Corporate irreverence, efficiently delivered
About as edgy as a butter knife, The Suicide Squad is paint-by-numbers, color-within-the-lines filmmaking wrapped in f-bombs, blood squibs, and $200 million worth of jaw-dropping, mind-numbing CGI. It’s corporate irreverence, which means fundamentally and most urgently it’s a safe space for viewers. It’s also pretty funny at times, and a welcome, if empty, reprieve from the nihilistic pomposity of DC/WB’s Zack Snyder era.
If David Ayer’s much-maligned but financially lucrative Suicide Squad was a lurid spectacle, James Gunn’s mulligan is the studio’s puerile corrective. The wacky mind behind Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy ported over that Disneyfied pixie dust and mixed in a dash of DC nastiness. So out with the lap-dancing Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and in with Peacemaker (John Cena) making lewd jerk-off gestures to Bloodsport (Idris Elba). Is this an improvement?
THE SUICIDE SQUAD ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: James Gunn
Written by: James Gunn
Starring: Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Sylvester Stallone, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Peter Capaldi
Running time: 132 mins
Sure, if you consider that the massively successful modern age of Marvel and DC movie adaptations can never touch the third rail of mature human sexuality. Ultraviolence, though, that’s okay, because Hollywood has baked consequence-free, high-body-count murder in places like third-world countries into popular culture ever since ’80s muscle-flexing R-rated megahits like Rambo: First Blood Part II turned machine-gun massacres into family fun. In a sly nod to that O.G. action hero, Sylvester Stallone voices an enormous humanoid Great White named King Shark. He’s like Groot, but with a slightly bigger vocabulary and an adorable appetite for human flesh. Num-nums!
Despite its success with the surprisingly earnest and rousingly positive Wonder Woman franchise, DC wants to be the home for darker, more explicit visions of comic characters. If Todd Phillips’ queasy Joker has been the most haunting, then James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is easily the most gleefully foul-mouthed and pervasively blood-soaked—because that also seems to be its sole purpose. The only dissonance here is equating shredded bodies with joy, since the film really revels in its creative snuffs.
After an opening sequence of recognizable though hardly star-studded actors facing down sudden violence, The Suicide Squad seems to tease an anything-can-happen vibe where folks could potentially meet their doom. These are criminals after all, assembled into a group called Task Force X, for high-fatality covert missions. Good to see a film live up to its name, and a promising start to what could really be an interesting story about kamikaze warriors. Wait, hold on, it’s also got Harley Quinn, DC’s fan-favorite feminist ass-kicker. So clearly some folk will never die, be seriously injured or even suffer a scratch.
Expect the ivory-skinned punk psycho to get her own action set-piece, where she throttles a battalion of bad guys while wearing a crimson dress and combat boots. Ditto Idris Elba and King Shark, who also seem impervious to death, probably because they’re the most endearing. Those other suckers on the squad? Yeah, they’re toast, and will die as punch lines.
You’d think their names would be punch lines enough, but a few of these are no-joke for-real part of the DC populace. Weasel? Captain Boomerang? Polka-Dot Man? Yep, yep, yep. James Gunn needs no help in the self-parody department. One disappointment: Gaius Grieves, aka The Thinker (Peter Capaldi), who you might as well call Basil Exposition for his nearly useless role as a milquetoast baddie with spark plugs studding his bald head. Why hire Capaldi, most famous for his delightfully foul-mouthed rants in other films, and then not have him deliver baroque profanities? That might be the dirtiest thing in this movie.
There’s a plot that involves a fictional South American island called Corto Maltese, for decades under the control of an American-friendly dictatorship now threatened by freedom fighters. It also hosts a Nazi-built, concrete-tower laboratory called Jötunheim. Inside is a space creature that looks like a cross between Patrick Star from Spongebob Squarepants and the face-hugger from Alien. There’s a nefarious reason the Suicide Squad is sent in to destroy Jötunheim, which makes the film flirt briefly with a political point of view. Don’t worry, it passes.
The Suicide Squad would never dwell on anything as serious as politics, unless it sets up the reliable trope of heroes being exploited by their superiors and then turning the tables at the last minute to gain the upper hand. That kind of rebellion is completely fine. Especially with the overlords at Warner Bros and HBO Max. Just don’t bite the C-Suite hand that feeds. Even if you’re King Shark.