The Suicide Squad (2021)
Director: James Gunn
Screenwriters: James Gunn
Starring: Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Sylvester Stallone, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Peter Capaldi
2016’s Suicide Squad was doomed before it ever hit theaters. Batman v Superman had flopped while Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War made over one billion dollars at the box office. Warner Bros. screened two cuts of the film, one from director David Ayer, and the other from editing company Trailer Park who created a lighter version driven by flashy graphics and classic pop music. The latter went to theaters, and while it performed well enough, the film was another sign of Warner and DC’s inability to create works on par with Marvel. Zack Snyder’s DC work was too self-serious and complicated, while Trailer Park’s Suicide Squad was so blatantly smashed together to become the complete opposite – lost in its levity and music was any real character or sense of what DC was going for. It felt like a wannabe Guardians of the Galaxy.
The Suicide Squad shows Warner Bros. might finally be on the rails after a shaky start to their DC transmedia universe. Following a dismissal from Disney, director James Gunn arrived at Warner, and he and his team have turned any Guardians comparisons into praise. The Suicide Squad brings fun, humor, and music, along with gory bits Marvel can’t show in their films. The Suicide Squad reaches deep into the DC villain roster to find effective and comedic characters that help balance the fun with somewhat serious-feeling comic book stakes. Watching it feels like watching a graphic novel come to life, and what more could one want from a bombastic comic book film about a group of villains?
The Suicide Squad follows the ragtag Suicide Squad as they infiltrate a country on behalf of the US government to halt experiments on an extra-terrestrial being run by a super intelligent scientist called The Thinker. The group explore their various backstories and bond through violence as they travel to the mission, making introductions and exposition more organic than the first film. While the action scenes are rather enjoyable, the relationships and dynamics are what drive the story, aided by stylized lighting and camera movement that is missing in Marvel’s house style.
DC chose for the characters to resemble their traditional comic designs, no matter how absurd. John Cena manages to play Peacemaker – an assassin dedicated to peace at all costs – entirely straight in an outfit that Burt Ward’s Robin could laugh at. Gunn uses Peacemaker’s ridiculous helmet to shoot a fight scene, and it’s an interesting, creative way to use a costume. Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) and Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) stay true to their comic outfits while receiving interesting backgrounds that play into the general themes of the Suicide Squad. On the other hand, Bloodsport gets a redesign that boosts the strong performance brought by Idris Elba. He engages in banter, but he’s the most serious of the costumed individuals, and who knows how difficult that might have been without Elba and the costume.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Suicide Squad film without Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. She gets her own storyline which keeps the wider narrative from feeling too stagnant. There are plenty of colorful lights throughout the film, but Quinn’s segments are what allow Gunn and company to bring a strong sense of expressionism, each moment stemming from her insanity being as comic book adjacent as you might expect. She has the kind of arc that adds to the feeling of episodic storytelling found in comic books – this is the one where Harley Quinn is taken captive by a dictator and he proposes to her; what shenanigans will she get into next time? With this film, it has become clear that Robbie and Quinn are ballasts for the new era of DC transmedia without being tethered to the Joker.
The Suicide Squad also uses Gunn’s proclivity for giving character to the animated. King Shark, voiced by Sylvester Stallone, is a bipedal man-eating shark that the animation and characterization make lovable. Ratcatcher 2 is flanked by a sentient rat who is essentially a live-action Disney princess sidekick, and he steals several scenes with his cute little cape. There’s even a starfish creature that is imbued with plenty of character despite its simplistic, comic-accurate appearance. The CGI for the animal-adjacent characters is not quite on par with 2019’s The Lion King, but it still looks solid with plenty of expression. The only complaint to be had about the animated characters is that Sean Gunn’s Weasel is woefully underused, but there are so many bizarre characters that he may have been one too many.
There aren’t many other complaints to be had about The Suicide Squad. Perhaps it could be said to be overly long (it runs for 2 hours and 12 minutes), or that it loses a bit of steam by the end, but that will ultimately be relative to the viewer. An issue with the 2016 film was the over-powered magical villain that should have outclassed the Suicide Squad. While the villain here is quite powerful, it’s not unreasonable that this group of super villains could actually take on The Thinker, or loads of soldiers with bullets.
Fans like to think of Marvel as the quippy franchise, but it’s a style that works for all comic book movies, and DC films like Aquaman, Shazam, and now The Suicide Squad show that DC doesn’t have to make something too different from Marvel to be successful. Putting the right people in charge with a specific visions for their films will lead to the best results. Maybe DC will never achieve the continuity standards Marvel has set for the industry, but it can at least produce enjoyable works that will get viewers into individual films that happen to be DC, rather than the property itself holding value as a brand universe.
It should be noted that the film does feature a post-credits scene that is sure to be a lead-in to new HBO Max episodic series, so it’s not like DC isn’t viewing this film as a springboard for further transmedia content. However, it’s far from guaranteed that any The Suicide Squad spin-off will manage to be as successful as Marvel’s recent spate of Disney+ series.