Five years ago, David Ayer’s Suicide Squad graced cinema screens and left a sour taste with all manner of DC fans – from hopeful comic readers to the casual viewer looking for something different from the familiar Marvel flavour. Instead, the 2016 feature was knocked for its lacklustre plot, clunky direction, and watered down characters comparable to an off-brand Guardians of the Galaxy.
Half a decade later, with the Guardians director himself at the helm, James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad (2021) is officially a standalone sequel, but is in reality an R-rated do-over. Similar to the premise of the original film, The Suicide Squad follows incarcerated supervillains. Recruited into an off-the-books black ops team. As Task Force X, this myriad of criminals is sent off on a deadly mission to destroy a world-ending threat in exchange for time off their sentences.
Outside the house of Marvel, Gunn’s films are painted in even deeper layers of dark comedy – all with higher concentrations of violence and horror to serve as a bigger canvas. Now, left with a much bigger budget and the R-rated approval of DC executives, we get to see a superhero film by a James Gunn unhinged. Injected with the absurdity, humour, and mature storytelling the franchise deserves, The Suicide Squad is the best film to come out of DC since The Dark Knight.
The Suicide Squad is in cinemas now, before also being released on HBO Max on the 6th of August.
Story: Comic Book Warfare
Corto Maltese, DC Comic’s fictional South American island, is home to Jotunheim: a Nazi-era laboratory filled with both political prisoners and a weapon primed against the US, only known as Project Starfish. Enter, Task Force X, comprised of some villains locked up at Belle Reve Penitentiary, to take on the job. Some you may know; Harley Quinn, Captain Boomerang, Rick Flag; and others are as obscure as they come, notably an anthropomorphic Weasel and Shark-Man.
No matter, as all are skilled yet expendable with the personality disorders to back it all up. Their mission: infiltrate the island, eliminate the threat, and silence any hostiles in their way. Any who succeed get ten years off their sentence. If any disobey or abandon their mission, and a bomb planted in the base of their skull blows off their heads.
In short, it’s a war film fuelled by comedic tones, comic book suspense, and the social disorder that comes with antagonists of the genre. What’s an incredible improvement story-wise from the first film, is it doesn’t spent the first half an hour pitching the concept of Task Force X through exposition dumps. Rather, it jumps right into the action following a quick and concise introduction, so even DC newcomers will understand what’s going on.
Superhero films with such stakes can often feel flat, even when set in grounded situations. Protagonists frequently shrouded in “plot armour” have their safety ensured to appear in potential sequels – taking away half the tension. From the get-go in The Suicide Squad, however, James Gunn shows what it means when he makes the phrase “don’t get too attached” one of the film’s marketing tag lines.
In a world where superpowered/super-skilled villains join that of violent warfare, the guns, gore and bloodshed aren’t dulled but, amplified. Inspired by John Ostrander’s 1980s run of the comics, this film has death around the corner for all onscreen. Whether it’s being blown up, sliced in half, barraged by bullets, or being set on fire, no one is safe. At any time, one can meet their demise at the hands of their enemies, lack of common sense, or scumbag morality.
Every action scene fills you with the right kind of anxiety because, by the time the title card rolls, you’ll realise that someone’s face, head or entire bloody might get blown off at any moment in the midst of the chaos that is battle. What’s more, merged with the ultra-violent tone is a blend of humour that steers right into the rating – utilising the absurd personalities of the characters in these battlefield situations and social ineptitude create the funniest scenes ever produced in a DC film. For the first time since the early days Game of Thrones, being on the edge of your seat early in a pop culture franchise doesn’t feel like a waste of effort, and it’s an absolutely hilarious thrill ride.
Characters & Performances: Where There’s Madness Lies Nuance
Along with an outlandish tone of ultra-violence and chaos, The Suicide Squad also showcases an unbridled amount of development and love in all of its characters. There are many villains being put on display here; some more than others. Nevertheless, Gunn manages to write each character to serve the story best in their own unique way, each only being given as much time as they need.
First and most recognisable among Task Force X is Harley Quinn, with Margot Robbie back in the harlequin’s iconic make-up and a fantastic new “live fast, die clown” jacket. Thanks to the script’s eccentric-yet character-faithful writing, along with better direction, this third film featuring the live-action Harley Quinn is the best we’ve ever seen her. As well as a more-fitting dive into her insanity, we’re treated to a dedicated action scene that not only improves one similar in 2020’s Birds of Prey, but is also promised by James Gunn to be his personal favourite in the movie.
Another notably improved return from the 2016 Suicide Squad is Rick Flag, the field leader of the team. Written to be much more down to earth in The Suicide Squad this time around, Flag, played again by Joel Kinnaman, is a far more enjoyable part of the cast and as part of the time – compared to the boring, straight-edge military man you may have seen him as before. Viola Davis, also back as Amanda Waller, the authority behind Task Force X, is even more of a tour de force of both stoicism and commanding rage than she was before.
In The Suicide Squad’s new characters, though, is where the development and humour truly shine. On their own, Idris Elba’s Bloodsport and John Cena’s Peacemaker; a pessimistic assassin and uptight patriot respectively; are already each a force of performance to be reckoned with. Nonetheless, their chemistry, as well as the rest of the cast, delivers top-tier comic relief. A particular scene, where the two embark on a killing spree of one-upmanship using their unique abilities, is a gorily priceless spectacle against all recent action-comedy films.
Another is David Dastmaichian’s Polka-Dot Man, equipped with both a brilliantly ridiculous power and a layer of self-loathing that’ll ensure at least one massive out-loud laugh. Peter Capaldi’s character, The Thinker, left a little bit to be desired, not being used to his fullest potential. That drawback, on the other hand, is minuscule by comparison, as we get more than enough incredibly entertaining conflict and suspense from our protagonists themselves.
Watching a film where you have Sylvester Stallone voicing Nanaue, a talking murderous shark-man hybrid, it’s amazing to realise the most extraordinary element of The Suicide Squad still hasn’t been honed on. As the mind adjusts and your expectations evolve to accept the hilarious havoc as the standard, it’s so easy to be moved by the surprising heart and soul of the movie: Daniela Melchior’s Ratcatcher 2.
Along with what turns out to be the most adorable power ever, this controller of rodents is the driving emotional force of the tonal shifts, bringing the characters down to earth in the most dramatic moments. In scenes like one going into her backstory, Cleo Cazo/Ratcatcher is the magnet that pulls the humanity out of these dysfunctional villains in an organic way.
These casual yet meaningful conversations are as engaging as the intense action scenes. Between those action scenes, The Suicide Squad takes time to breathe, using its steadily built relationships to make its characters fleshed out – more so than any other ensemble superhero film. It’s a story about tortured and warped souls with extraordinary abilities who took the wrong path. So, when tragedy strikes a character we’ve become well-invested in, it’ll hit you harder than expected.
Pacing & Editing: Master of the Elements
Delving deep into his gory, hysterical roots – mixing them with the comedic and action-savvy elements picked up from his Guardians days – James Gunn masterfully intertwines all these aspects of The Suicide Squad together like a magnificently gritty, complex tapestry. Throughout its runtime of just over two hours, not a single act or scene felt too short or felt like its welcome was overstayed. James Gunn’s broad experience in big-budget films have developed him a keen eye when it comes to action as well, editing each brawl and firefight in a way it’s never uncertain what’s going on – all whilst keeping the pace heart-racingly enthralling.
If any part of the story even begins to hint at a lull, its script makes most of its charismatic characters hook your attention right back up to the surface. Even if the film’s captivating fight against the big bad somehow failed to thrill some viewers, the extravagantly violent set pieces, character-driven nuance, and off-the-walls humour all hold up the experience as one to remember. In this case, it’s far more about the journey than the destination.
Cinematography & Sound: A Fine Pairing
Composed by John Murphy, The Suicide Squad’s music sprinkles onto the experience several of excitement and intensity to further move sequences forward. Paired with singles of the soundtrack like Rain by grandson and Jessie Reyez, each scene is emphasised in whichever tone is intended for the moment. Like complementing your steak with a fine wine, James Gunn made the right choices when organising The superhero picture’s sound.
When it comes to cinematography, despite being drenched in the blood and guts of warfare, the look of this movie is as colourful as the characters themselves. Again drawing more inspiration from the 1980’s origins of the modern Suicide Squad, Gunn’s managed to take a mix of eccentric and modernised costumes, making them look right at home in a South America-set war film.
From individual close-ups to groupwide long shots, the camerawork elevates the audience’s attention of the focus of each scene – be it the Suicide Squad members themselves, or the picturesque, battle-torn world, they seamlessly fit into. Even Sylvester Stallone’s King Shark, an entirely CGI character, makes you want to pause the film for a second just to marvel at the digital craftsmanship behind the scenes.