James Gunn could have blown up a whole island, if he felt like it. Accurate numbers for upcoming movies are difficult to come by, but with the original Suicide Squad budgeted at around $175 million, it seems safe to assume that the writer and director of its sequel had some pennies to play with when constructing his take on DC’s bankable squad of incarcerated villains-turned-reluctant-antiheroes. So what did he choose to do with that money? Did he create a breathtaking sci-fi cityscape, or pull off mind-boggling stunts that would make Tom Cruise jealous? No. He gave us John Cena in his skivvies and multiple characters whose prolonged, painful deaths are played for laughs. In many ways, the gleefully profane, anything-goes mayhem of The Suicide Squad feels like a mega-budget version of the Troma Studios productions that gave Gunn his start. And thank goodness for that.
Sure, you have your Shazam!s and your Ant-Mans, but on the whole, American superhero cinema has become preoccupied with the somber responsibility of being a demigod in a world full of helpless victims. In tone and content, The Suicide Squad is the antidote to that self-seriousness. (The simple fact that these are supervillains takes a lot of the weight off.) Opening with an orgy of bodies being torn to pieces in a wild beachfront massacre, Gunn’s film has little regard for human life, superpowered or civilian, and characters are offed with such irreverent abandon that it really feels like anything could happen. Combined with a giggly sense of humor that delights in all bodily functions (but particularly in poop and dick jokes), the giddy effect is akin to sucking on whippits while doing donuts in a grocery-store parking lot.
The volatile energy of the film’s intro carries through to the expository scenes, as boss lady Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) fetches incarcerated master assassin Bloodsport (Idris Elba) from his cell in the notorious Belle Reve prison and informs him that he has two options: join the infamous Task Force X, a.k.a. The Suicide Squad, or let his teenage daughter go to jail for shoplifting and endure a gauntlet of horrors in Belle Reve. The Waller of this film is even more amoral than the convicts she manages, and the mission she gives them is suspiciously simple. Step one: Invade a fictional South American banana republic, Corto Maltese, which recently ousted its American-backed government in a military coup. Step two: Liberate a sketchy-sounding piece of alien tech from a laboratory in the capital city under the control of evil super-scientist The Thinker (Peter Capaldi). Step three: Spread freedom or something?
By the time he’s dropped on the beach with a cache of very big guns, Bloodshot has been joined by a full crew of D-list DC miscreants. His traveling companions include Peacemaker (John Cena), a hyper-patriotic vigilante committed to protecting America’s shadier interests; Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), a thief with a special affinity for rodents she inherited from her father, played in flashbacks by Taika Waititi; The Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), a neurotic mess with mommy issues and a lifelong case of what can loosely be called color poisoning; and King Shark, a.k.a. Prince Nanaue (Sylvester Stallone), a big galoot introduced holding a book upside down and rumbling, “So smart me! Enjoy book so much!” Along the way, they’ll meet up with fellow agents Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), who were dropped off the night before on a different top-secret mission with a different team of costumed heavies.
Gunn excels in developing the dynamics of colorful, offbeat groups of characters. In this film, he has three, which almost feels like showing off. There are the Squads, of course, but also Waller’s staff back at Task Force X HQ, who observe and comment on and squabble about the action much like the control room crew in The Cabin In The Woods. The commentary is similarly meta, and very funny: In an early scene, the staff places bets on who will die first, throwing down cash in a generic office conference room like they’re at an underground dog fight. Steve Agee stands out as Waller’s second-in-command John Economos, but picking a favorite from among the supervillains is a more challenging task. King Shark, with his massive body and childlike mind, will almost assuredly be an audience favorite. And Cena once again proves himself to be a talented comedic actor as living action figure Peacemaker. But Melchior may be the film’s secret weapon, keeping the crew together when the guys’ macho dick-measuring contests get out of hand.
There’s a difference between smart-dumb and just plain dumb, and the shrewdness with which Gunn chooses his targets places him in the former category. The Suicide Squad skewers American exceptionalism and intervention abroad, satirizing people like Waller who are fine committing atrocities as long as the public doesn’t find out about them. Early on in the film, the Squad marches towards the camera in slow motion in front of a massive American flag, a shot we’ve seen many times before in movies about the U.S. kicking ass and taking names in some developing nation or another. Here, “defending freedom” is exposed for the absurd idea that it is.
It’s also hard not to interpret that shot as a bit of a flex from Gunn, who reclaims as his own the stylized aesthetics of Ayer’s Suicide Squad, a film that was reportedly recut to be more like another James Gunn movie, Guardians Of The Galaxy. He’s certainly better at needle drops, which are as prevalent here as they are in the 2016 Suicide Squad but also better chosen (fans of the AM Gold on the Guardians soundtracks will find a lot to like) and more organically woven into the fabric of the film. Although the action inevitably gets overwhelmed by CGI mayhem in the climactic set piece, Gunn’s colors are brighter, his compositions more legible, and his storytelling livelier than in Ayer’s version. This is a long film, as most contemporary superhero movies are. But it doesn’t feel like it, largely because the quip-a-minute script is full of jokes that, for the most part, actually land.
Perhaps the best metric for comparing Suicide Squads is how they treat the character of Harley Quinn. In Ayer’s film, Harley is a side character, obsessed with her boyfriend, who the camera continually ogles in short-shorts and high-heeled sneakers. In Gunn’s, she wears a red ball gown and work boots for much of the film, and is the focus its most prominent subplot, a save-the-princess scenario where the princess chokes a man to death with her thighs before bashing in the skulls of a couple dozen flunkies. Continuing the colorful whirl director Cathy Yan brought to Birds Of Prey, Gunn punctuates Harley’s big action-hero sequence with bright blooms of CGI flowers that spurt out of the wounds of the men she’s killed. The set piece makes sense as a glimpse into Harley’s demented mindset, but it’s also so bone-crunchingly, mind-numbingly violent that it raises the question of whether this is a workaround to avoid an NC-17 rating a lá the black-and-white sequences in Kill Bill, Vol. 1.
That this thought could even arise while watching the latest big-budget DCEU blockbuster underlines how much of a reset The Suicide Squad is for the genre. Now that superhero movies have gone from disreputable entertainment for children to global events ushered in with awed reverence, it was time for someone to come along and pop the balloon. Pulpy and outrageous, irreverent and ultraviolent, The Suicide Squad does so with a smile.