walking starfish is certainly not the obvious and expected choice given where this thing starts and there are other smaller choices along the way like a half animated fight scene or a person riding a floor as multiple levels of a tower collapse. Also as jaded as we’ve all become I do think it’s safe to say that a movie prominently featuring a shark person walking around eating people is still kind of weird.
So is this better than the 2016 Suicide Squad? Yeah, of course, but maybe not by as much as some people will say. Even more pertinently I definitely don’t think it’s as good as the work James Gunn did on Guardians of the Galaxy with its more feel good vibes. Honestly I think Gunn might be a filmmaker who works better under the constraints of something like the MCU forcing him to dilute his usual snark into something more human and sincere, without that his edgelord Troma side (the side that led him to post a bunch of tweets that would eventually get him in trouble with the mouse) starts to come out. This movie doesn’t necessarily go too far in that direction but it edges up to that line here and there. Beyond that there are some more basic issues to be found; it’s pacing is a bit weird, it’s rather inconsistent about how much Amanda Waller is able to see whenever it’s convenient, I didn’t care for a sub-plot involving Harley Quinn and the seeming villain of the film about half way through. Also, while the film clearly has a wit to it I wouldn’t really call it “funny” exactly, I wasn’t really laughing through it. But again, a duel with a giant starfish kind of goes a long way toward smoothing over any issues I might have with something like this. This is definitely a movie worth seeing if this kind of “oh no they didn’t” satire is for you or if you’re just looking for a mean little action movie or if you just want to mess around in DC continuity for a while. It’s not going to be for everyone (I suspect it will definitely alienate some audiences) but it probably shouldn’t be ignored.
***1/2 out of Five