What a difference an article makes.
For most comics-savvy moviegoers, Suicide Squad is synonymous with “mess” — a (moneymaking) misfire that was hard to sit through despite the arrival of Margot Robbie’s immensely charismatic Harley Quinn. But put a “The” in front of that title and things change: James Gunn’s gleefully violent new picture mostly ignores David Ayer’s 2016 dud — but isn’t a reboot. Not only does it find the nastily enjoyable vibe that eluded its predecessor, but it also tells a story worth following — while balancing its most appealing character with others whose disposability (they aren’t sent on suicide missions for nothin’) doesn’t prevent them from being good company onscreen. Bonus: Unlike Ayer, Gunn never looks at Robbie as if he’s hoping for a lap dance.
The Suicide Squad
Second time’s the charm.
Harley aside, the key holdover from 2016 is Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller, the shady government official who oversees a prison full of supervillains and occasionally forces them to run black ops they’re unlikely to survive. She’s a character without a trace of empathy, and as Waller conducts one-sided negotiations with “volunteers,” Davis is more than steely; she’s carved from granite. (Cracks in that hardness will appear, late in the tale, but only when a global catastrophe is at hand.)
Gunn’s script is more efficient with exposition than the average movie trailer. We’ve barely swallowed the first handful of popcorn when we see a prisoner (played by Gunn’s good-luck charm Michael Rooker) enlisted by Waller, fitted with a device that will blow his head off if he disobeys her, and sent off on a mission under Rick Flag, the soldier tasked with keeping homicidal maniacs from killing each other instead of the enemy. (Joel Kinnaman, as Flag, was also in the first film.)
Rooker’s stringy-haired con flies into battle with allies ranging from a man-size weasel to an ordinary wiseass (Pete Davidson) and some garden-variety costumed weirdos. Don’t get too attached to these characters, dear viewer, because the opening credits still haven’t rolled, and there’s no telling who’ll make it past that point. That credits sequence, emblazoned with a Tarantino-worthy title card and accompanied by Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died,” whips through a disastrous battle with the energy of a filmmaker who knows you hated the other Suicide Squad, isn’t going to say you’re wrong, and is certain he can win you over.
A few mildly tricky storytelling moves later, focus has shifted to Bloodsport, a mercenary played by Idris Elba. The most reluctant member of the Suicide Squad (make that “Task Force X”), he’s also its logical leader, even if his skill set is exactly duplicated by another alpha male, John Cena’s chrome-helmeted Peacemaker. Is it possible Cena got even bigger to play this guy, whose off-kilter reasoning makes him willing to kill any number of people in the pursuit of peace? Either way, his muscle-headed machismo pairs well with Elba’s more calculating demeanor, and a scene in which each tries to prove he’s more lethal than the other — a very R-rated spin on the elf-vs.-dwarf gag in Lord of the Rings — is among the pic’s comic highlights.
Other key players remind you that DC has been around for so many decades, it has used up every decent idea for a super-character and then just kept going. Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) can control rats, but she can’t do the other cool stuff that makes Ant-Man’s job so exciting; Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) has abilities so idiotic that Gunn reinvents him completely, borrowing from Norman Bates and the Elephant Man. Then there’s Nanaue, a walking shark who can breathe air and pairs superhuman strength with subhuman intelligence. A well-crafted CG character voiced by Sylvester Stallone, he bridges the distance between Groot and Dave Bautista’s Drax in Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films.
Amanda Waller has sent all these and more to the fictional island nation Corto Maltese, where a recent coup unseated a regime that was friendly to the United States. A mysterious science facility there houses Project Starfish, which must be destroyed before the new dictators can exploit its military potential. All we know at the start is that it involves something extraterrestrial. As Starfish’s secrets unfold, the project suggests we move down the alphabet from DC’s comics to EC, the publisher of fantastically weird sci-fi and horror stories; Starfish may stop just short of Lovecraftian horror, and eventually take an entertainingly weird, candy-colored detour, but any EC cartoonist would’ve been happy to use it to give kids nightmares.
Harley spends most of her time on the island separated from the other Squadsters (Squadders? Squadites?), affording her an unlikely romance and a rather more foreseeable instance of self-determination. She learns that her brand of cheerful anarchy has made her a hero around the globe — “You symbolize anti-American fervor,” she’s told, and Robbie lets an instant of confusion pass through Harley’s eyes, as if her flouting of the rules of human behavior is so fundamental that she’d never imagine caring about a system of government, pro or con.
A couple of conspicuous stylistic choices (like printing subtitles in Template Gothic, a very dated typeface whose heyday was Reality Bites) might cause one to wonder if Gunn wants to do for the ‘90s what he did for ‘70s AM radio fluff in Guardians. But no such musical identity emerges here, and the pic’s needle drops are mostly uninteresting.
That’s not such a bad thing for a comic book Dirty Dozen that is busy finding new ways for skulls to lose their structural integrity onscreen. Gunn pairs fairly extreme violence and grown-up language with costumes and character design that don’t shy away from the four-color ridiculousness of fandom’s early days. (If you thought Sam’s new costume in Falcon and the Winter Soldier was a little dorky, you’ll find much more to snicker at here.)
Gone are the charcoaled-up primary colors of Zack Snyder’s logy DC superfriends, and gone, thank Jor-El, are references to that world. Superman’s name is dropped once (Bloodsport put him in the ICU with a kryptonite bullet), but references to Joker are indirect, and nobody else is even worth mentioning. That’s only one of the welcome surprises in The Suicide Squad — a movie whose biggest surprise is that it deserves to exist at all.