This review of “The Suicide Squad” was first published on July 28, 2021.
In the slender book entitled “Sequels That Improve Upon the Original,” in the chapter marked “Because They Hired Someone Who Better Understood the Tone,” you’ll find “The Suicide Squad,” a follow-up to 2016’s “Suicide Squad” that doubles down on what the first movie got right while learning from its predecessor’s mistakes.
I noted, in my review of “Suicide Squad,” that the film wanted desperately to follow in the footsteps of “Guardians of the Galaxy” as a film in which a group of thrown-together mismatched misfits overcome their mutual loathing and learn how to defeat a common enemy. As such, the fact that this follow-up was written and directed by “Guardians” filmmaker James Gunn represents a step in the right direction. (Industry gossip in 2016 blamed the studio for watering down original director David Ayer’s darker vision after a colorful and comic trailer played well with audiences.)
“The Suicide Squad” is by no means perfect, but like the “Deadpool” movies, it’s a showcase for what can happen when a superhero movie is allowed to be sprightly, self-aware, and sardonic while also indulging in hard-R violence, gore, and language. Gunn’ latest creation is not without moments that drag, but when it pops, it pops brilliantly.
Shadowy government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) is back, assembling a new Task Force X to deal with the aftermath of a revolution in the island nation of Corto Maltese. Unlike the original “Suicide Squad,” in which Davis was saddled with the onerous task of reciting a dozen or so super-villain backstories, this movie doesn’t particularly care whether or not we know who Blackguard (Pete Davidson) or TDK (Nathan Fillion) are; all that matters is that these incarcerated villains get time off of their sentences if they successfully complete a mission, and should they step out of line in any way, Waller will detonate the nano-explosive she has had implanted in the base of their necks.
There are diversions and side-missions aplenty here, but the essential crew includes Bloodsport (Idris Elba), a crack shot who’s only along to keep Waller from dragging his daughter (Storm Reid, “A Wrinkle in Time”) through the penal system; Peacemaker (Jon Cena), also a crack shot, but one who’s clearly bonkers in the pursuit of what he considers justice; Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), post–“Birds of Prey” and still her emancipated self; Ratcatcher II (Portugese actress Daniela Melchior), who can command rodents; King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone), a dopey man-eater who splits the difference between Killer Croc in “Suicide Squad” and Groot in the “Guardians” movies; and the Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian, “Dune”), who’s got deadlier powers — and deeper mommy issues — than his innocuous name might suggest.
Also along for the ride are Peter Capaldi as the villainous Thinker, Steve Agee as one of Waller’s laptop lieutenants, and a big-bad monster whose identity won’t be revealed here, although if you’re up on your DC Comics history, the fact that Waller refers to the mission as “Operation Starfish” should tell you everything you need to know.
Gunn is clearly having a blast playing in a sandbox that doesn’t belong to the family-friendly Marvel universe; there’s a shockingly riotous sequence in which Bloodsport and Peacemaker try to one-up each other with the bloody ways they dispatch sleeping troops in a guerilla camp, a sequence that Gunn then ties up with a final punchline that recontextualizes the entire enterprise. “Suicide Squad” is the sort of movie where comedy accompanies brutality, leading — at its best moments — to combinations of screaming and laughing.
The cast gets what movie they’re in, and they clearly relish the hard-edged banter they’re given between big action sequences. Not all of that downtime is created equally, unfortunately; it’s essential to give the audience time to breathe, yes, but some of those in-between scenes feel like disposable filler that would have benefited from snappier dialogue. When there’s action, however, cinematographer Henry Braham (“Maleficent: Mistress of Evil”) and editors Fred Raskin (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”) and Christian Wagner (“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It”) keep the proceedings exciting and distinguishable rather than allowing the film to descend into the rote explosion of ones and zeroes offered up by so many other comic-book adaptations.
Does “The Suicide Squad” have a grander meaning in the context of the culture, in the way that pundits tried to analyze the “Lord of the Rings” or “Avengers” franchises as responses to 9/11? Or do superhero movies currently exist in a vacuum, where they’re only reflecting the movies that came before them while laying out the groundwork for the next several series entries?
A generous read on Gunn’s team films would be that they represent a post–Fox News brand of American idealism, one where even people who despise and mistrust each other can eventually put that rancor behind them in the face of a genuine threat. And given our current inability to come to a consensus about seemingly obvious ideas like “vaccinations good, armed white-supremacist insurgency bad,” that kind of togetherness might currently exist only in fictions like this one.
Whatever their political bent, viewers dealing with superhero fatigue might well find some respite in “The Suicide Squad,” a film that’s trying to push against the edges of these audience-friendly sagas with storytelling that’s at least slightly different and daring. On the James Gunn scale, it feels like a happy medium between the all-ages workplace comedy of the “Guardians” movies and the snarky misanthropy of his heroic satire “Super.” As other superhero franchises begin to hit the narrative wall, “The Suicide Squad” promises to find new and unexpected places to go, should this team live to die again.
“The Suicide Squad” opens in U.S. theaters and on HBO Max August 6.