The superhero genre is accused of many things. Politically, it is described as conservative, reactionary and downright fascist. The genre has a tendency towards being white male centric, with exceptions like “Wonder Woman” and “Black Panther” highlighting rather than resolving the problem. As the Marvel and DC franchises have become more popular, studios opt for saturation booking which pushes other films out.
A label that can be also applied to the genre, as well as the action movie more broadly, is that it is ridiculous. The central premise of the superhero narrative is absurd: Individual acquires exceptional ability because reasons; exceptional individual experiences some type of trauma because narrative; traumatized exceptional individual develops or realizes a sense of self-entitlement to make the world work their way. This determination may be in relation to a personal notion of justice, or an obsession with power, which determines whether we get Superman or Darkseid, Captain America or Thanos. But what happens if a film acknowledges all of this cultural and industrial baggage, embraces it and then turns the ridiculous up to eleventy-stupid?
The answer to this admittedly rather specific question is the glorious, gleeful and grimy The Suicide Squad. The definite article both differentiates this 2021 film from David Ayer’s much-derided attempt from 2016 (“Suicide Squad”), and also makes it clear that the viewer is to accept no substitutes. If Marvel Studios’ “Guardians of the Galaxy” films gave writer-director James Gunn a certain amount of leeway to fashion a wacky tale of a ragtag band of misfits, The Suicide Squad is what happens when he lets that horribly beautiful mind loose with a blockbuster budget. And boy, does he ever!
We begin with Savant (Michael Rooker, “Brightburn”) demonstrating his deadly skills, then he and the audience are quickly (re)introduced to Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”). Waller explains that by joining the Suicide Squad and completing a terribly dangerous and important mission, Savant will have time knocked off his sentence. It’s an efficient sequence that sets the pace for what is to come and features just the right level of self-awareness. It acknowledges that the viewer has likely seen the previous film or is sufficiently aware of cultural discourse to know how the Suicide Squad works, or has at least seen the trailer. Just in case you haven’t, the scene provides necessary exposition without laboring the point. This witty self-awareness continues throughout the film, but never strays into excessive nudge-nudge, wink-wink territory. Despite the extensive gore, violence, stylistic flourishes and downright jokes, The Suicide Squad is a remarkably balanced film.
This balance includes the large cast. After his briefing, Savant is introduced to the rest of the Squad, including familiar faces such as Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney, “Terminator Genisys”) and Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman, “Knight of Cups”), as well as many new ones. Most prominent among these is Bloodsport (Idris Elba, “Molly’s Game”) and King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone, “Creed,” and motion captured of Steve Agee, “Violet”), but throughout this movie no one is safe. As the tagline says, Don’t Get Too Attached.
What it is worth getting attached to is the visual style, as Gunn delivers a dazzling array of visual creativity that permeates the entire film. Some of it is gory, which will be a problem for some viewers, as bodies, limbs and heads explode in graphic detail both in intimate detail and within expansive long shots. Gunn also employs bravura sequences, such as a long take where the Squad advance on a camp in a manner reminiscent of “Predator,” taking out adversaries left, right and center. The visual effects are used to great, well, effect, both in terms of the colorful creatures on display — including Weasel (Sean Gunn, “The Belko Experiment”), the cutest rats seen on screen in a long time, multiple appearances of a scary mother, King Shark who is both menacing and endearing (Nom! Nom!), and a giant starfish (seriously) — and the abilities of our motley crew including deadly polka dots (yes, you read that correctly). Gunn and director of photography Henry Braham also use the material of their film to great effect — a particular standout involves a fight between two characters presented largely as a reflection in a shiny helmet.
The human characters ground the film not so much in terms of being realistic (I mean, come on!), but in terms of their responses to their increasingly surreal circumstances. Bloodsport is a world-weary combat veteran whose comments like “We’re all gonna die” and “For fuck’s sake!” strike the ideal tone of exasperation. Much of the exasperation is directed at Peacemaker (John Cena, “Blockers”), a cheeky send-up of those who insist that guns are the way to peace and liberty. Harley Quinn delivers the sarky devil-may-care attitude seen in “Suicide Squad” and “Birds of Prey,” but she fits even better than she did in her previous appearances due to the reckless abandon of the film as a whole. Ratcatcher II (Daniela Melchior, “The Black Book of Father Dinis”) provides a human heart while Flag offers some welcome notes of conscience. The standout is Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian, “Ant-Man and the Wasp”), who turns a potentially drippy and annoying character into a sympathetic and appealing figure with issues that are turned from cliché to triumph. The Latin American island governed by corrupt dictators provides a setting that contrasts with the Suicide Squad, with some suitably slimey military types as well as the permanently annoyed Thinker (Peter Capaldi, “The Fifth Estate”) proving just as bad, or worse, as our titular antiheroes.
The Suicide Squad does not necessarily reinvent the superhero genre. There are familiar conventions, including grand spectacle, wacky costumes and a CGI smackdown finale. But these elements play throughout the film so it’s not as if the final act is inconsistent. Where the film innovates is in its highlighting and reveling in the genre’s fundamental absurdity, Gunn and his team making full use this absurdity to have fun. That’s what this film offers more than anything else — an infectious sense of fun so you laugh with the film as much as at it. Some viewers might not go with it, but those who do will be dying to see this idiosyncratic director Gunn it hard again.