Take a look back at the last 15 years of comic book movies and you’ll notice a glaring turning point for the industry. Even before Iron Man landed on screens and sparked cinema’s most prolific franchise, the genre had a distinct influence. The model was Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, a set of self serious, true to the source — and most importantly hugely profitable — adaptations. Christopher Nolan would come along and make a Batman trilogy so dark, brooding — and again insanely profitable — that the formula would feel set in stone. Then, in 2014, James Gunn changed the game.
Guardians of the Galaxy, from the moment it was announced, brought out fierce debate among MCU fans and box office watchers. Sure, maybe Iron Man, Captain America, Thor et al. had been successful, but they were the big guns. There was no way that Marvel could make succeed a weird space opera starring the chubby guy from Parks and Rec, a talking raccoon and a sentient tree, right? Wrong. The movie, deeply flawed as it is, made over $750 Million at the box office and changed the whole tonal trajectory of Marvel specifically and comic book movies more broadly.
One Guardians sequel, a manufactured social media controversy and seven years later, Gunn is trying to do for DC what he did for Marvel in an equally unconventional manner. This film attempting to reset the table for DC is The Suicide Squad, a quasi reboot of 2017’s colossal failure: Suicide Squad. While it’s tough to discern whether this film is fully rebooting it’s woeful predecessor, remaking it or simply coexisting with it, the end result is a much more interesting film.
At a conceptual level there isn’t much daylight between the Suicide Squads imagined by Gunn and David Ayer. Each gathers together a group of super powered criminals to do the bidding of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, one of four actors reprising their original role) and her bosses in the US government. These supervillain squads are implanted with explosives meant to coerce them into sticking to the mission and, should they survive, they are rewarded with a reduced sentence.
So how can these films that share a name, a plot and a handful of characters and actors end up so vastly different in terms of quality? James Gunn seems to be the answer. It seems as though the veteran of the modern superhero genre is one of the very few who understands what these movies are supposed to be. Comic books and the whole media empire they’ve inspired are wildly popular because people want to see the fantastical come to life, to be carried into a fun and flashy sci-fi world that they can’t get anywhere else. Yet for years, the Zach Snyders and Russo Brothers of the world made big budget superhero epics defined by their sullenness, crushed by the self imposed weight of their gloomy grandiosity.
Even the rare comic book film that managed character development and thematic resonance lacked that inimitable whimsical quality to make it entertaining as well. Gunn figured out with Guardians of the Galaxy that the latter is much more important than the former when it comes to this type of film. With Guardians 2 he managed both and now with The Suicide Squad he’s ratcheted up the chaos and made one of the most joyous superhero movies in recent memory.
Everything about The Suicide Squad is a carefully threaded needle. It’s gory but rarely gratuitous, funny without feeling tiresome and laced with just enough thematic meaning to keep viewers engaged. Gone are the slightly more well known characters from the original like Deadshot and The Joker, replaced instead by Idris Elba’s Bloodsport and a collection of zany C-list villains like Peacemaker (John Cena), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) and, of course, Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian). Ditching the well known characters means a lot more freedom in storytelling.
Watching The Suicide Squad is all the more thrilling because anything can happen to any character. Wonderful as John Cena is as an actor, Peacemaker isn’t exactly a character that you’d expect to be off limits when deciding who doesn’t survive the film. Same goes for every villain at play here aside from Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). You’re made to care about a group of no name convicts and every one is expendable within the context of the film, resulting in a story with real stakes.
While much of the credit for that can go to Gunn, a great deal of it is on the actors as well. Robbie has long been lauded for her performances as Harley Quinn and it’s clear the affection she carries for that role. John Cena and Idris Elba do a lot of heavy lifting here as well. The two are somewhat adversarial throughout the film, acting as interesting foils for one another and providing consistent humor throughout the film. Newcomer Daniela Melchior lends more heart than you might imagine to a character whose whole deal is controlling rodents and her dynamic with Elba’s Bloodsport is genuinely touching.
Thematically, The Suicide Squad is thought provoking, if not entirely interrogative of the ideas it presents. There is a constant undercurrent critical of American imperialism and even mild critiques of the cruelty of incarceration. Neither theme gets explicitly explored, partly out of desire not to wade into a culture war news cycle in an otherwise light film, but mostly because the characters in this story have a certain self interest that blinds them to larger machinations at work.
Despite all the different ideas being thrown around and competing tones throughout, The Suicide Squad mostly avoids the types of pitfalls that ensnare other movies of its ilk. It isn’t until the very end, when much of the irreverence is dropped and viewers are asked to take seriously a bunch of costumed goobers fighting a very silly big bad, that things unravel a bit tonally. Gunn tries his best to keep the final set piece airy, but it’s a tough wire to walk when the stakes are set so high in a film that spent the prior hour and a half on a totally different wavelength.
Overall, The Suicide Squad is a good time. Unlike a lot of bland superhero films made to tee up other bland superhero films, Gunn’s is full of life (and brutal, gory death.) Rarely are you going to get the same emotional depth out of this genre that you would from more serious fare, so why not have fun with it? That’s what is so refreshing about The Suicide Squad, it aspires to entertain and in the process finds a bit more to say. 7/10