2016’s Suicide Squad remains a polarising affair, but even its fans would probably agree that this DC Extended Universe blockbuster is a textbook example of the perils of studio interference. Shortly after principal photography wrapped, Warner Bros. executives pushed writer-director David Ayer to retool the film’s decidedly gritty tone to match the more upbeat, anarchic vibe of its wildly popular teaser trailer, and the result was (to put it mildly) a mess. Sure, Suicide Squad performed well at the box office, but critics savaged the flick for its incoherent narrative and underdeveloped characters – two failings that many (including Ayer) have since chalked up to the studio’s meddling.
Fast forward five years, and it seems that Warner Bros. has learned its lesson with James Gunn’s belated follow-up, The Suicide Squad. Unlike Ayer, Gunn – hot off the success of his two Guardians of the Galaxy outings for Warner rivals Marvel Studios – has clearly been handed complete creative control, delivering the first film to fully embody his unique storytelling sensibilities since 2010’s Super. It’s a good thing, too, since Gunn’s unadulterated creative vision is ultimately what makes The Suicide Squad work, resulting in a far more satisfying effort than its predecessor.
As much a soft reboot as it is a sequel, The Suicide Squad sticks to the same basic premise as the 2016 original. Once again, a team of misfit supervillain convicts undertake a high-risk mission for Machiavellian government director Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) in exchange for shorter sentences (or other considerations). This time around, our band of anti-heroes is dispatched to South American island Corto Maltese to destroy former Nazi stronghold Jotunheim, to prevent it from falling into the hands of the island’s new (and rabidly anti-American) regime.
The team – which includes familiar faces Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), as well as new recruits like Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), Peacemaker (John Cena), and Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) – has more to contend with than the Corto Maltese forces and deranged scientist The Thinker (Peter Capaldi), though. They’ll soon find themselves face-to-face with Jotunheim’s darkest secret: a terrifyingly powerful extra-terrestrial creature hellbent on world domination.
If The Suicide Squad sounds like standard mainstream superhero fare, let me assure you: it ain’t. Heck, this isn’t even what we now consider standard James Gunn superhero fare, either. Sure, the killer licensed tunes, dynamically choreographed and shot set pieces, and general stylistic flourishes that defined the Guardians films are present and accounted for here – and what’s more, rate among the best of Gunn’s career.
But free from the restraints of Marvel Studios’ more family-friendly brand, Gunn can finally indulge his love of hyperviolence and adult humour (an exchange about a penis-covered beach is particularly memorable) that may shock those unfamiliar with his wider filmography. He even sneaks in some simple yet effective commentary about shady US government policy – both at home and abroad – which (unlike some of Marvel’s recent efforts) never feels like a case of the movie biting off more than it can chew.
Yet what really shines through here is Gunn’s obvious affinity for the members of the Squad itself. Gunn has a soft spot for social outcasts, and the loveable losers headlining The Suicide Squad (who lack even the “cool outsider” aura surrounding the Guardians of the Galaxy) couldn’t appeal more to his predilection. Gunn’s empathy for these characters and faith in their capacity to change permeates the entire movie in a very real way – and it’s ultimately what helps him paper over any cracks the film has.
And there are cracks.
For starters, there’s Elba’s Bloodsport. Don’t get me wrong: Elba is decent enough in the role, but he fails to really convince as leadership (or leading man) material – and it’s hard to escape the feeling that Will Smith (who Elba essentially replaced) would have brought some much-needed charisma to proceedings. Not that it’s all Elba’s fault; he’s saddled with an underwritten part that swagger alone couldn’t transform – and he’s not the only one, either.
Despite Gunn’s admirable attempt to squeeze in as much character development as possible, The Suicide Squad is nevertheless overflowing with thinly drawn heroes and villains. Even with 132 minutes at his disposal, Gunn has so many players running around that even the standout performers – Robbie, Kinnaman, Melchior, Cena, and Dastmalchian – don’t get enough screen time to construct fully-fledged arcs for their characters, which slightly undermines the emotional impact of The Suicide Squad‘s rousing finale.
Then there’s the humour. Here, The Suicide Squad is more like the Deadpool movies than Gunn’s Guardians jaunts: raunchy jokes come hot and fast, but for every gag that elicits a chuckle there’s at least one that falls flat.
But in the end, the sheer force of Gunn’s unbridled vision more than compensates for this and any of The Suicide Squad’s other shortcomings. And who knows? Maybe this will encourage studios to place more trust in the storytelling instincts of their filmmakers – although the odds of that happening are probably worse than what even the Suicide Squad is used to…