Film Review: “The Suicide Squad” (2021)

NOTE: This article will contain spoilers for the film. I won’t ruin anything important for you, but if you want to go in completely blind, don’t read this just yet.

I would not consider myself a major fan of comic book media. I was for a while, but my interest in most of that got snuffed out long ago. I became bored of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with its sprawling continuity and often bland approach to storytelling, and I never got into most of the film or television efforts from DC. For a comic book adaptation to really grab me and make me love it, it has to be something that goes against the grain. I want it to be bold and take risks and capture the wild creative potential that comic books offer. That’s why I love Spiderman: Into the SpiderVerse and Thor Ragnarok and Black Panther.

And now, it’s why I love The Suicide Squad.

The Plot: In the world of DC Comics, Belle Reve Prison is where the worst criminals around are sent to rot. It’s also the headquarters for a secretive government program that tries to put these baddies to good use. Created by the ruthless Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), Task Force X — AKA “the Suicide Squad” — is a rotating group of villains who get sent out on perilous clandestine missions which will more than likely kill them. If you’re in need of work that the Justice League can’t be seen doing, this is your team. Following a military coup in the island nation of Corto Maltese, Waller assembles a new iteration of Task Force X for a top-secret assignment. On the core team are Bloodsport (Idris Elba), an expert marksman who nearly killed Superman with a kryptonite bullet; Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), unpredictable ex-girlfriend of the Joker; Peacemaker (John Cena), a soldier as arrogant as he is patriotic; Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), a young woman with a device that lets her summon and control thousands of rats at a time; Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), a superhuman with the power to shoot explosive energy disks from his body; and King Shark (Sylvester Stallone), a shark-human hybrid with few brains and a taste for human flesh. Under the command of Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), this ragtag bunch is shipped off to Corto Maltese. Their mission is to infiltrate Jotunheim, a former Nazi research facility, and destroy all evidence of something known only as “Project Starfish.” But what is Project Starfish? That’s for the team to discover as they battle bloodthirsty dictators, mad scientists and the most dangerous enemy of all — each other.

2016 was not a good year for DC, at least in terms of film. Its main competitor, Marvel, had been dominating the cinematic landscape for the better part of a decade. In 2013, fresh off Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and eager to rise to the challenge posed by the MCU, the company launched the DC Extended Universe (or “DCEU”) under the creative leadership of director Zack Snyder. But three years later, the DCEU had only three films to its name, and none of them were any good. There was the overly grim Superman reboot Man of Steel and the ridiculous Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but the most infamous and widely trashed of them all was Suicide Squad. Ripped from its director’s hands at the last second, it was an absolute mess of a film with ugly visuals, atrocious editing, almost no good performances, forced “emo teen loose in a Hot Topic” dialogue and the single worst incarnation of the Joker in any medium.

In the five years since Suicide Squad‘s release, the DCEU still lacks a strong continuity or sense of direction. DC has seemingly given up trying to emulate the MCU and is now throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks. On one hand, the quality from film to film is uneven: for every Wonder Woman and Birds of Prey, you can expect a Wonder Woman 1984 or Justice League. On the other hand, there’s something thrilling in how unpredictable DC movies are and how they’re more willing to take risks on out-there ideas. You can jump in at nearly any point in the series and get a unique experience out of the movie you watch.

Enter writer and director James Gunn. If you don’t know his name, you definitely know some of the stuff he’s worked on. He got his start in schlocky horror-comedy, but he cemented his reputation as a popular filmmaker with 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy and its 2017 sequel. When Disney and Marvel briefly fired him in 2018, DC saw their chance to snap him up. Gunn was offered the opportunity to direct a film for any DC property he wanted, and he chose the in-development Suicide Squad sequel. It makes perfect sense, when you think about it: at their core, both this property and Guardians share the basic premise of morally ambiguous protagonists doing dirty work. But for The Suicide Squad — note the definite article — Gunn received way more creative control than he had from Marvel. And, most importantly, permission to get an R rating.

Watching The Suicide Squad, I got a feeling that I’ve never had from any other modern superhero movie. I felt like I was leafing through the cheap, yellowed pages of a decades-old comic book plucked from an unmarked cardboard box in the back of a seedy comic shop. Something demented and forbidden is unfolding before your eyes, and you don’t want to look away. The comedy is often so outrageous and wrong that it wraps back around into being delightful. A grotesque weasel-human monster killing 27 children is not even dwelled upon, or a character will be asked where someone else is and calmly respond that “I turned them into my mother in my head and killed them” (it makes sense in context, but not right away). And then there is…well, pretty much every line that Peacemaker says.

If you didn’t know beforehand that this movie was rated R, you will find out why the hard way. It is perhaps the most gore-soaked comic book movie I’ve ever seen, and that includes strong contenders like the Deadpool series and Logan. The human body gets put through some horrifying stuff in this movie. Some of it is physically possible, and some of it is…well, we can hope it’s not. There are times when blood and guts are practically being sprayed at the camera: two moments that stick in my mind are when a still-beating heart gets slowly punctured and when a character is ripped in two and thrown at a window so hard that they splatter into a giant smear of red.

With the level of violence now established, you may think I’m crazy for describing The Suicide Squad as a stylish movie. And yet it is! It’s bright and colorful, but with a veneer of griminess that makes it all the more compelling. Bold, lurid hues pop against darker, more realistic surroundings. Gunn describes this film as “a 70s war movie,” and you can see that influence in the visuals. It draws cues not only from high-profile examples like Apocalypse Now but from the lower-budget exploitation movies of that period. And in a twist that I really appreciate, the movie has title cards for its “chapters” as well as time/location stamps, and all of them are insanely creative. They’re never just overlaid on the screen without fanfare: a lot of them are physical parts of the set. You’ll see the title of one segment as the label on an elevator button, or the time stamp “3 Days Earlier” is traced out in suds on the seat of a toilet. I think my favorite one is when you see the chapter title BRING ME THE HEADS OF THE SUICIDE SQUAD written in dirt on the jungle floor, and then one of the characters crawls into frame and collapses face-first in the middle of the word “bring.”

Throughout the marketing campaign for this movie, one rule has been proclaimed by cast and crew alike: Don’t get too attached. It’s even the tagline for the character posters. And boy, is the movie not kidding around when it comes to that rule. The whole conceit of the Suicide Squad in the comics is that most of the characters you meet are going to die in gruesome ways. They are expendable soldiers whose superiors don’t care if they make it through the mission or not. This is yet another thing that the 2016 movie got wrong, with only three prominent character deaths across the whole film. This movie takes pains to correct that, and it does so in spectacular fashion. Gunn kicks things off with an over-the-top bloodbath which makes it clear that pretty much no one is safe from the chopping block (though perhaps “the meat grinder” might be a better analogy for this film). A lot of people die here, and the film accomplishes the near-impossible task of making you pay attention to each major death. Some are funny, some are genuine tearjerkers, and some are “throw your hands in the air and cheer” moments, but they all carry some kind of weight. And they’re made even more impactful by the fact that “don’t get too attached” turns out to be a challenge that you will fail.

Ensemble casts like this are difficult to pull off, but The Suicide Squad does it beautifully. There isn’t a single weak link in the main cast: all of the actors are perfect in their roles, and each one gets their moment to shine. This is Margot Robbie’s third outing as Harley Quinn (following the original Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey), and she proves once again that this is basically the Harley Quinn Cinematic Universe and all the other characters are just living in it. Harley has always been a compelling and multi-faceted character in DC canon — her immense popularity despite being a fairly recent addition who didn’t even debut in the comics can demonstrate this — and Robbie clearly understands and loves this role. The DCEU version of Harley gets some of her best material to date in this movie, whether it’s a frightening and tearjerking monologue about her past as an abuse victim or an eye-popping action sequence where she slaughters her way down an entire hall of armed guards. The latter is one of the best scenes in the film and possibly one of the best fight scenes in recent comic book movies. Another standout in the cast is Daniela Melchior, a Hollywood newcomer who easily holds her own against more established names. In this group of insane murderers, Ratcatcher 2 (yes, the numeral is important) is one of the few truly noble figures and the emotional core of the film. The compassion she shows to her fellow squadmates, particularly King Shark and Bloodsport, help the film prove that it has heart and intelligence along with dramatic flair. And her animal sidekick Sebastian is perhaps the most adorable rat ever put on the big screen.

However, it is inevitable that some characters were going to be underutilized or just not written as well as they could have been. This, I feel, is the case with Polka-Dot Man. On one level, this character is proof that even the worst concepts can become gold in the right hands. Gunn takes a character who for decades has been the poster child for “dumbass Batman villains that no one remembers” and turns him into a sympathetic and compelling hero who…might be the single most powerful character in the DCEU? His ability is introduced as “throwing polka-dots at people,” which his team members are quick to laugh at. But then you see what that actually means, and you realize that this guy could probably annihilate most of the top-tier DC heroes in a matter of seconds if he felt like it. But while the ideas behind the character are great, the execution of them doesn’t always work. Polka-Dot Man’s effectiveness as a character is like, 80% the actor and 20% the actual script. It all comes down to tone, really. The backstory we get for Polka-Dot Man, which was invented for this film, is that his abusive mother experimented on him and his siblings in an attempt to give them superpowers. His ability comes from an interdimensional virus that he was infected with, which will kill him if he doesn’t expel the energy from his body at frequent intervals. The whole process left him so traumatized that he has vivid hallucinations of his mother almost constantly. Like, the faces of people around him will randomly warp into that of his mom. It’s a setup that feels tailor-made for a psychological horror/body horror plotline. And while the body horror angle is briefly played up, the rest of the film doesn’t seem to realize what it has with these ideas. The filmmakers keep trying to play the hallucinations as comedic, and it falls flat each time. On some level it is supposed to be disquieting, but I don’t think it’s disquieting in the way the movie intends these shots to be. You’re not uncomfortable in a way where you can still laugh at what’s happening. You’re just uncomfortable, period. I really enjoyed this character overall, but had the film leaned into his dark aspects a bit more, I think it would have been more effective than what it actually did.

The other character who occasionally suffers from iffy writing is Bloodsport, and this happens for a weird reason — mainly, the fact that this was clearly supposed to be a different person. To be more specific, it was clearly supposed to be Deadshot, the character played by Will Smith in the original Suicide Squad. The filmmakers couldn’t get Will Smith back for whatever reason, but instead of recasting, they just found another character with a similar appearance and skillset and slotted him into the story. The dead giveaway is that Bloodsport has a daughter, which he apparently does not in the comics — but Deadshot does, as he did in the first movie. The relationship between Bloodsport and his daughter is the single worst piece of writing in the whole film. It’s trying to depict them as having a strained relationship, but the only way it knows how to do this is by having their one scene together devolve into them screaming “fuck you” back and forth repeatedly. It’s a far cry from the more nuanced relationship between Deadshot and his kid, which was one of the few not-terrible things about the first movie. My guess is that the filmmakers were just not allowed to recast the character in case Will Smith wants to play him again later, but I think recasting would have been the better way to go here. Idris Elba’s performance has far more charisma than Smith’s did, anyway.

But overall, my enjoyment of this movie vastly outweighs the grievances I have with it. All my favorite comic book movies have something in common, which is that they are not afraid to embrace how goofy their source material can be. I mean, it doesn’t get much goofier than a giant pink-and-blue starfish going apeshit on a city like an evil Patrick Star while a title card pops up reading SUICIDE SQUAD VS. STARRO THE CONQUEROR. What’s more, the film balances outrageous moments like that with moments of genuine pathos and horror. It recognizes that you can have the light moments and dark moments coexisting, because what matters is that you are wholly sincere about both sides of that coin. Ultimately, what makes this movie so good is that it was made with love — love for film, love for these characters and love for weirdness — and that love comes pouring out of the screen. There were times when I was grinning so hard that my face hurt. And honestly, I can’t think of a more glowing endorsement than that.

The Suicide Squad is pure madness is the best and most joyous way possible. James Gunn brings his chaotic sensibilities to the DCEU and creates an off-the-wall odyssey filled with memorable characters, imaginative setpieces and glorious ultraviolence. Every main character is going to be somebody’s favorite, which makes each death feel like a punch to the gut. Even when the movie stumbles, it gets back on its feet and surges forward. It feels like a film that wants you to shout “YES!” or “NO!” or “OH MY GOD!” at the screen, and with how infectious the cast and crew’s passion is, you are happy to comply. As a DCEU film, it is topped only by Birds of Prey in terms of sheer quality and enjoyment. The way I see it, it’s a film that will leave you feeling a little bit like the Joker — that is, having a permanent smile on your face.

Final Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

That’s all for now! See you next time!

— Dana

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