Although the blame can’t be laid squarely at David Ayer’s door, 2016’s Suicide Squad was a creative bust, if a commercially successful one. A band of bad guys, murderers and villains thrown together to save the world had plenty of potential to stand out among the pack of identikit superhero blockbusters, but it was butchered by the studio to fit the mold it should have been desperate to escape from.
Just days after being fired by Disney, Warner Bros. stepped in to offer James Gunn any comic book property of his choosing to write and direct. He plumped for The Suicide Squad, and it’s easy to understand why. The filmmaker got his start at schlock merchants Troma, and despite being the guy who wrote Scooby-Doo, his personal preference has always been for the dark, dirty, grungy and subversive. Take those inspirations, bolt it onto the big budget framework he mastered on Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy, and you’ve got arguably the best movie the DCEU has ever seen.
Diving too far into plot specifics would be heading too far into spoiler territory, but you definitely don’t want to get too attached to any members of Task Force X, with the first few minutes of The Suicide Squad making it abundantly clear that anyone and everyone is expendable. The setup is largely the same as Ayer’s opener, in that Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller recruits another gaggle of misfits to head deep into enemy territory and pull off a mission that none of them are guaranteed to survive, but it’s in the execution where the hybrid of reboot and sequel thrives.
Gunn has always been impeccable when it comes to his casting, and while each member of the ensemble pitches their performance in entirely different ways, and many of them seem to be operating in completely different genres to their co-stars, it all blends seamlessly together to create a suitably dysfunctional and irreverent whole. Davis is one of the finest actors in the business, and she brings a furious and often terrifying intensity to Waller, as if she’d been plucked straight from a prestige drama or political thriller rather than a movie where a giant starfish wants to take over the world.
For years, blockbuster cinema has failed to utilize Idris Elba to his maximum potential, but Gunn doesn’t make that mistake. Bloodsport lets Elba bring his grizzled charisma, steely-eyed intensity and self-deprecating charm to the fore, while also remembering that the guy can be hilarious when he wants to be. Similarly, the recent Fast & Furious 9 painted John Cena as a bland meathead, but when it comes to deadpan comedy, he’s something else entirely. The running rivalry between Bloodsport and Peacemaker is a highlight throughout, especially in one action sequence that doubles as a d*ck-measuring contest, figuratively of course.
Meanwhile, Margot Robbie has mastered Harley Quinn, and you fully believe that she’s completely insane and yet the smartest person in the room, which often unfolds in the space of a single scene, and Gunn wasn’t lying when he waxed lyrical about her barnstorming solo set piece that devolves into a candy colored explosion of floral petals, because that’s the kind of movie we’re talking about.
Additionally, Peter Capaldi’s The Thinker is basically The Thick of It‘s Malcolm Tucker as a supervillain, which is just as great as it sounds. Daniela Melchior’s Ratcatcher 2 is the closest The Suicide Squad has to an audience surrogate as someone who followed in the family business, but is neither a criminal mastermind nor a killer, before she forms a father/daughter bond of sorts with Bloodsport that provides a strong emotional throughline tying their stories together. King Shark is exactly the scene-stealing presence you’d hope him to be, the gentle-ish giant managing to generate laughs and empathy even as he literally tears people in half. A special mention should go to David Dastmalchian’s Polka Dot Man, though, who gets the best running gag of the film thanks to the mommy issues that define his entire existence.
Even though The Suicide Squad possesses a frenetic pace from the first frame, it does sag a little in the middle when yet another subplot is introduced into the mix, but it’s easy to forgive minor flaws when everything surrounding it is so much damn fun. Gunn has always been underrated when it comes to his ability to imbue emotion into his scripts, when most of the focus tends to fall on the humor and/or violence, but you end up caring about these characters and becoming invested in who makes it out alive, even though the movie never tries to paint them as anything other than a despicable and immoral cabal of criminality only looking out for themselves.
Gunn mixes and matches who interacts with who, freely playing with timelines and story structure while he’s at it, with his razor sharp script yielding a string of hilarious exchanges, whether it be through dialogue or the circumstances Task Force X find themselves in. Everyone gets at least one ‘hero moment’, and the fairly rote subplot about military dissension in Corto Maltese even allows him to sneak in sociopolitical subtext about the dangers of imperialism into what’s a men on a mission movie in the vein of The Dirty Dozen or When Eagles Dare, but one that’s the unique and entirely singular vision of a filmmaker given the blank canvas on which to paint their bizarre, blood-soaked masterwork.
On paper, The Suicide Squad could be reductively boiled down to ‘Guardians with an R-rating’, and it would have been easy for Gunn to craft exactly that movie with The Suicide Squad. Instead, he’s delivered a brutally violent, joyously irreverent, foul-mouthed and often downright nasty piece of work, but one that still manages to create both dramatic and emotional stakes while unleashing both his and his cast’s talents to the fullest, and the end result is a spectacularly bonkers movie that you can scarcely believe a studio like Warner Bros. agreed to green light, given their reputation for heavy-handed interference.
The Suicide Squad is James Gunn at his most unhinged, unrestrained and unleashed, but the result is one of the best DC movies in years.