(THE SUICIDE SQUAD premieres in theaters Friday, August 6th)
To talk about THE SUICIDE SQUAD is to compare it with everything else. Mainly because James Gunn’s reboot/sequel to the disastrous David Ayer 2016 film invites it so freely. For DC, it represents a chance to break free of the critically reviled, grimdark depictions of moody superheroes and leap into the celebrated pastures previously owned by Marvel. As a result, THE SUICIDE SQUAD (with the definitive ‘the’ an apparent jab at that other picture) is the most fun DC film to date. But it’s also an example of why they always stumble so hard.
THE SUICIDE SQUAD washes away its prior version right from the start. Any connection to Ayer’s film is wiped clean within the first ten minutes, and Gunn can’t help but take multiple jabs at the horrific exposition dumps of his predecessor. This new version is notably better on the writing front, and it’s a relief to see that all introductions end before you know it.
But said jabbing is also incredibly smug and not entirely earned, either. Instead, it’s the kind of mean posturing that comes naturally for DC and its filmmakers. While Gunn’s script is better than what it’s replacing, that doesn’t mean it’s the tight and smart package it thinks it is. If anything, THE SUICIDE SQUAD suffers from a significant case of bloat and clunkiness, especially when compared to Gunn’s far better work on THE GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.
Most notable of said bloat is the constant and unnecessary flash backward and forwards. While the entire opening number utilizes this break from expectations beautifully, the fifth time around, it feels jarring. A major piece of the climax turns underwhelming because of this, and it’s like Gunn can’t rely on the strength of his characters alone for some reason.
Which is odd, as they are some of the best-written and performed anti-heroes in the DC lineup. Idris Elba hasn’t been this animated in years, relishing his part as the surly and taciturn Bloodsport. John Cena strikes the perfect combination of menace and absurdity as Peacemaker and David Dastmalchian lends a jittery warmth to the ludicrous Polka-Dot Man.
Sadly, even with all the bravado and charisma Margot Robbie brings to the part, Harley Quinn is yet again let down by the material. Unlike the fantastic BIRDS OF PREY, which, alongside the excellent TV series, finally gave Harley something to do, SQUAD feels like a step back. Once again, she’s more of a punchline, and while the film is nowhere as leery and tawdry as Ayer’s nonsense, Gunn still can’t help but cast Robbie as the murderous sexpot. An extended side plot involving Harley playing princess is worthless, bringing nothing to the already long picture. (Not to mention a downright awful moment where she laments the size of a victims penis.)
In the end, it’s Daniela Melchior and Sylvester Stallone who steal the show as the film’s beating heart(s), Ratcatcher 2 and King Shark. For the most part, they’re the least DC characters in the roster, even as Gunn can’t help but overdo it with King Shark at times. While the former has to deliver some horrendous exposition (just because it’s not all frontloaded doesn’t mean it’s not there), Melchior imbues the character with warmth and pathos at every turn. But it’s Stallone, cast perfectly as the monstrous but cuddly killing machine, who consistently delivers laughs with every nuanced drawl.
It’s only when SQUAD ignores this dynamic that the big picture grates. Gunn, a veteran of the Troma studio who made his name with gore-fests like SLITHER, loves his violence. And DC, bless them, still seem to think that death is the same thing as having stakes. It’s fun in the beginning, where Gunn takes out a slew of C-list DC characters in an outrageously entertaining massacre. There’s even an intriguing undercurrent of satire implying that while superpowered, these are still mentally deranged individuals used by powerful governments as fodder.
But SQUAD does nothing with these elements, even as Gunn bashes the viewer over the head with some truly unsubtle criticism of American foreign policy. It’s unsubtle because it needs to make the viewers believe they’re learning something new, but think about the story any harder in retrospect, and it remains pitifully shallow. It’s not as childish as Zack Snyder’s woeful attempts to depict Batman, but it’s not great, either.
And most of that is because DC can’t decide who it’s for. In another world, THE SUICIDE SQUAD would be the perfect vehicle for a masterful satirist like Paul Verhoeven. But that would be a film for adults, and there’s no way in hell any studio would launch a 150 million dollar picture without certainty it appeals to the widest demographic. So, instead, SQUAD pulls its punches, and doesn’t rock the boat.
But then, as if to say it’s not “kid’s film,” it amps up the gore in places it doesn’t need to. As a result, it all feels wildly psychotic. Too violent for kids, too childish for adults. I’d be curious to see if another cut solved these issues, (especially since a brief interlude into Harley’s world promises so much more), but they seem buried too deep into the DC DNA at this point.
Strangely, all this makes THE SUICIDE SQUAD a better film, believe it or not. Because unlike it’s predecessors, (which are either overwrought or downright repellent), it is an interesting swing at the bat. Gunn’s script, while never as clever as it believes itself to be, is rarely dull, and at least it leaves you thinking. They might not all be thoughts it probably wants you to have, but there’s no denying that SQUAD represents a step in a better direction.
For DC, after all this time, that’s downright miraculous.