The Suicide Squad Review: Gunn on Auto-Fire
We live in a society…where Warner Bros. can spend hundreds of millions to let James Gunn remake Troma’s War with DC Comics characters. Lloyd Kaufman’s low-budget production company, from which Gunn initially emerged as a screenwriter, similarly set down a team of lead characters on an island beach where dastardly experiments may be afoot. And then proceeded to unleash bloody carnage upon them. To say more might be spoiling, but there are other similarities. Presumably the only folks who will recognize the commonalities will react more with amusement than annoyance, while non-Troma viewers need not care.
But while Gunn maintains his usual baseline of irreverent humor and character work in The Suicide Squad, this is the first of his movies that suggests he could stand to learn some new tricks. The Specials, Super, and Guardians of the Galaxy broke new ground; while The Suicide Squad plays like a greatest hits of all three.
Not that Gunn’s usual tricks aren’t fun. But in Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, there’s a diagetic reason for all the oldies on the soundtrack. For the first part of The Suicide Squad, the way each new scene starts with a new song from Gunn’s collection and plays like a music video becomes formulaic in its own way. This is, arguably, the movie many fans thought they were getting in 2016 based on the first Suicide Squad‘s Guardians-esque trailer.
However, it doesn’t really click until the director finally lets some scenes breathe, and establishes the mission goals. Once the large roster winnows down a bit, those who remain get the space to develop and work together against common foes. Or not, as the case may be.
Surprisingly, Gunn repeats several beats from previous DC movies. There’s an office battle and zombie-ish encounter that feel like David Ayer’s Suicide Squad. And a solo Harley Quinn fight sequence that demonstrates how Birds of Prey should have been shot. The Harley scene, like several others, sometimes shifts to her delusional perspective rather than reality. This includes the way that chapter headings appear, worked into the scenery, which cleverly evokes comic book techniques. Meanwhile, the monosyllabic, nigh-indestructible shark-man Nanaue (never addressed as King Shark onscreen) conjures memories of Groot. If Groot ate people.
As the de facto leader of the team, Idris Elba’s Bloodsport may seem too likable to be a villain, even when yelling obscenities at his daughter. But perhaps that’s the point, when his violent deeds contrast with his charismatic demeanor. By contrast, John Cena’s Peacemaker seems likely to become the next comic book character idolized by misanthropes for all the wrong reasons, a la Rorschach and the Punisher. Unlike Bloodsport, the movie clearly knows expects this.
A few other favorites include David Dastmalchian’s suicidal and matricidal Polka-Dot Man, the Bill the Cat-like Weasel, Michael Rooker’s not-as-cool-as-he-seems Savant, and Nathan Fillion as the surprisingly powered TDK. Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, of course, is always a joy. And DC will leave money on the table if they don’t start marketing plushes of Sebastian the rat immediately.
Critics of Marvel’s supposed pro-military tone may appreciate some of the critiques of global militarism herein. But it’s little that Troma didn’t already do; the Peacemaker spin-off for HBO Max could and should get more into all that. The small details are more fun. For example every member of the Squad, while imprisoned, wears Crocs that look pretty killer. That might just be the most abstract reference of all time.
Most of the emotional heft comes in at the last minute, as themes get spelled out that didn’t previously register amid all the violence. Not giving viewers much time to think them through could make them seem deeper than they are. David Ayer’s themes of love versus duty, buried mostly in the extended edition of the 2016 film, had all the more resonance because they took some discovering.
Many critics have already used the new film to bash the old; for those of us who appreciated it, the new one may be equal, but not necessarily superior. El Diablo remains one of the DCEU’s best characters. And though there’s not a lot of continuity, at least the returning characters recognize each other. Ayer’s “lost” original cut remains a disappointing omission in the HBO catalog.
Still, only a grinch or scold could fail to be reliably entertained by Gunn’s merry misfits and their misfortunes. And his choice of final villain — which the marketing already revealed, but we won’t here — leans into one of comics’ most absurd characters in a way that makes it simultaneously scary and ridiculous. The Suicide Squad is definitely a fun movie, but after only one viewing, it’s not clear that there’s anything more to it.
The Suicide Squad opens Friday in theaters and on HBO Max.
Recommended Reading: Suicide Squad Vol. 1: Trial by Fire