‘The Suicide Squad’: James Gunn Redeems the DC Title With Gory Laughs and Wild Heart

Misfits make the best heroes because they save the day while channeling our instinctive disdain for authority. “The Suicide Squad” is the perfect vehicle for this idea because it also defines a cinematic misfit. It’s the spirit of this movie that makes it a truly fun ride. A lot of that is no doubt owed to director James Gunn, who brings to the DC cinematic universe a lot of the rambunctious energy that made his “Guardians of the Galaxy” for Marvel an instant hit. Gunn doesn’t repeat himself here. The material is edgier, bloodier, with humor Disney has probably banned from its studio lot. The result is a film of particular, politically incorrect joy. Even when the plot becomes cliché, it’s more about the attitude and aesthetic.

This is the kind of movie that doesn’t bother with long passages of exposition. Right from the beginning it’s off and running. A bloody battle on the fictional South American island of Corto Maltese entraps Task Force X, the secret team created by government bureaucrat Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), and led by all-American Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman). Waller must then put together another version of the infamous “suicide squad” by recruiting imprisoned misfits with super abilities, promising them leniency if they help stop a major threat. Coerced by Waller into being team leader is super assassin Bloodsport (Idris Elba), whose 16-year-old daughter has been arrested for petty theft. If Bloodsport plays along, Waller promises to keep his daughter out of prison. Completing the team are ultra-patriot Peacemaker (John Cena), emotionally devastated Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), rat whisperer Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), and King Shark (Sylvester Stallone), a talking, walking shark possibly descended from sea gods who speaks in simple, one-word phrases.  Their mission will be to enter Corto Maltese to destroy the facility where the island’s anti-American regime has been carrying out experiments with an intergalactic creature, Starro, which could threaten the planet. Unknown to the team, still alive on the island is Task Force X operative and loon Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). 

James Gunn became attached to “The Suicide Squad” after famously being temporarily fired by Disney, after some ancient tweets landed him in the cancel culture zone. For Warner Bros. it’s a big win since the studio has been trying for years to offer their own costumed alternative to Marvel’s commercial behemoth. No title was more fitting since the original, atrocious 2016 “Suicide Squad” by David Ayer was an early attempt to replicate what Gunn did so well with “Guardians of the Galaxy,” from making underdogs the heroes to scoring portions of the film to classic rock. The first massacre in Gunn’s movie again proves why he’s so good at this particular stylistic touch, framing the carnage to Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died.” At the same time he isn’t recycling all of the “Guardians” formula. For “The Suicide Squad,” Gunn and cinematographer Henry Braham leave behind the slicker MCU look for a gritty, ‘70s-inspired aesthetic that references B-movies or war films like “The Dirty Dozen.” Keen movie buffs will also catch a quick, witty nod at Sam Peckinpah’s “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.” For Gunn it’s a sharp way of showing off the film’s credentials, since it’s that rare superhero movie that boasts an R-rating. 

As expected the R is well-earned just through how graphic the violence gets. Gunn gleefully shows off a lot of heads getting blasted apart, axes going through skulls, or King Shark tearing a soldier apart, while roaring in the rain. Here we get the first DC movie with a penis shot. There are also smaller moments of morbid humor, like a bird choking on the flesh of a corpse during the opening credits. Gunn is too much of a natural satirist to just make it about the gore, however. Even in his low-budget days, when writing fare like “Tromeo & Juliet” or directing “Super,” Gunn is happier dropping a shocking joke or writing oddball dialogue. “The Suicide Squad” has the feel of a director who knows how to absorb the premise and then make it his own. In the opening mission we meet a Task Force X member, Weasel (Sean Gunn), who other team members warn eats children. Once they land on the island, someone instantly drowns, another hero, T.D.K (Nathan Fillion) can unleash his arms to fly at opponents but then he writhes as an armless torso when hit, while Savant (Michael Rooker reuniting with Gunn), who gets a big intro, just runs off terrified.  The screenplay celebrates comic books while also subverting the genre.

The key way in which Gunn comments on the whole idea of costumed characters is by vividly writing the Suicide Squad with hilarious, sometimes biting details. Peacemaker boasts that he loves liberty so much he doesn’t care how many women and children need to die. Polka-Dot Man has lingering frustrations and inner rages pertaining to his mom. So the only way to really get him to unleash his deadly polka-dots is by making him see the visage of his mother in a target. King Shark might just eat a friend if he gets hungry enough. Gunn has no time for the self-righteous, model citizen antics of a Superman, he feels at home with anti-heroes who are psychologically unbalanced and dealing with phobias (Bloodsport hates rats). Idris Elba plays his role with the rugged presence that again proves he would have been a perfect James Bond. Like Vin Diesel’s Groot in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Sly Stallone’s King Shark is kind of sweet, prone to saying “nom nom” when hungry or making figurines out of explosives. Even the villains pale in comparison to the Squad. In fact, the regime of Corto Maltese is the plot’s weakest point. Much of the middle of the film can drag a little as required action movie time is spent with dictators and generals that look like typical Latin clichés. One of them is thankfully blown away by Harley after some rowdy sex. 

The last section of the movie is where the action becomes classic Gunn, bursting with his visual wildness. Starro becomes a rampaging kaiju, aquariums unleash killer fish and Harley ends up swimming inside a massive eyeball. As a stylist, Gunn basks in how comic book aesthetics give you room to truly conjure anything at all on screen, mixing surrealism with color schemes Andy Warhol would approve of. So many action films and comic book adaptations recycle the same look and climactic battle scenes, that it’s refreshing when Gunn delivers the necessary, crumbling buildings then switches to a deranged, almost Punk spirit for the finale. This is what makes “The Suicide Squad” the strongest entry yet in the DC movie canon. There have been a few entertaining, grandiose deliveries like “Aquaman” and the first “Wonder Woman,” but typically DC films have been overly digital, even somber affairs. “The Suicide Squad” rides its own ticket, not caring about what the other movies were attempting to do. There’s more pathos in King Shark sitting in the back of a van, silently watching the grit of an island’s back alleys pass by, than your average bullet fest. It’s a blood-soaked ride that knows how to take advantage of the fact that it’s just a movie.

The Suicide Squad” releases Aug. 6 on HBO Max and in theaters nationwide.