Second time’s the charm. While the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) has been a bit of a helter-skelter cinematic universe, the new model has embraced stand-alone stories and allowed directors to showcase their strengths. After the disaster of 2016’s Suicide Squad, DC stole James Gunn from Marvel to do his own take on the team of villains. Now Gunn has created one of the most zealously violent and hilarious superhero films of all time.
The Suicide Squad may be the crowning film of this film universe, if it can even be really considered one at this point. Initially attempting to rival Marvel by creating a continuity of shared films, DC’s rushed attempts resulted in mixed results including Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League. While there are zealous fans of Zack Snyder’s vision of a shared continuity, the critical and commercial results have led to DC taking more of a standalone approach and leaving Snyder by the wayside. These superhero films may loosely share a continuity, but connecting them has not mattered for the last three years of films, with each one including only minimal references to other characters.
This approach benefits Gunn’s The Suicide Squad. Taking the elements it likes from the notorious 2016 bomb (mainly casting), a new story is created and old elements are left behind. Assuming the audience knows what to expect by now and has no need for overdrawn origin stories, Gunn opens the film at a clip and with a near-montage that quickly introduces the premise of this team of characters — supervillains given dangerous missions for the US government in exchange for amnesty — before jumping into the fun. The intro provides a brilliant twist on the entire premise and the notion of origin stories, and I dare not say more. This deserves to be seen as freshly as possible.
Manic energy is sustained through the entirety of the film. While his use of music may seem like a rip-off of his own Guardians of the Galaxy, Gunn’s soundtrack choices here are a tad different and help drive the rhythm of the film more so than individual scenes do. Gunn also plays around with flashbacks and creative on-screen title cards comprised of foreground and background features to make a movie whose pacing is always unexpected, yet gels really well.
The energy does disadvantage the film somewhat when it comes to character building. The script attempts to give arcs to each of the characters, but this often results in contrived scenes where these murderous supervillains start monologuing about their troubled past to each other for no real reason. The film feints at a theme of underdogs finding family (a familiar concept for Gunn) but doesn’t develop it in any meaningful or new way. The lack of pretense and narrative brevity are perhaps strengths, overall, but they do make the film feel too light at times.
A fantastic cast makes it easy to look past these issues. Margot Robbie returns as what is the now most consistent character across the DCEU, Harley Quinn. Robbie is a delight in the role, even as she changes designs and motivation ever so slightly across her films. Idris Elba also elevates what would otherwise be a rather dull and one-note character with a dry humor and understated comic delivery. John Cena has a wonderful rapport with Elba as Peacemaker, a character so dedicated to peace that they use the ultimate violence to get it. That’s a character premise that seems perfectly suited to Gunn’s predilections.
The film is very crass and over-the-top violent, but this is not lowbrow humor. The script is constantly creative in how it approaches scenes and character encounters. A CGI shark-man voiced by Sylvester Stallone rips people in half and eats them. Situational humor is set up where the Suicide Squad massacres a whole bunch of people with a hilariously unexpected result. The mixture of intentionally excessive broad humor, darker jokes, and onscreen visuals and flair make The Suicide Squad relentlessly fun.
This is certainly not a perfect film. If you want a version of this with better character arcs, Gunn’s Guardians is right there, with more coming. But letting him tackle a similar story with the freedom of an R-rating and characters and continuity that are bit looser results in one of the funniest and most rambunctious movies in this genre. This is what the Deadpool movies want to be. This is a film where the insanity and silliness of a giant starfish monster fighting a talking man-shark is embraced. Gunn has killed it here, and I almost want him to commit Marvel-career suicide with the third Guardians film if it means we get more of these.