James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad bites and bashes its way into your eyes
Guardians of the Galaxy this ain’t. And that’s a good thing.
When Marvel hired James Gunn to make Guardians of the Galaxy I remember being surprised and impressed by the studio’s choice of director, because at the time, it seemed like a genuine risk. I was even more surprised with the final product, which was funny, (relatively) mature, and polished. I say this because there’s a subset of movie fans whose only previous exposure to Gunn is likely his Marvel work. They don’t know that before he became a trusted creator of comic book films, Gunn made hysterically icky, bluntly violent genre and indie fare like Slither and Super. They don’t know about his origins at schlocky production house Troma Films. They don’t know how gloriously nasty he can be.
That background comes out to play with Gunn’s DCEU entry The Suicide Squad, out this weekend. His goofy, gleefully gory take on DC’s antihero super team is at the very least more enjoyable than David Ayer’s original film, an over-serious slog with a troubling attitude toward women in abusive relationships. Gunn’s movie is more in the mold of Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey from last year; a colorful, barely-elevated b-movie with a big ensemble, a bigger budget, and occasional hints of heart.
In addition to returning team members Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), The Suicide Squad inducts a new roster of incarcerated supervillains to its ranks including Idris Elba’s mercenary Bloodsport, John Cena’s misguided patriot Peacemaker, and Daniela Melchior’s adorable moppet Ratcatcher 2. Also of note are King Shark, a walking shark voiced by Sylvester Stallone, and Polka-Dot Man (local success story David Dastmalchian), who’s infected with an interstellar virus that enables him to throw lethal polka-dots at his enemies. Ruthlessly inept boss Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) assembles the team to infiltrate the island nation of Corto Maltese, where a dictator (Juan Diego Botto) and a mad scientist (Peter Capaldi) are hiding a devious, mysterious science project.
Gunn’s film is both perfectly in tune with his pulpier proclivities, and slyly self-referential. Canonically, yes, this is a DC film. More than that, however, it feels like a James Gunn film, starting with its blackly funny rug-pull of an opening, and continuing through its pop-art closing credits. The abundant violence in The Suicide Squad is messy, soaked in both blood and irony. It’s creative, too, but rarely stylized, with a couple of character-specific exceptions. As with 2010’s brutal vigilante parody Super, here every punch, gunshot, explosion or knife cut is fast, matter-of-fact, and as unsubtle as an anvil drop. It looks painful.
Gunn’s script mostly does right by the characters, too, sprinkling in genuine emotional beats and arcs that belie his growth as a writer from the Guardians movies. He continues Harley Quinn’s delightful character trajectory, with Margot Robbie putting in another cockeyed, effusive performance, and gives Kinnaman’s Flag some much needed depth. Ratcatcher 2’s story is both sweet and sad, and her optimism—as well as a surrogate parent-child relationship with Elba’s jaded Bloodsport—give the movie heart and meaning. The colorful novelty and innate sadness of Dastmalchian’s Polka-Dot Man may be one of the most unique aspects in a movie full of them.
Under Gunn’s well-suited direction, The Suicide Squad becomes a grimy romp, full of self-aware humor, baked-in absurdity and just enough pathos to let you know he doesn’t consider the whole thing a joke. Unlike Gunn’s Marvel films, here he’s able to be a little more true to his creative sensibilities. Those sensibilities may be a little nasty for some folks’ liking, but for the most part they’re still channeled into a crowd-pleasing adventure. Just one with a little more blood and guts than you might be used to.