‘The Suicide Squad’ Review: The Fun Ride Everyone Wanted the First ‘Squad’ to Be
The first Suicide Squad made almost $750 million in theaters, but good luck finding anyone who enjoyed it. The film’s success was due in large part to a highly effective marketing campaign that made it look like a dynamic superhero satire instead of the grim slog it actually was. The ads were almost too effective, as Warner Bros. reportedly grew worried the film “didn’t deliver on the fun, edgy tone promised” by the teaser, and hired the editors who’d cut that trailer to produce their own version of the movie. The finished product was a choppy, confusing mess; too silly to be a serious contemplation of comic book archetypes and too dark and depressing to work as a spoof.
Five years later, the new movie (definitively yet confusingly titled The Suicide Squad) makes good on the promise of those great trailers for the first film. Here is the edgy, sardonic adventure filled with witty characters and eclectic needle drops that the first Squad was supposed to be. It is directed with style and verve by James Gunn, who previously made the irreverent Guardians of the Galaxy films that surely inspired those funky Suicide Squad trailers in the first place. In 2018, Marvel briefly fired Gunn after a social-media kerfuffle involving tasteless and insensitive tweets he’d made years earlier. Warner Bros. immediately snatched him up, a decision Marvel will surely regret when they see what a superb job Gunn did turning a lifeless DC Comics property into a multimedia franchise. (A spinoff TV series, also by Gunn, is coming soon to HBO Max.)
Gunn’s Squad exists in a strange space between a remake and a sequel. It never specifically mentions the original, and it looks, sounds, and feels totally different from its predecessor, although a few of the characters from the original reappear, including Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn and Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller. Basically, it keeps the few elements people liked and discards the rest. The premise, though, is the same. Waller is a Machiavellian bureaucrat who runs “Task Force X,” a team of super-powered convicts who perform dangerous missions on behalf of the U.S. government in exchange for shortened prison sentences. The team is nicknamed the “Suicide Squad” because of the high turnover in members. (Their mission performance in this film will do nothing to change their reputation.)
The new additions to the team in this film include John Cena’s Peacemaker, a twisted critique of patriotic heroes like Captain America, and Michael Rooker’s Savant, a brutal mercenary. The nominal leader of the group is Idris Elba’s Bloodsport, an assassin who can turn anything into a deadly weapon. He fills the role of cynical marksman with a heart of gold that was held in the previous Suicide Squad by Will Smith’s Deadshot. (Like Deadshot, he even joins the team to prove he’s not a criminal to his young daughter, played here by Storm Reid.)
If most superhero movies revel in fantasies of power, The Suicide Squad celebrates the weirdos who gets stuck with the less-desirable abilities. Like Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), who can channel interdimensional force into deadly but brightly colored polka dots. Or Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) who can control rodents with a high-tech wand. Or Weasel (Sean Gunn) who ... is a big weasel. (I was going to call him a big sentient weasel, but based on the evidence onscreen, that’s debatable.)
Once upon a time, I may have argued that our government would never put our well-being in the hands of such unqualified misfits, rendering The Suicide Squad’s premise impossible to believe. Those days are long over. That’s bad news for us and good news for Gunn, who gleefully skewers our country and its penchant for meddling in foreign nations’ affairs. The Suicide Squad is sent down to the made-up South American nation of Corto Maltese in the aftermath of a coup. Their mission: Ensure that the new Corto Maltesian leaders are not allowed to threaten the United States with something called “Project Starfish.” (DC Comics fans will know what that is by name alone. For those who don’t, I will only say that it is a suitably strange opponent for a team as wacky as this one.)
Gunn and his cast are on exactly the same wavelength. Elba makes an ideal anti-hero, and he has an amusing rivalry with Cena, who has the perfect superhuman physique (and warped sense of humor) to play a demented anything-for-my-country flag waver. Robbie’s Harley is much less essential to the story than in the first Suicide Squad or Birds of Prey, but she provides welcome bursts of attitude every time she pops onscreen. The prize for the single funniest character, though, might go to Nathan Fillion’s T.D.K., who seems destined for internet meme stardom.
The first 45 minutes of The Suicide Squad — which follow Waller as she assembles her latest Suicide Squad and briefs them on their assignment before dropping them into the middle of Corto Maltese — is absolutely outstanding. Gunn shows a lot of skill as writer and director as he juggles many different characters all at once while he bounces back and forth in time, peppering viewers with non-stop sight gags and bloody violence.
After that thrilling opening act, The Suicide Squad settles down into a more conventional (if still satisfying) superhero adventure. The story flags a little, and some tricky editing in the final act designed to keep up the energy just makes the climax more confusing. Still, the opening is a blast — and the whole thing looks like a Fellini movie compared to Suicide Squad.