After their first appearance in DC Comics’ “The Brave and the Bold” issue 25 in 1959, the subversive military group known as Task Force X has known many members over its lengthy run. It’s not just because the missions they go on are high risk, but because the creator of the team, brilliant and merciless tactician Amanda Waller, would pull from the worst of the superpowered worst to fill her roster when it ran low. Why would anyone from the likes of Captain Boomerang, Harley Quinn, Slipknot, Deadshot, Bane, or any of the others of DC Comics’s hall of villains join such a unit? It’s not out of American pride or restitution, but the opportunity to lose 10 years from whatever prison sentence they’ve earned. The second live-action take on this rotating roster comes in the form of writer/director James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, a soft reboot/sequel to the 2016 David Ayer film, Suicide Squad, which introduced the cast, their characters, and the concept to wider audiences. If the press is to be believed, Gunn experienced none of the studio interference that Ayer did, meaning that the film hitting theaters and HBO Max is the exact version he envisioned. The end result? Something that captures the graphic novel experience more accurately than any comic-inspired or adapted film since Zack Snyder’s Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut (2009). It’s colorful, yet somber; hilarious, yet profound; violent, yet tender. It’s a whole host of discordant ideas which come together as only a James Gunn film can, bringing all the highs and lows one has come to expect from the just-off-center director.
After a coup removes the royal family of Corto Maltese, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) dispatches Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and the current roster of Task Force X to infiltrate the island, make contact with the presiding science expert Doctor Gaius Grieves (a.k.a. Thinker) (Peter Capaldi), destroy his project, and get out. But like all missions this team is set out on, it’s never as simple as Waller’s briefing implies as she tends to keep all information on a need-to-know basis.
Before going any further, there will be no discussion/comparison to the Ayer release. If you want to know my thoughts on it, you can check out our theatrical release review. Outside of this, there’s no reason to get into it further unless a director’s cut is ever released. Moving on before Amanda Waller sets off the charge imbedded in my skull.
The Suicide Squad is a war film in the truest sense of the phrase. Task Force X is assigned to enter a country embroiled in a bloody coup and, unlike in other DC Comics films, there’s no guarantee of safety. This is the single thing that sets this film apart from, say, other DCEU entries or comic adaptations at large. Just because there’s a household name or fan favorite actor/character doesn’t mean they’re going to make it off the beach, as it were. One reasoning for this is it sets up the notion that not a single character is safe from the reaper’s scythe, establishing that there are consequences to choices here. There’s no resurrection for the mutilated, no savior for the doomed, no Mother Box to restore life. Snyder did this at the start of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) by killing long-time DC Comics character and best pal to Superman James Olsen (Michael Cassidy), but it served no real purpose other than shock value. In Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, there’s a greater sense of fragility and permanence because of this, making it possible to unload a great deal of mayhem which brings a series of infinite possibilities with it. To actually feel nervous for the characters, to feel some kind of shock or surprise, honestly comes across as a revelation. Too often the characters within these stories are superhuman to the point of invincibility and it gets dull. Given his work in films like Super (2010) and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 (2014) and Vol 2. (2017), it should not shock that Gunn’s script is capable of pulling off the delicious balancing act of unnerving tension that rests between horror and elation.
By the by, it’s worth noting that this film is higher on the violence factor than your average comic book film. It earns its R-rating by not just spilling a few drops of blood, but running rivers of it. It’s not gratuitous either, as one might expect with the demigod Nanaue, a.k.a. King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone; on-set played by Steve Agee), on the active roster. Rather, it’s a heighten version of what a war-time experience might be like. Bullets don’t just pierce a body, they rip and tear as they do. Knives slash and slice, marring flesh and muscle. This covers some of what former soldiers like Bloodsport (Idris Elba) or Peacemaker (John Cena) do in their proverbial pissing contest over who’s the better killer (by the way, the film’s metajoke about their basic identical backgrounds is a beautiful touch over the often uninspired backstories the comic industry creates for their characters) but doesn’t even cover what Nanaue gets into on his own. What’s truly noteworthy about the violence isn’t how much of it or how graphic (not much worse than 2018’s Deadpool 2 “Death of X-Force” sequence, just for the whole film), but the undertone of it all. Even when comical in execution, the purpose of the violence, as revealed through the narrative, is chilling. If all you’ve seen from the narrative is the appearance of Starro the Conqueror, then you must know that there’s more to story than that. If not, you do now, and that’s not so much a spoiler as it is a part of the genius of the film. It pulls in the audience with promises of villains playing the hero, offering a chance for the average movie-goer to delight in some third-party destruction conscious and consequence-free, but Gunn’s narrative goes to some dark places which, though inspired by actual storylines from the DC Comics catalog, speaks to a real issue of perceived global supremacy which may have some people wondering who the real bad guys are, like a Mitchell and Web sketch. War stories do tend to have just as many twists or shocks as other genres, but its uncharacteristic within the comic book subgenre, enabling The Suicide Squad to inspire shock and, hopefully, a little bit of thought regarding what and who we, the audience, consider “good” or “bad” and why.
It’s not just the complexity of the narrative that sets the film apart, it’s also the style of execution, for better or worse. Much like the Guardians films, TSS derives most of its musical accompaniment from a soundtrack of hits including “Folsom Prison Blues” from Johnny Cash, “Whistle For The Choir” from The Fratellis, and “Point of No Return” by Kansas, though the difference is that the songs are far less significant to the meaning of the moment and are just pieces of flair. Though the songs are delightful bops, there’re so many of them that it becomes a distraction, whereas the music by John Murphy (Sunshine) might’ve helped with the mood of the moment without taking on the feel of a music video. Recent Disney Studios release Cruella suffered from this as well, opting to use licensed works to enhance or convey meaning to a moment, but it’s so overdone as to pull you out once the needle drops. Another aspect that’s hard to decipher is in two key moments with different characters. For Harley, it’s the flowers that seem to burst forth from behind her as she takes on some generic goons. There’s no rhyme or reason for it other than to look cool, disappearing about as quickly as it presented itself. EoM editor Crystal Davidson theorized that it might be a way to visually represent Harley’s view of the world, but it only happens once. The strange nature of it is beguiling yet unnecessary. In the other, a fight is shown reflected off Peacemaker’s helmet. In the moment, I found it distracting, but, giving it thought, I can’t help but wonder if it’s intended as a distorted reflection for the fight of the combatants’ souls. (Can only hope for robust bonus features in the home release which might explain the purpose.) One area of style that was absolutely welcomed and enhanced the feeling of watching not a comic book, but an entire graphic novel, is the use of in-film text denoting a new chapter, location, or time period much in the same way a title might be integrated into the first few pages of an actual comic. Rather than use the Marvel standard text format over a scene, Gunn uses CG bubbles on a toilet, fire from a siege, or whatever’s lying around to form the title of the chapter. Even though this may be the hardest thing for audiences to latch onto as part of the world stylistically, it’s one of the pieces which make the whole film feel like a grander graphic novel versus a single-issue arc. It’s not Tarantino Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair epic, but on a similar vein of thinking. And don’t kid yourself, TSS is grand. It’s huge in scope and size, yet, by some miracle of casting, direction, and narrative, it’s also incredibly personal, allowing for there to be stakes you’ll find yourself deeply invested in.
Look, going spoiler-free on a film like The Suicide Squad is an unexpectedly hard undertaking. How does one explore or examine the feeling of regained purpose, of humanity, that the story navigates deftly without ruining surprises or emotional touchtones? How does one discuss the teardown of American imperialism at the center of the tale? How does one talk about the villains of the film with any real depth without calling them by their name? You can’t. You just can’t. For that, you’ll have to wait until the home release when the period of limitations is gone and I will go buckwild. Until then, know this: Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is nothing like what we’ve seen before. Even if you think it’s the worst of the DCEU, you’ll recognize this. Personally, I can’t tell where I would place this film on my list without at least a second viewing. Even then, I may struggle to tell if TSS is a film I’d want to revisit in the way I take joy in Birds of Prey (2020), Wonder Woman (2017), or Shazam! (2019). The entire cast has such wonderful moments that to pick one among them as a favorite would be a disservice to the rest — though Daniela Melchior’s Ratcatcher 2 is the undeniable MVP of the whole production, with Elba’s Bloodsport being a close second—– yet there’s this underlying yuck of the film, this moral filth and decay beneath the glorious spectacle that makes TSS uncomfortable. There’s nothing wrong with films considered of a high quality that make you uncomfortable — Uncut Gems (2019) and Mother! (2017) are prime examples — but rating them amongst others proves treacherous. I applaud Gunn for going where he does and the cast for being game. The Suicide Squad is far from a revelation as a film, but it’s certainly a rejuvenation of the subgenre.
In select theaters August 6th, 2021 and will be available on HBO Max for 31 days from theatrical release.
For more information, head to WB Pictures’s official The Suicide Squad website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.