The story of how The Suicide Squad made it to the big screen is just as wild and turbulent as what ended up in the final movie. In the wake of Marvel’s unprecedented success over the last decade, rival DC comics sought to capitalize on their own legion of characters in the hopes that they weren’t going to fall too far behind. Riding off the success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, parent studio Warner Brothers began the master plan for a DC Extended Universe (the DCEU), which would take each of their most famous comic book characters and have them co-exist in a shared cinematic universe much in the same way that Marvel had done, in the hopes of capitalizing on the cross-over potential. Though ambitious in scope, the execution would end up hitting a lot of snags along the way. The first few films by director Zack Snyder (2013’s Man of Steel and 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice) received mixed to negative reviews and only managed to break even at the box office. As a result of the lukewarm reception, Warner began to have second thoughts about their massive investment. Studio execs started to become more hands on, and were quickly reworking movies already in production. Sadly, one of the movies that was put through the wringer during this period of studio interference was the first Suicide Squad (2016) directed by David Ayer. What started off as a darker toned action thriller was quickly reworked into a more comical, crowd-pleasing romp; a la Marvel. The end result became an unfocused mess in the editing room that completely robbed the movie of a coherent tone, and as a result, DC had yet another film savaged by critics. Thankfully the critically acclaimed Wonder Woman (2017) was on the horizon, and Warner Brothers along with DC would once again shift gears, but the damage had already been done to their reputation and Marvel continued to outpace them to record breaking box office. But, after finding their footing in recent years, DC has found a groove that works for them, and that includes having the confidence to tackle the Suicide Squad once again.
One thing that DC did benefit from was a costly mistake on the part of Marvel’s parent company Disney. In the midst of the rising disruption that came from the #MeToo movement in the late 2010’s, Disney was quick to avoid any controversy that came their way. After a twitter spat between left-leaning filmmaker James Gunn and right-wing provocateur Mike Cernovich, the latter dug up old tweets from the former where he made several gross and inappropriate jokes. Despite Gunn’s justified assertion that these old tweets do not reflect the person that he is now, Disney was quick to action and immediately fired Gunn from all his upcoming projects at Marvel. This rash action suddenly left a glaring vacancy in Marvel’s upcoming plans, because James Gunn was the creative mind behind one of their most celebrated franchises; the Guardians of the Galaxy. Disney in retrospect has acknowledged that this was a major blunder on their part because they not only lost a premiere talent with Gunn, but they also disrupted the trust they had garnered with their most successful brand, who were not pleased with the move. Despite what Disney did, the creative community had James Gunn’s back, with all the Guardians’ cast fully backing him publicly, and many film directors refusing to fill his shoes in the Guardians franchise. But, someone was going to end up capitalizing on Disney’s misstep, and that was DC. Within weeks, Warner Brothers snatched up James Gunn and offered him a project under their tent. Given Gunn’s fascination with outsiders, he naturally was drawn to the Suicide Squad run of comics, and as a result, DC had the genius mind they needed to make a reboot work. And Gunn gets to have his cake and eat it too, because Disney would reverse course months later, allowing Gunn to return to the Guardians’ franchise after his DC obligation. So congratulations Cernovich, your petty, short lived twitter victory just allowed James Gunn to get two multi-million dollar deals at two major studios instead of one, which will make him more money than you will ever see in your lifetime as a lonely internet troll. But, back on point, did Gunn’s jump from Marvel to DC translate over well, or did something get lost in between?
The movie itself is both a sequel and a reboot of sorts. The events of David Ayer’s Suicide Squad did still take place, and some of the past team members have returned. This includes Captain Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnamann), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), who have been assembled again by Intelligence Commander Amanda Waller (Viola Davis). They are joined by a band of newcomers to the Suicide Squad team, which includes a couple of sharpshooting mercenaries called Bloodsport (Idris Elba) and Peacemaker (John Cena), with immediate friction formed between the two. Then there is the manic depressive Polka Dot Man (David Dasmalchin ) whose super powers are pretty self-explanatory. There is Ratcatcher II (Daniela Melchoir), who has carried on the mantle from her father (Taika Waititi) who had the power to command rats. And we also have the half-man/ half-shark Nanaue, aka King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone). Rounding out the team are Savant (director Gunn regular Michael Rooker), TDK (Nathan Fillion), Javelin (Flula Borg), Mongal (Mayling Ng), Blackguard (Pete Davidson), and Weasel (Sean Gunn), who is exactly what his name states. They are all tasked with going to the enemy-infused island nation of Corto Maltese, which is in the midst of a bloody coup, and infiltrating a heavily fortified citadel called Jotenheim, where Amanda Waller wants them to destroy all traces of a secret program known only as Project Starfish. In order to break in to the facility without alerting the Corto Maltese army, they must first find the lead scientist named Gaius Grieves, aka The Thinker (Peter Capaldi). Of course, plans go awry and team members are lost or scatter to different parts of the island. Unfortunately, because of the explosive devices that Ms. Waller has installed in each of their heads, the Suicide Squad must still carry out the mission against the odds. As they go deeper into the island, and uncover more of it’s mystery, things grow increasingly more complex and allegiances challenged, especially when the truth of Project Starfish comes out and begins to wreck havoc on the island. And that’s when things begin to really get weird.
It’s quite easy to see why James Gunn jumped at the opportunity to reimagine the Suicide Squad under his unique vision. Much like the Guardians of the Galaxy, the members of the Suicide Squad are a bunch of outsiders that skirt the fine line between criminal and hero. They are all inherently flawed from the outset, and yet through Gunn’s story-telling, we grow to love them as they prove their worth through using their eccentric tricks to take on a greater evil. Also, James Gunn loves his irreverent humor, and DC was allowing him something that he couldn’t get away with at Marvel; the freedom of an R-rating. Now he could get away with all the gore, violence and profanity that the Disney company would never allow in their PG-13 franchise. Gunn is, after all, from the school of Troma Productions, a schlock film micro-budget studio where he originally cut his teeth as an amateur filmmaker. Much of what he learned from his time at Troma has followed him through every film he has made, including the Guardians franchise. He has even paid tribute to his mentor, Troma chief Lloyd Kaufman, by giving him cameos in his many films. And while there are elements of Gunn’s Troma past in the Guardians franchise, The Suicide Squad is actually a far more representative film of Gunn’s lineage as a filmmaker. And that is the main appeal of The Suicide Squad; it is James Gunn unfiltered. Here, he is taking the kind of gory, demented mayhem that defined his earlier work and ramps it up with a more substantial budget afforded to him by Warner Brothers and DC. This isn’t a movie deeply interwoven into the lore of DC’s expanded universe plans; this is just a director letting loose and having fun, and taking us all along for the ride. If you were expecting something more akin to what he did with the Guardians of the Galaxy, you may be a little disappointed as well as a little horrified. But that’s a good thing in the end, because James Gunn isn’t franchise building here. He’s just giving us a delirious romp without compromise and showing us the Suicide Squad movie that we should have had in the first place.
One of the best aspects of James Gunn’s Suicide Squad is that he keeps things pretty simple. For James Gunn, it’s not the plot itself that matters, but what the characters do along the way that moves the movie along. It’s a pretty straight-forward plot, which Gunn then injects his hilarious character interactions with. We know that eventually this band of rogue villains will have to end up saving the day, but the way they get there is often paved with hilarious bickering and character side-steps that throw the audience into unexpected places. One of the biggest laughs in the movie involves how Polka Dot Man deals with his past trauma. I won’t spoil what happens, but it is one of the most hilarious running sight gags in the movie, and exactly the kind of thing an oddball like James Gunn would come up with. At times, the non-sequiturs do build up to a point where it does make the movie lag in the middle. I would say that it’s less focused and on pace as his Guardians of the Galaxy movies, but at the same time, he’s working in an entirely different mode here, and it’s a bit unfair to compare with his other famous franchise. Even still, the movie has a great first act and an absolutely amazing climax, but the middle part does slow things down a bit, like Gunn suddenly realized he needed to stretch things out a bit more. But, even in it’s weaker moments, the movie still remains consistently funny, with some truly inspired ideas. These include a fight sequence involving Harley Quinn that explodes with animated flower petals, as well as a hilariously staged ambush of a rebel base by Bloodsport and Peacemaker, with the two trying to one up the other with every kill. And every moment that involves King Shark is a delight, even when it does grind the movie to a halt like a scene with him at an aquarium. There are faults, but James Gunn just fills the movie with so many creative ideas, that you hardly think about them for long.
Of course, one of the things that you’d expect would deliver in a movie like this is the cast, and they do not disappoint. Showing once again his deft command of an ensemble, James Gunn gets a lot of great performances out of faces both old and new to the franchise. What is interesting is that he doesn’t use them all in the way you’d expect, which again is a major plus for the movie. Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn for example is actually more of a supporting character this time around instead of a more centered focus that she fulfilled in the original Suicide Squad. She is still a presence and appears throughout the whole movie with a good amount of screen-time, but Harley’s overall contribution to the plot amounts to pretty much a B Plot comparatively. Even still, Margot Robbie is still in top form as the fan favorite villain, and she certainly looks like she’s having fun in every scene. More character arcs are given to the other members, particularly Bloodpsort. Idris Elba does a great job of balancing the heavier side of his character development with the comical Gunn asides. And the normally brooding dramatic actor does not falter at all in carrying the wild tonal changes of the movie. John Cena also delivers some hilarious one liners in the movie, with no hint of self-awareness which makes it funnier, though his performance can be a bit one note. Of special note are Daniela Melchoir and David Dastmalchain as their respective characters. Dastmalchain in particular finds some surprisingly deep pathos in what many people consider to be the lamest villain in the DC comics, and turns him into a really fascinating character overall. And Melchoir gives her Ratcatcher so much warmth and heart that really endears her within this movie, especially in how she befriends King Shark. King Shark likewise delights in this movie, functioning pretty much as the Groot of this DC comics film. Also, bravo to James Gunn for bringing back Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller, easily my favorite carry-over from the original Suicide Squad. There is no one more perfect for that role, and Viola does not disappoint. It’s also amazing how well she is able to work this character into the new tone of this franchise. Like all the best comic book movies, a lot is dependent on how well these characters are cast, and James Gunn gave his actors a wealth of riches here.
It’s also interesting to see what James Gunn does differently here in regards to how the movie looks compared to what he’s done before. In addition to carrying over his Troma refined sensibilities, Gunn has also drawn inspiration from another segment of cinema history. There is a clear influence of exploitation war films in the DNA of this movie, even down to the way the entire movie looks. There is a graininess to the picture that kind of gives the movie a grindhouse 16mm feel, even though Gunn actually shot the movie with digital Red cameras. Judging by the promotional material of this movie, films like The Dirty Dozen (1967) were a clear inspiration, and it’s a style that perfectly fits this story. This movie does involve guerilla combat in a hostile land, so it makes sense that it would emulate one of the grittiest war movies of all time. Even when the movie expands in scope towards it’s finale, it still feels within character with what we’ve seen before. Gunn carried over much of the same crew that he worked with on the two Guardians movies, and it’s really neat to see them work in a wildly different style as well. The color palette is far more earthy and subdued than Guardians and that really helps to distinguish this as a bold new direction for this team, showcasing that they are capable of doing a whole variety of different kinds of movies. I also want to point out the excellent music in this movie. James Gunn of course famously injected many classic rock tunes into the soundtrack of Guardians of the Galaxy, which became a part of that series’ identity. He includes a few here too (including a great introduction scene underscored by Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”), but not as much as you’d think. Instead, a beautifully composed score by John Murphy, which also has some Dirty Dozen echoes, carries most of the movie. It’s a great way to distinguish this from Gunn’s more mix-tape infused Guardians movies, and show that he’s not a one trick pony. He can make a straight-forward action flick without turning it into a jukebox. More importantly, the music is there to support the movie, and not actively work as a part of it, like how Guardians made it’s hero’s love of classic rock a major part of his character. It’s a movie heavy on style, but never wasted and it overall works to give The Suicide Squad a delightful sense of character that stands on it’s own.
Though the way we ended up getting this movie involved a lot of backstage drama, I am in the end grateful that we now have someone as talented as James Gunn having contributed to both Marvel and DC. I especially love the fact that this whole episode just shows how much filmmakers should be valued in this business. The reason why the original Suicide Squad fell short was not because David Ayer failed to deliver, but because he had the opportunity to do things his own way taken away from him and given to uninspired studio execs who were only caring about their bottom line. The same thing ended up happening all over DC in those earlier days, with Zack Snyder’s mangled Justice League (2017) being perhaps the most notorious example. Since then, Warner Brothers has somewhat learned it’s lesson and allowed filmmakers to have a bit more creative freedom over the final product. This even included a significant investment by the studio to allow Zack Snyder to finish his vision of Justice League with his now infamous “Snyder Cut,” and David Ayer is now trying to argue for the same opportunity to finish his original vision of Suicide Squad. Luckily for James Gunn, he entered into an atmosphere of creative freedom at Warner Brothers that wasn’t there before and has been able to capitalize on that with this far more engaging take on the Suicide Squad series. It’s not a perfect movie, and I dare say I still prefer his Guardians movies, but this is still an exceptional work that showcases that he’s not just a one franchise filmmaker. He can be trusted to bring the best out of any kind of franchise, and that is definitely going to help his stock within the industry. In the long run, he has ultimately shown that creative vision matters, and that perhaps studio interference is never a good thing for the movies in general. I am definitely excited to see what he’ll take from this experience when he returns to Marvel to make Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Hopefully this unusual experience has only sharpened his skills further, and that there is going to be even more great things to come in that beloved Marvel series. Until then, The Suicide Squad shows that he is still an amazing creative force no matter where he is working, and it’s worth seeing, especially on the biggest possible screen you can find. You can’t keep a creative mind down for long, especially one as dementedly off the wall that James Gunn holds inside his head.