REVIEW: The Suicide Squad (2021)

thesuicidesquad_posterThere is a general perception that Warner Bros’ recent superhero films – all based on DC Comics characters – have been vastly inferior to those produced by Disney’s Marvel Studios. Inferior? Perhaps on average. Vastly so? It’s there that I would argue the point. The inconsistency of Warner Bros’ pictures is, in part, a blesssing in disguise. When I recently reviewed Eternals (2021), I noted how the homogeneity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was potentially harming each individual film. Whatever characters featured, the tone and aesthetic was generally the same. This has not been the case with Warner Bros’ more recent films. While it is difficult to reconcile each individual film into one shared universe of characters, each of those films has been able to adapt and express its source texts in a much more appropriate fashion.

James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is a case in point. There was a Suicide Squad film already, of course: directed by David Ayer and awkwardly hammered into the grim, operatic mise-en-scene of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel trilogy. Gunn’s film openly takes what worked from that earlier film, particularly in terms of cast, and then ditches almost everything else. It is technically a sequel, but it practically stands on its own. With its black humour, gory violence, and potty-mouthed dialogue, it reflects the best of its source material in a manner that Ayer was never allowed to. It is a hugely enjoyable slice of explosive mayhem that simply would not be allowed to exist on screen were it a Marvel property.

A group of incarcerated super-villains are given an offer: undertake a near-impossible mission for the United States government, and if they survive they will have 10 years of their prison sentence removed. Dispatched to the South American island of Corto Maltese – the site of a recent military coup d’etat – they are tasked with destroyed a World War II era scientific base, and the mysterious ‘project starfish’ along with it.

The Suicide Squad comes with a fairly extensive cast of characters, most of whom represent the sillier end of DC Comics, and all of whom are quite shockingly disposable. Those who have returned from Ayer’s film do so in a generally improved state. Those that are new show off a wide variety of talented actors including Nathan Fillion, Peter Capaldi, Sylvestor Stallone, and John Cena. Ultimately the narrative belongs to three leads. Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn gets better each time she appears on screen; here she balances her comedic persona with some great reminders that the character is actually very dangerous. Idris Elba is charismatic and commanding as Bloodsport, although his character is palpably replacing Will Smith’s Deadshot to such a degree that you would swear the production simply did a word search-and-replace on the screenplay. Daniela Melchior is exceptional as Ratcatcher, easily the most sympathetic and relatable character. One of the surprises of The Suicide Squad is how, when the moment calls for it, Gunn can pivot so effectively from cynical mayhem to genuine sentimentality without one disrupting the other.

Here is the other thing: Gunn is a director who fully commits in adapting comic book characters. We already knew this from his sterling work on Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). That film required a talking raccoon and a giant walking tree, and that is exactly what Gunn produced. All too often a Hollywood adaptation of an American superhero comic will pull back from its most ridiculous extremes. Tim Story’s 2007 film Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer is a case in point. When given the opportunity to render the villain Galactus on-screen, instead of rendering him as a giant purple man in a ridiculous hat Story’s production re-imagined him as a lightning-filled alien cloud. Perhaps it was easier for a mass audience to digest, but when given the unique opportunity to reproduce the original character the design simply reeked of commercial cowardice. When given a similarly unique opportunity in The Suicide Squad, James Gunn fully commits. The result is a climax that is spectacularly weird, over-the-top and never previously seen in any number of glossy visual effects pictures.

It is such a satisfying film. It is imperfect, but moves from a messy and incoherent beginning to an impressively streamlined climax, while becoming more ambitious and outlandish as it goes. It shows a loving fidelity to the original comic at its best. Funny when it needs to be, heartfelt when it wants to be, and just gloriously fit for purpose.

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