Warning: This article contains spoilers for The Suicide Squad
“I’m a superhero,” cries Polka-Dot Man in the third act of the film. “I’m not just a superhero movie,” screams The Suicide Squad for the entire 2h12m runtime. James Gunn’s movie perfectly captures the essence of his source material, while also challenging the conventions of Marvel/DC films. Gunn has done this in a year that has seen Zack Snyder’s Justice League released, while demands continue for #ReleaseTheAyerCut, but he has risen above these controversies and put his stamp on the project. And so, The Suicide Squad comes as an entertaining breath of fresh air.
The comic book influences are apparent throughout the movie – from the minor details, such as the film opening in Corto Maltese (a fictional island from DC comics), to the very spirit of the team. In the opening scene, pretty much everyone on the “Suicide Squad” dies – a risk apparent from the name of the team. On a more fundamental level, just like in the comic books, the team forms a family. This bond provides the heart to the film, such as when the group hang out and relax, and Peacemaker (John Cena) demands a drink for his new ally’s pet rat. This arc, wherein the characters turn from selfish individuals to ones willing to sacrifice themselves for each other, is a defining feature of the Suicide Squad comics.
Along with powerful relationships, fleshed out characterisation gives a somewhat feel-good sense to the film, each very in tune with the film’s tone. Starting with (arguably) the film’s actual villain, Viola Davis’ turn as the strategic Amanda Waller is chilling yet addictive. She is based on a character reputed for cold but cunning strategies, and this is consistent throughout the film and acts as a foil for the characters. She manipulates Bloodsport (Idris Elba) and Savant (Michael Rooker) into joining the team, and in the first 10 minutes, condemns the latter alongside several others to death, and uses the former’s teenage daughter as leverage. Moreover, her threat of killing any of the members hangs over the team, and the periodic reminders of her callous nature make this threat real, adding tension to the film.
Meanwhile, the members of the team equally feel unique. While Bloodsport struggles with being a good father, Polka-Dot Man struggles with having a bad mother. Peacemaker (John Cena(!!)), certainly not a “good guy” by most metrics, is fuelled by his blind loyalty to America, and this clashes with Rick Flag’s (Joel Kinnaman) sense of justice to create an emotional climax, setting a contrast between American interests and ideals. Daniela Melchior’s standout performance as Ratcatcher 2 had me weepy as we saw her father (Taika Waititi) explain why rats deserve more love. She plays the role with the openness one would expect from someone raised to respect even the lowliest animals, and the heart in her acting turns King Shark (Sylvester Stallone) from a mere brute force into a wholesome force with which to be reckoned.
It is also worth noting that Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) retains the character development she received in Birds of Prey, having escaped her toxic relationship with the Joker, carrying her growth into this film. In fact, she actively rejects that toxicity which she once faced. This was a positive move from Gunn, as it allowed the character to be one in her own right, rather than in the shadow of the sadistic clown. A certain level of careful, well-written characterisation is required to turn a group of villains and murderers into lovable rogues – and the movie meets those demands.
This vast array of characters lends the film a certain moral complexity. Admittedly, it is quite clear who the “good guys” are in the film – the Squad members – while, with a few exceptions, everyone else constitutes the “bad guys”. However, Gunn allows us to see clearly the motivations driving the characters on all sides. Waller has a job: protect the country’s interests. Flag has a righteous sense of duty at the film’s climax: he must let the people know that the US has sanctioned experimentation on everyone so there can be justice. Bloodsport just wants to protect his daughter. Meanwhile, Starro the Conqueror, a giant starfish from space, laments upon dying that it was happy floating among the stars, but it was the humans who captured it, tortured it, and experimented on it. If it hadn’t just tried to destroy an entire city, I might have felt sorry for it in the moment, but as it is, I do at least get the telepathic creature’s point of view.
A common accusation thrown at superhero movies is that they lack this complexity – as Martin Scorsese suggested, they’re “closer to theme parks than they are to movies”. Similarly, James Gunn said that he is now, generally speaking, bored by superhero movies. So, is this a superhero movie? Certainly not in regular terms: 4 of the main characters have nothing special about them other than the fact that they are good at what they do. Their key objective is not to save the day, while the main team practically fail at every turn. They are supposed to rescue Rick Flag, but they inadvertently decimate an entire friendly camp. Harley Quinn freed herself. And when they do get Gaius Grieves (Peter Capaldi) to the right destination, the fortress Jotunheim, an over-excited Polka-Dot Man’s bodily expulsions explode, resulting in the early destruction of the tower. Peacemaker does not destroy the info regarding US experimentation, while Flagg does not publish it as he intended.
And so, we return to the core of the film: it has heart. It is a ton of fun. First, the visuals are incredible. A few highlights include the well-choreographed fight scene between Peacemaker and Flag, the escape of Harley Quinn, as flowers explode onto the screen as she brutally murders her captors, and the crew marching into Jotunheim through the rain. Gunn also brings his trademark banging playlists (there really is no other word for it), with ‘Rain’ (grandson, Jessie Reyez) offering a backing track to the march and Johnny Cash’s ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ to open the movie as we look upon inmates in a penitentiary. And frankly, the film is hilarious. For example, Bloodsport and Peacemaker compete to see who can murder in the most innovative ways, only for it to be revealed that they have decimated a camp of people willing to aid their cause. Bloodsport is made leader of a team where one of the member’s ability is to control rats, only for Waller and the audience to discover he is terrified of rats. And John Cena’s delightful delivery of the line “I cherish peace with all of my heart. I don’t care how many men, women and children I kill to get it” still has me laughing when I think about it. A film with the complexity discussed above, but also the pure joy described here, perfectly encapsulates the superhero genre: it is simply a vehicle to tell stories, rather than a genre, very much in keeping with the source material.
The “Gunn cut” demonstrates why the Snyder Cut should have been released. Gunn took several risks in order to produce his sequel/reboot to David Ayer’s 2016 story about the team, adding his flair, and introducing several random characters that could have flopped but ended up being beloved, such as Ratcatcher 2 and Polka-Dot Man. He put his stamp on the film. He ultimately produced something that he himself enjoyed, and so he could trust that other people would enjoy his honest interpretation. David Ayer did not get to do that, nor did Zack Snyder. And so, Justice League and Suicide Squad were released in mangled states, and both flopped. But Snyder’s version proved to be a completely different film, almost double in runtime, and with a different overall villain. He ends the film on a personal note, dedicating it to his late daughter. His creative presence is felt throughout the film. Originally, I was not much of a fan of the Snyder Cut. However, watching James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad made me understand: the two directors were eventually allowed to present their own artistic vision, for better or for worse. And in this case, DC’s hands-off approach worked well with Gunn’s film.