If the name alone didn’t suggest that the first Suicide Squad was going to try very hard to be a “grown up” superhero movie, we had the violence, vulgar personas and ugly take on humanity digging deep into the idea, first imagined as a comic book theme by writer John Ostrander. Despite a top-notch cast and big-budget bravado at every turn, that film was a turn-off in more ways than one. Its muddled narrative and overzealous editing never let you care about anyone – not even the beguilingly goofy Harley Quinn. And don’t even get us started on that silly hip-hop-ish Joker. Director David Ayer has said that none of this was his fault, but rather, that the problem was with the studio’s cut. Now he’s angling for a Zack Snyder director’s version re-release, and we say why not give it to him, DC?
In the meantime, we have The Suicide Squad, a reboot that takes aim at bettering the concept in name (“the” implies it’s superior, right?) and spirit. Once again the U.S. government decides to send jailed supervillains out to do its dirty work, this time to infiltrate the remote island of Corto Maltese for a search-and-destroy mission. And destroy they do. There’s more blood and gore, which should satisfy horror hordes’ thirst and kids who want to feel naughty watching a hard R-rated film. Still, this one isn’t really mindless mayhem even if it feels like it at times. Director James Gunn’s gift for self-aware humor and bringing the heart out of even the weirdest intergalactic villains in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy movies is at play here, and damn if it doesn’t suck you in from the get go.
Deadpool is still funnier, but this Squad isn’t far behind in terms of darkly comical adult fantasy, which means it’ll make you wince and smile at the same time. Margot Robbie’s Harley gets a lot more screen time and as in the effervescent Birds of Prey, she’s the baddest bad guy here, reacting in ways that are both relatable and ridiculous. When she bludgeons villainous suitor General Silvio Luna (Juan Diego Botto) in his own palace after a messy, sexy tryst and proposal (he sees her as his anti-American dream girl) her reasoning for offing him actually makes sense: too many red flags there, sir. Her toxic relationship with “Mister J” apparently taught her a few things, and while her actions are drastic, for her they make sense. The energy of these scenes and the ones that follow are clearly about female empowerment. Social media followers might find this a bit ironic considering the hot water Gunn found himself in after old tweets making light of rape and pedophilia resurfaced, but that seems to have blown over for now and Harley’s redemption – which began with Prey director Kathy Yan’s take – is cemented in a way that feels intentional and poetic in Gunn’s hands.
The ultra-masculine, slightly buffoonish moments of squadrons The Peacemaker (a corny John Cena) and Bloodsport (a less corny Idris Elba), intentionally or not, add to the feminist subtext here, not to mention the beastly ways of fishman King Shark (Steve Agee), the meek yet menacing hues of Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) and the animal-loving allure of the other female lead character, Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior). Together the oddball crew conjure the chemistry that was lacking amongst Will Smith and his killer cohorts in the first film, though it’s safe to say this one benefitted from knowing what to avoid in editing and writing missteps.
A Suicide constant is Viola Davis’ head agent Amanda Waller, who is colder and more ruthless than ever here, embodying the film’s essential questions about right and wrong and good vs. evil in a way that may not be subtle, but fits the volatile vibe. Are her intentions for getting these characters together actually good? What about the individual Suicide Squad members themselves? And most significantly, what about our country’s objectives past, present and future? As the current news of the world reminds us, when it comes to helping/hurting other nations, the ‘America first’ attitude can lead to far too many innocent casualties.
The social commentary might be blatant, but the over-the-top action and CGI-candy still leaves a bigger impression as a superhero movie is expected to these days. The Suicide Squad pulls off more than anyone might have expected based on the first movie, and it’s way more fun than most of what DC has put out thus far. But despite positive reviews (this one included) it’s not reinventing any universes or even providing comics fans with Marvel-ous new layers to explore. Even so, it’s memorable enough to feel like a substantial step.