This article discusses the plot of The Suicide Squad
When James Gunn announced that he was going to be bringing some much-needed Guardians Of The Galaxy energy to the flailing (and arguably failing) DC Extended Universe, it seemed like a killer soundtrack was a given. Gunn’s poptimist approach to superhero movies had felt like an influence on the first Suicide Squad’s supposed re-edit, leading to a film filled to the brim with forced needle drops that couldn’t find its rhythm. To say that Suicide Squad missed Gunn’s wit and taste would be an understatement. DC and Warner Bros. failed to recreate the success of the director’s first Guardians film, so why not just go for the genuine article with film two?
Gunn’s ability to place pop perfection amid the carnage and bombast of superhero spectacle is one of his great talents, and nowhere is that more explicit than in The Suicide Squad’s opening credit sequence. The scene leading to the credits is a bait-and-switch. Gunn builds up energy via a standard-issue covert op beach battle, a generic superhero score, a cast of fan favorites (including Gunn company players Nathan Fillion and Michael Rooker), and an on-the-nose Johnny Cash hit. But when the film’s first CGI creation, Weasel—who very easily could’ve been a breakout star à la Groot or King Shark—dives out of an airplane and drowns, the audience learns that no one’s particularly safe in front of Gunn’s camera. As each member of that Suicide Squad is torn apart, the opening credits kick in with the purest expression of the director’s vision: a graveyard of dead supervillains set to the sounds of The Jim Carroll Band’s “People Who Died.” No track could be more perfect. Like Carroll’s song, The Suicide Squad treats the horrors of human life and the violence of the modern world with exuberance, joy, and fun, a fitting commentary on the world-ending theatrics of superhero cinema if there ever was one. Gunn’s more willing to lean into our bloodthirsty predilections than other superhero movie directors.
The late poet, writer, and musician Jim Carroll is probably best known as the author of the memoir The Basketball Diaries, later turned into an early Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle. The Basketball Diaries chronicles Carroll’s life between the ages of 12 and 15 when he was a promising basketball player, small-time miscreant, and heroin addict in New York City’s once grimy Lower East Side. In 1980, Carroll released his first album, Catholic Boy, a raucous punk gem that found fans in Keith Richards, Lou Reed, and Patti Smith. Playing on the same themes of his memoir and poetry, which mostly detailed his turbulent adolescence, Catholic Boy is sometimes referred to as the “last great punk album”—though, it’s unclear who said this or why anyone, including this writer, keeps repeating it. But “People Who Died” sounds like it could be the last great New York punk song (even though it wasn’t). “People Who Died” gave off a whiff of Taxi Driver during an era when New York was starting to smell a little different. In a 1981 review for Rolling Stone, critic Ken Tucker wrote, “[Carroll] lets the band set the breakneck pace, then speeds after them, shouting a list of the names of his comrades who’ve shuffled off this hot-plate coil: ‘They were all my friends–and they died!’ he gulps. The absence of both sentimentality and ornamental imagery lends the song an edge of shocking humor.”
The Suicide Squad is far from the first film to use the song. One of its earliest appearances came just a few years after its release when Steven Spielberg included it in E.T. While it does foreshadow the danger that Elliott (Henry Thomas) and his friends would face later in the film, the charming story of a boy and his beer-swilling alien might not be the best venue for the tune. Honestly, the song, for all its direct messaging, is rarely used appropriately. It was even wasted in the film about Carroll. The Basketball Diaries drops an abridged version of “People Who Died” into an expressionistic, rain-drenched scene on the court. Unlike Gunn, the film’s director Steve Kalevert opted for Catholic Boy’s lower-key title track as the soundtrack for the opening credits and pretty much doomed the movie as a result. Mr. Robot, a show that’s underrated in terms of its needle drops, gets a lot of mileage out of the song, using it to play over a montage of the cast burning evidence. That works best because “People Who Died” is most comfortable among mischief and murder.
Just as the song pays unsympathetic tribute to the dead, so too does The Suicide Squad. As the credits start, the guitars ring out, the drums roll, and Carroll begins to sing, “Teddy sniffing glue he was 12 years old / Fell from the roof on East Two-Nine.” Gunn’s whirling camera pans up and spins around the dead and dying bodies that litter the beach, turning the brutalization of many of the film’s supposed principal players into a house party. As the director twirls the camera around T.D.K. (Fillion), who is coughing up bubbles of blood, Gunn cuts to the office of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), where her employees watch the massacre on console screens and give the finger to the dead supervillains, literally and figuratively. Meanwhile, Waller’s just upset that she’ll have more headaches before the mission is complete. These are people (and weasels) who died, but they are totally expendable. Gunn’s use of the song upends what audiences might think the movie will be, who’s starring in it, and what we should think of the characters. He lays out that not only are these characters disposable, but we should delight in their demise.
The film’s opening credits riff on Gunn’s previous film, Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2. Lauded for its soundtrack, GOTG Vol. 2 opens with Baby Groot dancing to Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky” as Groot’s partners are walloped by a just-out-of-frame space monster. Where Guardians distracts us from violence with an adorable CGI creation (one based on Gunn’s own movements), The Suicide Squad does the opposite. Instead, the director revels in the mayhem he created, using “People Who Died” as a mission statement for the rest of the film. The violence is the entertainment. It’s the reason we’re watching. It’s the reason Waller’s employees are having so much fun. It’s why we settle in for another two hours. Dancing Groot is funny in the context of mayhem. In The Suicide Squad, the violence is the joke.
The Suicide Squad is at its purest when singing in showers of blood, and no place is that more true than the opening credits. As Carroll names all the teens he knew who died, turning their obits into entertaining and cathartic punk perfection, Gunn does the same. The director takes the time to introduce us to the characters, lays the groundwork for future callbacks that will never be called back, and kills them all with glee. No one is safe in his world, regardless of billing. And it’s all in good fun because we don’t necessarily want to see these people live anyway. They’re supervillains, after all. Gunn dares us to enjoy the violence for its own sake and to hope that Superman doesn’t show up to stop the madness. Then, with “People Who Die” playing on the soundtrack, he delivers an opening that kills.