'The Suicide Squad': James Gunn Inspires The DC Universe With Gnarly Irreverence, Superhero Subversion & A Big Beating Heart [Review]

How do you make a superhero film for a multi-billion-dollar corporation feel like a personal endeavor? (please refrain from laughing at least until the very end) For filmmaker James Gunn that’s leaning into the two, sometimes contradictory elements of your personality, excavating the tension from that juxtaposition and letting it all bleed into your story. Gunn’s two sides—the vulgar and the empathetic—are perhaps best evinced in the 2018 Twitter scandal that saw the director fired from Marvel’s “Guardians Of The Galaxy” franchise (and then rehired a year later): a crass, disgusting pedophile joke from years ago (exploited on social media for political gain), and the inclusive, compassionate person Gunn had become on Twitter, mature and wise enough to accept the fate of his then-firing. That’s the mix Gunn brings to “The Suicide Squad,” a movie that is irreverent, entertaining, comically revolting and gnarly like his early Troma days, but it’s also full of a soaring, beating heart that is surprisingly moving in its tribute to the forgotten, the marginalized and the expendable lowlifes of the world.

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Perhaps this is Gunn understanding the fundamental assignment, as it were. After all, “The Suicide Squad” is about the DC Universe’s expendables: reprobate criminals that undertake black ops secret missions at the behest of the U.S. government in exchange for time taken off their sentences. It’s grizzly, dirty work, but someone’s gotta do it. And it’s Warner Bros’ best DC film of this newer post-Nolan epoch— and that’s maybe not saying a lot considering how dismal some of these movies have been— but it feels like the beginning of a new era with much potential.

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Much of it isn’t exactly new territory on the surface, as Gunn proof-of-concepted the irredeemable misfits who find purpose in heroism while mixing absurdism and thrills in the aforementioned ‘Guardians’ franchise, but it still feels unique.  Billed originally as a “soft reboot,” but much more like an actual sequel to David Ayer’s fairly maligned “Suicide Squad” (2016), Gunn’s ‘TSS’ still features the same premise: the ruthless Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) sending imprisoned convicts to do her dirty works off the books. In this case, it’s sending Task Force X to the South American island of Corto Maltese to destroy the mysterious Project Starfish, a fortress and laboratory which has held political prisoners and conducted unethical experiments on humans while capturing and enlisting the genius supervillain The Thinker (Peter Capaldi) to help them in their operation. The rub of it all—go off mission and the chip in your skull detonates—is still the ultimate think-twice-before-you-defect deterrent, of course.

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This means booting up a new ‘Suicide Squad’ lineup based on who is available in their prison system and the skills that fit the mission. Like the isle of Corto Maltese, Gunn’s movie is loaded with spoiler booby traps—and many character deaths along the way—, so let’s just say one squadron is led by Waller’s right-hand-man Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), who enlists Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) among their cadre of freaks and misfits of their outfit.

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Another crew is led by the movie’s de facto heart, soul and lead character, the reluctant DGAF villain Bloodsport (Idris Elba), his squad co-chaired by the oxymoronic “to secure peace is to prepare for war” sociopathic patriot Peacemaker (John Cena), including members like the psychotic, death-wish-happy Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), the monosyllabic, barely intelligible King Shark (Sylvester Stallone) and Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), a surprisingly important character to the story and film’s theme (she and Elba’s character have a substantive father/daughter dynamic which enriches the movie too).

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Some squads are less expendable to others, and “The Suicide Squad” opens in a big, brassy, stylish comedic massacre in the vein of X-Force’s fate in “Deadpool 2.” In fact, “Deadpool” is a bit of a touchstone as ‘TSS’ is nasty and juvenile in its first act, and just as entertaining, comedically offensive and also genuinely annoying and even off-putting at times.

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Survivors coalesce in the second act, and the plot becomes a little tighter, introducing the Latinx political and military dictators of Corto Maltese, Major Mateo Suárez (Joaquín Cosío) and Silvio Luna (Juan Diego Botto) and the country’s guerilla freedom fighters (led by Alicia Braga). Yet, Gunn’s penchant for stylish sequences threatens to make the movie feel like a series of strung-together music videos or cool music montages (one partially animated sequence with Harley Quinn looks visually dynamic, but otherwise serves no purpose nor makes a lot of sense). And just as “The Suicide Squad” feels like it could unravel in its bloody, vulgar and visually chic excess, the film reveals its point, its purpose and its sincerity, much of which is difficult to discuss because it treads near spoilers. Suffice it to say, “The Suicide Squad” finishes strong, but it does take time to get there. More importantly, though, it’s the rare superhero movie where the third act is actually its best, and its themes of the meek inheriting the earth unite beautifully.  

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Even without a redeeming and redemptive third act (for the characters and the movie), ‘TSS’ has many highlights. The score by John Murphy (“Sunshine”) is terrific and especially stirring in the climactic last act, Stallone as King Shark is a fun scene-stealer, and Melchior holds her own opposite many more established and famous actors. Gunn’s ability to not only juggle a huge ensemble, but give bit players like Michael Rooker, Pete Davidson and Bragaonly brief moments to summarize their characters, and do so perfectly, is remarkable and a testament to his writing and casting. So many characters only get brief moments to communicate who they are but dare I say, not even one of them doesn’t feel fully fleshed out.

Much of the best and most enjoyable comedy comes from Bloodspot’s exasperation; the indignity of being saddled with a team of fucking idiots and lunatics, who will surely get everyone killed. Cena is tremendous and committed as the straight dullard Peacemaker, and the way he and Elba bicker and jockey for position leadership is amusing stuff.

This barely even scratches the surface of the political element of Gunn’s movie, which touches upon the ironies of peacekeeping, oppressive American interventionist foreign policy, third world abuse profiteering, colonialism, and how he subverts the entire notion of who and what the Suicide Squad is: mercenaries exploited to do the bidding of a devious, underhanded government who are the true bad guys. It wouldn’t be Amanda Waller without a hidden agenda, and the way this all unravels and explodes in the finale reveals a picture with much more on its mind than you would’ve ever expected (there is a debate to be had about Gunn’s obvious empathy for the subjugated people of Corto Maltese, versus the problematic idea of just how much they are throwaway collateral damage, but that’s not one we’ll have time for here).

Little of this also speaks to all the surprises and twists of “The Suicide Squad,” many of which are thrilling, comical and enjoyably unexpected. At nearly 2.5 hours, there’s a lot of movie here, some of it little too glib, meanspirited and flippant early on in its gore and abrasiveness and some of it genuinely hilarious in its violence and cruelty. But Gunn understands this is a story about disposable, seemingly worthless people—merciless, contemptible killers who aren’t supposed to care about anyone but themselves. Yet, they find great reason to care, and purpose, far beyond saving the earth, ascending into herodom, or doing the right thing. Gunn’s filmmaking heart fully opens by the end, a lovely thing to witness, really, crafting a poignant finale that says all people are worthy of love, respect, and care, even the lowest of the low. Ultimately, “The Suicide Squad” is a tale of beautiful losers discovering their humanity in a brief, inspired moment of convergence, finding hard-fought salvation in each other and the notion that all of us are always worthy of dignity.  [B+]