Some people have a visceral hatred for David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (2016). I don’t. I found a lot of it annoying, but most of all I found it forgettable, apart from a few bits and pieces. It introduced us to Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, a character (or, rather, a version of the character) that proved more durable than the film in which she originated. Other than that, though? There was a Will Smith character and someone with a boomerang, and someone with… some sort of fire thing? A crocodile-skinned dude? A guy with a gun? No, as much as I try, I simply don’t much remember the film. I remember Folding Ideas’ video essay on the film better than I remember Suicide Squad itself (though nothing against Folding Ideas, and his video essay on Suicide Squad is great).
Having said that, I like the idea. If handled right, I can absolutely see the appeal of taking a bunch of goofy comic book villains and putting them together in a Dirty Dozen-style adventure, where no one is exactly good, everyone is unpredictable, and death might strike pretty much anyone at any time. I have little attachment to these characters, I don’t consider myself particularly invested in the continuity, so yeah, if you offer me a good time and a chuckle while you have fun with your action figures, then, yeah, I’m in. Man lives not by Bergman alone.
And that’s exactly what James Gunn delivers with what is less a sequel than it is a second chance (and we’re fond of those here at A Damn Fine Cup). Silly, inventive, blackly humorous fun. Something that the superhero genre definitely could do with at this time.
So what’s changed between Ayer’s attempt and Gunn’s redo? Well, Ayer’s not exactly proven himself to be a particularly good director or writer. He’s workman-like at best, and he’s fallen below his best a few times. Gunn, on the other hand? He can deliver fun – see his two Guardians of the Galaxy films. Also, he’s never been one to shy away from adolescent, silly, gross humour, and while that can be hit and miss for me, it definitely works for the world he creates in The Suicide Squad that’s placed halfway between cynical and goofy. This is a film in which one of the protagonists is a humanoid shark as dumb as a bag of rocks, prone to eat his allies because he’s hungry – but surprisingly, it is also one of the few superhero films I can think of that actually says something about the world we live in. Sure, it’s not particularly deep or nuanced, but how many films in the genre can claim to be saying anything to begin with?
The plot of The Suicide Squad hinges on Amanda Waller, an intelligence officer of dubious ethics, sending a motley crew of incarcerated super-villains to Corto Maltese. The South American island had previously been ruled by a despotic government friendly to the United States, but they were overthrown by a new government that’s just as corrupt and autocratic but much less friendly towards the USA – so Waller, in the good old tradition of US activity in Latin America, sends in her heavies to set things right… for her country, obviously, not for the inhabitants of the island. It may not exactly be the most incisive critique of United States foreign policy, but how often do films in this genre comment on political matters at all?
Then again, while The Suicide Squad‘s political satire is welcome, it’s not where the film shines. For me, the first film’s biggest sin was that it put together all these weird, wild, fun characters – and then failed to make them memorable, apart from one exception (Harley), or 1 1/2 exceptions if we’re especially generous. In Gunn’s film, the characters actually get more than a single dimension: they work as joke delivery machines, but they also work as characters in their own right. They have motivations, they have personalities, they drive the plot and clash with each other. In that respect, what works about The Suicide Squad isn’t miles away from Guardians of the Galaxy – but then it doesn’t have to be. Except, differently from Guardians, The Suicide Squad is R-rated and therefore these metahumans can do things on screen that their superhero (and -villain) rivals over at Marvel can’t do.
And this proves to be a mixed blessing. The Suicide Squad heavily leans into black, squicky humour. Very, very bad things happen to bodies: we get graphic bullet wounds, dismemberment, decapitations, characters getting torn apart or eaten alive. Certainly, most of these bodies belong to people that are bad themselves (it says a lot about the film that one of the more goofy characters is described as having killed 27 children, and plays this for laughs), but that’s part of the joke: we’re not watching pain and suffering, we’re watching cartoons with a particularly adolescent sense of humour. And if you’re okay with that, Gunn’s film delivers in spades. I was okay with it when I went to see the movie, but even like that, the joke does get somewhat old by the way we’re into the final third of The Suicide Squad. For me at least, the movie and its gross-out jokes never became outright dull, but they did start feeling a bit old, which made me wish for a version of the film that was shorter and snappier, because not every film needs to be over two hours long – especially one with a talking, walking killer shark and a giant one-eyed starfish kaiju, however funny these may be.
Enough quibbling, though: The Suicide Squad gets far more right than it gets wrong, as long as you know what you’re in for. Its cast does a great job, making characters that on paper might seem boring or weird for weirdness’ sake (a soldier for hire who’s a bad dad? a guy who shoots polka dots?) come to life to a surprising extent. Idris Elba’s Bloodsport and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) may look like the leads in the trailers, and they probably get a bit more screentime, dialogue and action than some of their fellow squadmates, but in practice The Suicide Squad does a great job of being an ensemble piece, from John Cena’s Peacemaker via David Dastmalchian’s Polka-Dot Man and Daniela Melchior’s Ratcatcher 2 to the Sylvester Stallone-voiced King Shark and Viola Davis’ entirely human and absolutely monstrous Amanda Waller.
James Gunn’s blood-guts-and-echinoderm intervention won’t save the mess that is the DC Cinematic Universe. It doesn’t need to. It just needed to be a fun film in its own right, and it succeeds at this, much better than any of the other DCU films I’ve seen. Even if its penchant for gnarly violence and adolescent punchlines may not be everyone’s cup of entrails, it has more heart and wit than I would’ve expected, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously for a second. Personally I’d hang out with these murderers, psychopaths and metahuman dickheads over any of the paragons of the DC stables. Well, at least the ones that weren’t shot, dismembered, decapitated, torn apart or eaten alive.