It’s been a while since my last post, hasn’t it? Almost like there’s been nothing worth watching or writing about for the past eighteen months (and to think I considered the modern cinematic landscape a barren wasteland prior to the COVID-19 crisis). Before TSS, the last movie I saw in theaters was Onward back in March of 2020, which was about as captivating as a bunch of thirteen-year-olds playing D&D for the first time and not really digging it because they’re all foreign exchange students who came straight off a red-eye flight to participate in a chess tournament. Not that I’ve been idle for the past year-and-a-half, mind – in all, life has been rather eventful beyond my self-styled role as your friendly neighborhood film snob. I wrote and sold a book (pending publication in early 2022 through Stray Books, so strap yourselves in for some shameless plugging in coming entries), I quit smoking and revoked the permanent resident card from the alcoholic monkey who’d been lodging on my back, I developed tendonitis (adieu, animations…), and I instigated a failed coup against my provincial government for enforcing an unconstitutional mask mandate and conspiring to sterilize the populace through the emission of mind-controlling microchips from 5G towers (whether or not I’m sane enough to stand trial has yet to be determined…)
Since I’ve got some time to kill before my next shock-therapy session at Arkham, I figured I’d write briefly about the last film I ever expected to love, much less love enough to see twice.
No, not THAT ONE!!!!!!!
Be forewarned – spoilers abound in plenteousness.
The Suicide Squad is a really superb James Gunn action-comedy involving a government-assembled team of costumed villains, reluctant anti-heroes, mutant animal recidivists, and comic book D-listers, all of whom are tasked with a clandestine mission that will likely end in certain death. It is not to be confused with David Ayer’s 2016 movie Suicide Squad, which was like watching grainy footage of an apartment fire that was edited with a hacksaw and then re-edited with a garbage disposal. Blessedly few characters and elements survive the transition from Suicide Squad to Suicide Squad, The, so you don’t need to have watched the first one in order to enjoy this one. In fact, that first one can’t even really be considered ‘the first one,’ as the opening sequence of this one does of bang-up job of orienting you with what’s what and who’s who before diving into the action. In that regard, 2021’s The Suicide Squad isn’t really a sequel or a soft reboot so much as what happens when James Gunn tells studio execs “Hold my beer” and they do so without daring to interfere (unless it’s to knock softly on his office door to see if he needs a refill or a damp cloth applied to his brow – which he doesn’t, because he’s James F***ing Gunn and he’s been making superhero movies since before the MCU took off).
In the DC Comics multiverse, the titular Suicide Squad (or Task Force X, if we want to be polite about it) is comprised of super-powered inmates, all of whom are offered opportunities to shave ten years off their respective sentences by bureaucratic baddie Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), conditional upon their successful completion and survival of whatever black ops mission she has in store for them. If they disobey her orders or attempt to escape, she detonates an explosive microchip implanted in their skulls (see what I’m talking about, vaxxers?!). The team this time around consists of Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), one of the few holdovers from Ayer’s version, now in 3D; Bloodsport (Idris Elba), a physics-defying marksman and our ostensible leading man; Peacemaker (John Cena), a die-hard Jingoist and the Chaddiest Chad who ever Chadded; Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), the heart and soul of the whole film; Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), who does exactly what you think he does; King Shark (voice of Sylvester Stallone), the most marketable eating-machine since Baby Yoda; and, of course, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), who is all through clowning around and ready to fulfill her divine purpose, whatever that may be. There are other characters, of course, many of whom bite the bloody bullet early on, but these are our heroes (er, protagonists), and they’re dying to save… well, not really the world, to tell you the truth, which is one of the reasons this film worked so well.
THE PROMISE OF THE PREMISE
If I recall correctly, the Suicide Squad was assembled in the first movie as a contingency should Superman ever go rogue, or something (it instead ended being sent to Gotham or Pittsburg or someplace to save the world from demons or barnacle-people, or something). This immediately begged the question of what the hell Harley Quinn and her baseball bat and Killer Croc and his scaly knuckles are supposed to do against an evil Man of Steel (this fundamental misunderstanding of the movie’s own premise was merely the beginning of that nauseating disasterpiece). This time around, the Suicide Squad is tasked with the far more appropriate assignment of infiltrating a Nazi-era laboratory on the South American island nation of Corto Maltese, which has just undergone a violent coup. Their task is to destroy all evidence of a mysterious experiment known only as “Project Starfish,” and they’re all selected because One, they each serve an individual purpose on the team; Two, they’re completely expendable; and Three, their status as criminals grants Waller plausible deniability should they be captured. Simply put, they’re there to take a bullet so some God-fearing, tax-paying American citizen with a family and a voting card doesn’t have to.
Though the film’s tagline states they’re dying to save the world, they’re really not, and I have to admit it’s a refreshing change of pace to see a superhero film where the stakes are comparatively low and the obligatory third-act skybeam doesn’t factor. These aren’t members of the Justice League (or even the Guardians of the Galaxy, for that matter). These are third-rate antiheroes at best and bizarre psychos at worst, collectively unleashed on a third-world country to carry out a black ops mission with very low odds of survival, and the best they can hope for should they emerge alive is a reduced sentence. The fundamental cynicism of the Suicide Squad’s objective means that it’s up to the individual characters to get viewers emotionally invested in the action, and here James Gunn more than delivers by serving up a roster that is not only relatable, but downright sympathetic.
To be fair, I sympathize with anybody who’s contractually obligated to leave the house dressed like Peacemaker…
LET’S MEET THE TEAM…
They say the hallmark of three-dimensional, well-rounded characters is that you should be able to black out all the names on a script page and still be able to tell who’s speaking based solely on the dialogue (the rationale being that Character is best manifested in Dialogue itself). In this regard, the characters populating The Suicide Squad are as distinct and Knowable as the Guardians of the Galaxy, which is an impressive feat considering how many of them we’re obliged to keep track of (though it helps when you’ve got a guy wearing a polka-dot costume and another who’s a bipedal shark man). With every line delivery, you can count on Bloodsport to sound annoyed at his own existence, Peacemaker to ooze hyper-patriotic douchery, Ratcatcher 2 to radiate emotional warmth, Harley Quinn to drop the non sequiturs, and so on. Making oddball characters comprehensively Knowable is one of Gunn’s greatest strengths as a writer, but it’s in the squad members’ interactions and reactions to one another that he really struts his stuff.
The dynamics on display here are rock solid, especially in how everyone is paired off and accorded unexpectedly tender heart-to-hearts. Early on, we witness Ratcatcher 2 extend an olive branch to King Shark (admittedly to keep him from eating her in her sleep), and by the time the dust settles on their mission, they’re hugging. Ratcatcher 2 also serves as a surrogate daughter to Bloodsport, who’s not exactly winning any father-of-the-year awards, and the two at one point promise to get one another out of Corto Maltese alive (the fact that Bloodsport suffers debilitating musophobia makes their rapport even more impactful). Bloodsport in turn spends the bulk of the film posturing with Peacemaker, the joke being that they share an identical skillset (perhaps a not-so-subtle nod to the Ayer version, where everybody pretty much acted and sounded identical). Flag and Quinn get a few nice moments together as well that are almost an apology for their history in the Ayer version, as does Polka-Dot Man (arguably the team’s odd man out) with a member of the Corto Maltese resistance, which is too good a scene to spoil. Hell, even Ratcatcher 2’s pet rat, Sebastian, gets moments to connect with both Peacemaker and Bloodsport, both of which prove vital to their respective arcs (albeit in different ways). In fact, pretty well everyone here is granted at least some time in the spotlight, which does wonders to make the film feel like it’s inhabited by real people instead of flat caricatures.
If there’s one thing I’m a bigger sucker for than ensemble casts and odd pairings, it’s small character moments, those wonderful little touches that give each personality a little spark of life that shows us a little bit of who they are. From King Shark chasing a group of jellyfish creatures and giggling like a toddler to Peacemaker ordering Sebastian a drink to Rick Flag commiserating with the leader of the Corto Maltese resistance, virtually every player both major and minor gets some moment to stand out. Even the operations staff in Amanda Waller’s control center (who have more personality in their few minutes of screentime than most of the central survivors across ten freaking seasons of The Walking Dead) feel real, as do those members of the original Suicide Squad destined for cannon fodder in the film’s fake-out opening sequence (a delightful cameo-fest in its own right). Gunn even generates a certain degree of pathos for the final villain, whose last words might be the most tragic and haunting since Barbossa’s “I feel… cold” in Curse of the Black Pearl.
In all, it’s fairly impressive how memorable and engaging these characters are, considering I’d never heard of any of them before entering the theater (with the exception of Harley Quinn).
Not pictured: Marilyn Manson’s Joker
SIGHTS AND SOUNDS
Since my primary interest with films lies with the characters and narrative building blocks, I seldom take the time to discuss production elements such as the cinematography. In this case, however, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the look and feel of The Suicide Squad, because this film is visually beautiful. Many comic book movies have a blasé paint-by-numbers feel to them, especially where the action sequences are concerned (rumour has it that MCU movies are digitally choreographed long before a director is even hired). CGI is a double-edged sword, because while there’s no limit to what you can accomplish with ones and zeroes, relying on them extensively often results in movies that look too sterile and smooth to be engaging (it’s hard to remain grounded when the camera is whipping overhead and underfoot like it’s being wielded by a drunk octopus after last call at the bar). Any CGI on display here is fortunately used sparingly and largely in service to characters such as King Shark, which allows Gunn to focus his energy on real cinematography. There’s some pretty creative things going on with the camera here, notably the fight sequence that’s reflected in Peacemaker’s chrome helmet and the already famous hero’s march through a torrential downpour. The film also utilizes snap zooms and tracking shots fairly extensively, which gives the impression that we’re watching cutscenes in an extremely immersive video game.
Another production element I discuss even less than a film’s visual is its sound design, but it’s worth mentioning here because one of the few commonalities between The Suicide Squad and its predessacor is how noticeable its music is. The original, as I recall, doubled-down on the licensed songs, most of which seemed to have been selected with very little care or attention beyond ‘let’s shove as many radio hits in here as possible because that seemed to work for Guardians of the Galaxy.’ Before we even hit the fifteen-minute mark in the original, the soundtrack ushered us from ‘House of the Rising Sun’ to ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ to ‘Super Freak’ to ‘Purple Lamborghini’ to ‘Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap’ to ‘Fortunate Son’ at breakneck speed, which only made the choppy editing more pronounced. This time around, the track listing is as carefully curated as a Tarantino or Edgar Wright film, containing some famous songs like Johnny Cash’s ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ and The Pixies’ ‘Hey,’ but also including more eclectic pieces like ‘Samba na Sola’ by Ceu and ‘Sola’ by Jessie Reyes. Moreover, the licensed songs are largely implemented diegetically, meaning the majority of them are actually playing inside the world of the film for the characters to hear (with the exception of a few that are implied to be playing inside Harley Quinn’s head when she’s having a moment). It’s a pretty creative approach, and helps The Suicide Squad stand out from the glut of mass-produced, cash-in comic book movies as something resembling an art piece.
COLLATERAL DAMAGE MATTERS
As a slight aside before I wrap up, I have to say it was refreshing to see a superhero film where the collateral damage actually matters and characters express genuine concern for innocents and civilians. One of my biggest issues with 2013’s mind-numbing Man of Steel was Superman’s casual disregard for his own city and the lives of anybody occupying a hundred-mile radius of whoever he happens to be punching, which is best evidenced when he uppercuts Zod into a skyscraper with a school bus as people scream and flee (okay, maybe this scenario didn’t play out exactly, but c’mon, even Superman IV: The Quest for Peace did something right by setting its final showdown on the moon, far away from Metropolis).
Throughout TSS, various characters express outrage at atrocities committed against women and children, and when the surviving team members have an opportunity to beat a hasty exit during the climax, the sound of screams and crumbling buildings proves too much for them to walk away from. It was nice to see, almost like the lives of innocent people actually mattered (to be fair, maybe this is something DC addressed in Batman v Superman, Justice League, Aquaman, WW84, and Birds of Prey… but I didn’t watch any of those and I’m never going to).
Most critics agree that pretty much everything about this film worked, from the plot to the characters to the visuals to the audio. I’ve been a fan of James Gunn since Slither, so I have no problem admitting that I liked a DC Comics movie, more than I’ve enjoyed a Marvel movie since Guardians of the Galaxy or perhaps Thor Ragnarok. This film is fun and funny and colourful and gory and memorable and surprisingly sentimental at times, so much so that when certain characters pass on to that Great Maximum Security Penitentiary in the Sky I actually felt bad for them. The second act has some mild pacing issues, but the characters are so arresting that it’s tough to dock the film points for what really amounts to quibbles.
In all, The Suicide Squad is everything James Gunn could have accomplished with Guardians of the Galaxy had Disney consented to let Starlord kill Drax, Rocket Raccoon say “f*ck,” and Groot rip people half.
P.S., I gave the original Suicide Squad a 1.5/10 rating, which means that these two put together make a Perfect 10!