THE SUICIDE SQUAD – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Margot Robbie (I, Tonya), Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation), John Cena (Bumblebee), Joel Kinnaman (RoboCop), Sylvester Stallone (Creed), Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Jai Courtenay (Jack Reacher), Peter Capaldi (Doctor Who), David Dastmalchian (Ant-Man), Daniela Melchior (The Black Book), Michael Rooker (Slither), Alice Braga (The New Mutants), Pete Davidson (The King of Staten Island), Nathan Fillion (Serenity), Sean Gunn (The Belko Experiment), Flula Borg (Pitch Perfect 2), Mayling Ng, Storm Reid (A Wrinkle in Time), Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit)

Writer/Director: James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy)

Runtime: 2 hours 12 minutes

Release Date: 30th July (UK), 6th August (US/HBO Max)

Just to preface this as I did with my Birds of Prey review: there is no rating I regret more than giving 2016’s Suicide Squad a 7.5/10. On further viewing, it has only gotten worse with time and I would delete my old review if not to serve as a reminder never to make that same mistake again; if I were to rate it now, I’d give it a 4 or 5 at best. That said, that first attempt was not without its merits, and it seems Warner Bros felt the same, keeping what worked and revamping everything else in this sequel/reboot. Of all the directors they could pick to give the franchise the jumpstart it needed, they couldn’t have made a better (or luckier) choice than James Gunn. I mean, the first Suicide Squad suffered because the studio tried to take a brooding David Ayer movie and retrofit it into a Guardians of the Galaxy-style romp, so why not just hire the guy who made Guardians of the Galaxy? However, The Suicide Squad (that The is very important) is far more than just Gunn repeating his same tricks but for a new team and with gore. It’s a celebration of every disparate facet of the DC Universe, taking all the bonkers characters and concepts of this world and throwing them into a bloody blender of entertaining excess. You aren’t going to find a bolder, bloodier, or more utterly bonkers summer movie than this.

Whilst it generally stands on its own, The Suicide Squad is functional as a follow-up to the 2016 film and even opens in a similar fashion: a motley crew of characters introduced in prison as they assemble for a mission whilst a classic rock song plays. However, this worrying sense of déjà vu is quickly thrown on its head as Gunn subverts your expectations and reminds you that this is a Suicide Squad movie: no character is sacred, and the odds are stacked against them, so don’t get too attached. It’s a brilliant opening that gets us into the action efficiently and pushes the reset button without completely tossing everything Ayer contributed. The plot itself is simple and straightforward at first, allowing us to focus more on the disparate characters of Task Force X and their contentious relationships, but it grows in scope as the film progresses before reaching an epic finale that delivers what James Gunn does best: high-concept action combined with irreverent humour and a healthy dose of heart. The pacing is taught in all the right places, there are some wonderful references and call-backs to the DC Universe that will please diehard fans, and the tone is so wonderfully balanced that not a single emotional shift feels too jarring. The first film posited itself as a story about bad guys turned good but only paid lip service to the idea, but The Suicide Squad actually delivers on that and more. This is a story about the scum of society learning that they have value, that they don’t have to be the villains that society paints them as, and that the supposed “good guys” aren’t always so noble themselves.

(from left to right) David Dastmalchian as Abner Krill/Polka-Dot Man, John Cena as Christopher Smith/Peacemaker, Idris Elba as Robert DuBois/Bloodsport, and Daniela Melchior as Cleo Cazo/Ratcatcher 2 in THE SUICIDE SQUAD (2021, d. James Gunn)

It’s hard to talk about the cast of The Suicide Squad because not only are there a lot of characters, but how much I talk about them may give away how long they survive. Rest assured though: nobody turns in a bad performance, and they all get at least one glorious moment to shine. Margot Robbie is as captivating as always as Harley Quinn and, whilst she mostly takes a backseat to the new cast, she gets some of her best moments so far here. While never outright mentioned, the script takes into account her character development in Birds of Prey, delivering a more self-assured and capable Harley but without losing her wicked charm. Idris Elba ably takes on the straight man role as Bloodsport, grounding the film whenever it goes off the rails and reminding the audience that real people exist in this fantastical world. That said, it is still fairly obvious Elba’s part was originally written with Will Smith’s Deadshot in mind, and I wish the film did a better job of differentiating the two characters. John Cena is an absolute delight as the deluded Peacemaker, ably making use of both his physicality and comedic abilities to craft a truly unpredictable character; F9, this is how you make good use of your John Cena. The real surprise of the movie ends up being Daniela Melchior as Ratcatcher 2, taking a very obscure character and turning her into the emotional heart of the story, and the relationship she forms with Elba’s character brings home the film’s themes of redemption and hope.

There are so many great characters to talk about that I’d honestly be raving for another thousand words if I talked about them all in detail, so I’m going to have to bring up the rest in rapid succession and leave the rest for you to discover:

  • David Dastmalchian’s Polka-Dot Man is delightfully creepy and the recurring gag with his mother never stops being funny
  • Everything that comes out of King Shark’s mouth is hilarious, and the fact he has Sylvester Stallone’s voice makes it even funnier
  • Jai Courtenay as Captain Boomerang is still the best performance he’s ever given
  • Rick Flagg actually has something to do besides spout exposition this time, and Joel Kinnaman’s po-faced delivery is used for more comedic effect.
  • It wouldn’t be a James Gunn movie without Michael Rooker, and of course he’s as great as you’d expect playing Savant
  • Pete Davidson as Blackguard? Yeah, it’s exactly as ridiculous and funny as you’d expect
  • Taika Waititi’s role is barely more than a one-line cameo, but that one line made me shed a tear; it’s a really well-placed emotional moment
  • Weasel is a wonderfully revolting addition to the team, and Sean Gunn is great as both him and a certain other DC villain in a quick appearance
  • Nathan Fillion mines a lot of great gags out of such a disposable and ridiculous character as TDK
  • Peter Capaldi doesn’t get a whole lot to do as Thinker, but he has a great speech with Flagg that delivers a real gut punch
  • Viola Davis truly embodies the spirit of Amanda Waller this time around and goes to some truly despicable places; she is that character you love to hate
  • Alice Braga is a bit wasted as freedom fighter Sol Soria, and the human villains themselves are pretty generic bad guys right out of a schlocky 80s action movie, but they have their moments
  • I know the real villain is spoiled in the trailers, but just in case you’ve managed to stay dark…OMG, they really do this character justice and simply seeing them brought to life in a live-action movie is a wondrous feat in and of itself!
Mayling Ng as Mongal and Margot Robbie as Dr Harleen Quinzel/Harley Quinn in THE SUICIDE SQUAD (2021, d. James Gunn)

The first Suicide Squad had a lot of problems, but on a technical level it was an absolutely unredeemable mess; a clusterf*ck of horrendous editing, monotonous action, ugly cinematography, and a disgusting use of obvious soundtrack choices that just scream of studio meddling and trend chasing. Looking at its successor, however, the difference is night-and-day. This truly is a DC comic brought to life, smashing together bright colours and fantastical visuals with the most cartoonish violence this side of an Itchy & Scratchy episode. Special commiserations must go to costume designer Judianna Makovsky, who has translated some incredibly ridiculous outfits from the comics to the screen with nary a change and yet it simply works; the days when X-Men had to make self-deprecating jokes about yellow spandex are truly over. The action sequences make full use of its diverse characters’ unique skillsets to both bloody and comedic effect, making every encounter feel special and surprising. There are a lot of standout moments but, besides the larger-than-life climax, the best sequence is easily Harley’s escape from the clutches of a Corto Malteasean dictator; it takes what worked so wonderfully about the action in Birds of Prey, turns it up to 11, and delivers something as viscerally satisfying as that legendary hallway fight from Oldboy. John Murphy’s score is subdued but wonderfully carries the action along, and the soundtrack this time is far more tastefully curated and don’t overwhelm every scene; it’s not quite Awesome Mix-levelsof catchy tunes, but there are some nice deep cuts in there.

Idris Elba as Robert DuBois/Bloodsport and Viola Davis as Amanda Waller in THE SUICIDE SQUAD (2021, d. James Gunn)

The Suicide Squad is everything you could want from a DC movie and more, improving on every aspect of the first film and setting a new standard for the franchise going forward. There are certainly echoes of Guardians of the Galaxy within its DNA, but Gunn equally embraces his earlier, more gruesome filmography to craft what is essentially a $100 million Troma movie. After his career was so very nearly torpedoed by his hasty (and eventually retracted) firing by Disney, it’s so satisfying to see Gunn continue to succeed and have as much fun in the DC sandbox as he did in Marvel’s. The fact he’s going to able to continue playing in both sets of toys, with the upcoming Peacemaker streaming series and the long-awaited Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, shows there is no better time to be a fan of both comic book universes.


Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

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