Don’t try Suicide (You’re Only Gonna Hate it)
DIRECTED BY JAMES GUNN/2021
When Disney infamously canned writer/director James Gunn, Warner Brothers probably thought it had pulled off a steal by scooping him up so quickly to make a DC movie. Being that Gunn’s two Guardians of the Galaxy films have raked in over $1.5 billion globally, there was adequate reason for Marvel’s Distinguished Competition to celebrate its get.
As it turns out, however, it’s Gunn himself who’s gotten away with something. His debut DC film- a follow-up, for whatever reason, to David Ayer’s 2016’s misfire Suicide Squad– is no Guardians rehash. Rather, Gunn has taken this high-profile opportunity to flex his audaciousness, suppressed since 2010’s low-budget superhero super-subversive bloodbath, Super. To its credit, with the mere addition of a titular definite article, The Suicide Squad (take or leave Ayers’ film; this isn’t called Suicide Squad II for a reason) flares with personal vision and singular lack of compromise in a way that perhaps no DC movie previously has been able to. This is James Gunn unleashed– and unleashed at an exact moment when he’s got a ton of angry stream to aggressively vent.
One needn’t hold a doctorate in discerning subtext to see that the director is here to take shots at American imperialism (specifically Trump’s America), imposed conformity (the Disney corporation), and even the state of superhero movies themselves (ahem, Marvel). By design, Gunn veers far from his winning Guardians model with a perpetually gleeful assault of very bloody viscera. In large part, The Suicide Squad is a sharply-dialogued litany of snarky people in outlandish outfits getting shot, crushed, dismembered, chomped, cut apart, and blown up. Good old four-color fun!
Gunn’s characters (some new, some holdovers from the previous movie) are still super-misfits who’ve been tossed together by bigger circumstance, and he invites us to empathize with each of their defined issues. But all attempts at sensitivity fall short as wall-to-wall crudity and gory bluster dominate. Clearly chasing the Deadpool popularity, The Suicide Squad works as though it needs to continually convince everyone of its R-ratedness when in fact that desired branding is sealed in the first five minutes. It’s not a sinister film per se, but it’s got a bright red sinister streak, for sure.
But then, as one team member basically says, brutal suicide missions are kind of their thing. With the fatality rate being what it is, the no-nonsense head of “Task Force X”, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), must pull from a finite bunch of surly imprisoned colorful baddies to make up her teams. The only thing different from last time about this literal do-or-die unit of superhuman inmates is that Waller’s push-button death remote control has devolved from an app on her phone to a desktop console that must be brought to her. Otherwise, it’s like the exposition she drops at the beginning of the film: “You know the deal: successfully complete the mission and you get ten years off your sentence. You fail to follow my orders in any way, and I detonate the explosive device in the base of your skull.” Just give her a reason…
Held in sway by that lingering threat is team leader Bloodsport (Idris Elba, replacing Will Smith’s Deadshot), sympathetic teen oddball Ratcatcher II (played by Daniela Melchior and named after her father, played by Taika Waititi), the human Wonder bread bag, Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), Blackguard (Pete Davidson, doing his thing), Javalin (Flula Borg, wielding a javelin), and the lovable lumbering dumb-as-a-post carnivore, King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone). If any of those character names mean remotely anything to you, congratulations, you’re a fan-geek. Together, these characters that no one cares about must infiltrate and destroy something called “Project Starfish”. The origins of this go back to some of the goofiest early issues of Justice League of America.
Perhaps more familiar are returning Squad members Colonial Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), and of course Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie- prominent, yet unimportant here). The most memorable character is the least appealing: John Cena’s silver-helmeted, retro-outfitted Peacemaker. The one-time Charlton Comics hero gravitated to DC Comics in the mid-1980s, and no one’s known what to do with him ever since. Gunn, doing what he does, snapped him up and re-imagined him as a “douchy bro” type, hyper-violent and gay coded out the wazoo. He says “I cherish peace with all my heart. I don’t care how many men, women, and children I need to kill to get it.” Go figure, this is the character they decided to spin off into an upcoming HBO Max series.
Full of choice musical cues, the film opens with the unmistakable beats & bass-vocals of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”. The song is plenty apt, telegraphing the film’s own outlaw sensibility within a mainstream entertainment industry. It’s clear from the outset that this Suicide Squad movie, unlike the previous one, would not be using its popular music needle drops willy-nilly. “Folsom Prison Blues” is still an appropriation, as are several other deeply personal songs utilized here for the sake of snarky cleverness. As far as such things go, however, Gunn’s musical notation is, unsurprisingly, spot-on.
Yet, the most deflating thing about The Suicide Squad is that this is Gunn’s artistic next step from his comparably play-by-the-rules Guardians films. (Which he is going right back to, with Vol. 3 slated for 2023- sooner than you think). Guardians has proven that a director can sustain a defined voice and emerge a name brand from within the Marvel Studios machine, which is all too often derided as cookie-cutter.
Meanwhile with The Suicide Squad, Gunn’s legitimately witty dialogue moments are overshadowed by the carnage and overstuffed chaos throughout. On top of that, it’s simply an ugly movie, sporting a blah palate of gunmetal grey, smoke, and rubble. It’s beautiful people playing ugly murderous anti-heroes in a mean-spirited film that doesn’t realize that about itself. Maybe The Suicide Squad is a typical DC movie after all.