James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad lets you know that it’s not David Ayer’s 2016 Suicide Squad, nor Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, in pretty irreverent and brutal fashion. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart, but somehow, it works.
The Suicide Squad
James Gunn (director and writer), Henry Braham (cinematographer), Fred Raskin and Christian Wagner (editors)
Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Peter Capaldi, Daniela Melchior, David Dastmalchian, Alice Braga, Storm Reid, Joaquín Cosio, Juan Diego Botto (cast)
Based on Suicide Squad by John Ostrander
August 6, 2021
Walking into the preview screening for journalists, I wasn’t sure if I was going to enjoy The Suicide Squad. To be honest, I didn’t think it tragic that Gunn was (briefly) fired from Marvel. I still find the male gaze and the sexist jokes in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies frustrating. And I was worried that after Birds of Prey — a wonderfully contained heist film — was mocked by toxic fans, that Gunn’s iteration of Harley Quinn would be held up as some kind of corrective to Cathy Yan’s version. But even with all these doubts, I found myself won over by Gunn’s gory but ultimately moving antihero flick.
Here’s what’s important to know: The Suicide Squad is a completely standalone film that has zero connection to Ayer’s version or the wider DCEU. (Yes, even though there are several actors who reprise their former roles, like Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, Viola Davis as Amanda Waller, Joel Kinnaman as Rick Flag, and Jai Courtney as Captain Boomerang). After blackmailing Idris Elba’s Bloodsport, Waller puts together a Task Force X team for him to lead on a secret mission. She tells him they have to break into Jotunheim, an old Nazi fortress on the island of Corto Maltese, and destroy any evidence of Project Starfish. If Bloodsport refuses, Waller will send his daughter to jail. If any of them desert the mission, she’ll detonate the charges around their necks.
Among the characters recruited are King Shark (performed by Steve Agee and voiced by Sylvester Stallone), Peacemaker (John Cena), and the aforementioned Harley, Flag, and Boomerang. There are also a number of obscure Belle Reve inmates, like Blackguard (Pete Davison), Savant (Michael Rooker), Mongal (Mayling Ng), Weasel (Sean Gunn), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), Polka Dot-Man (David Dastmalchian), Javelin (Flula Borg), and TDK (Nathan Fillion). Once on the island, they encounter Sol (Alice Braga), General Mateo (Joaquín Cosio), and Luna (Juan Diego Botto), along with the scientist The Thinker (Peter Capaldi). This is a large cast, sure, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some of these characters are going to die.
Based on John Ostrander’s comic book run, The Suicide Squad is Gunn’s comic book twist on a war movie. Befitting the genre, the violence is visceral in a way that some may find difficult to watch. The way this violence is presented is often unpredictable. Sometimes it will veer into wicked Hot Fuzz-esque dark humor before segueing back into a sobering scene à la 1917. You might laugh, and then feel bad about laughing, and then cry, and that jumble of emotions often feels like the point.
Alongside this bloody spectacle is a story about love, loyalty, and redemption, largely driven by Elba’s Bloodsport. Elba, along with Melchior as Ratcatcher 2, are undoubtedly the stand-outs of the film. Their drive to survive for their family — and later, their found family of criminals — carries the story through when the gore and cynicism might feel like a bit too much. This movie also does something remarkable with Colonel Rick Flag: it actually makes him interesting, someone you want to root for against all odds.
As for Harley Quinn, she plays a lesser role but thankfully does not suffer the sexist treatment here. Though Birds of Prey filmed at the same time and there’s no connection between the films, The Suicide Squad’s Harley still feels like the spiritual successor to Cathy Yan’s movie. There’s a scene where Harley monologues about red flags in men, and unlike Joss Whedon with Wonder Woman, there’s no camera shot leveled at Harley’s butt. In fact, there are scenes that seem to cater more to a female gaze: one male character struts out in his underwear, and another scene is filmed like a corny romance novel.
These numerous tonal shifts mirror the varied nature of the team and the format of the film, which is broken up into several distinct chapters. Cinematographer Henry Braham also plays with the medium in interesting ways. For example, one scene is viewed in a curved and reflective surface, something that you rarely see in mainstream comic book films as it draws attention to the fact that you’re watching a movie. The set design of the film is also largely practical, versus Marvel’s notorious use of green screen. The crew building most of the sets, like the beach and the exterior of Jotunheim, lends to an overall gritty and grounded feel that draws you in.
In many ways, The Suicide Squad feels like the antithesis to Guardians of the Galaxy and the MCU aesthetic and it’s certainly the more mature James Gunn film about a group of comic book misfits. In an interview with Deadline, Gunn seems genuinely contrite and introspective about his firing, blaming only himself. It’s hard not to assume that some of his soul-searching influenced The Suicide Squad. Despite all the heavy-handed violence, there’s a thoughtfulness to its storylines. The movie broaches questions of morality, the justice system, and American imperialism. You see bodies torn apart in creative and terrifying ways, and yet the lasting message of the film is about the importance of accountability and kindness.
With all this said, it’s not a perfect film. There’s a recurring gag about a male character’s mother that feels unnecessary. And like many other comic book films are guilty of, the action largely takes place in a foreign country where many of the casualties are people of color, while many of the main characters are white. The film also leads into the eventual Peacemaker TV show, but I personally found other characters, like Elba’s Bloodsport, more deserving of their own title; there’s also Davis’ scathingly cruel Waller, who lights up the screen every time and could easily carry her own show.
Still, The Suicide Squad is a much more arresting and tragic film than one might expect. It asks you to feel the depths of emotions in a way that other comic book films might shy away from doing, at the risk of alienating more casual audiences looking for a mindless summer blockbuster. It’s easy to find yourself mourning the characters who died, and feel their same despair, fury, or triumph during the twists. The Suicide Squad is not an easy watch, but by the time the credits roll, you might find it’s a surprisingly rewarding one.