Review: James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is like The Boys on steroids

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Don't call it a reboot: Margot Robbie stars in James Gunn's <em>The Suicide Squad</em>“><figcaption class=
Enlarge / Don’t call it a reboot: Margot Robbie stars in James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad
Warner Bros.

Fan enthusiasm has been high leading up to the premiere of The Suicide Squad, James “Don’t Call It a Reboot” Gunn’s band-of-misfit-supervillains homage to the classic 1967 film The Dirty Dozen (among many other influences).  That enthusiasm was not misplaced. This tenth installment in the DCEU is a fast-paced, blood-soaked, wildly irreverent escapade that skillfully balances gore and goofiness, with equal amounts of irreverence and sincerity. Think The Boys pumped up on a steroids.

(Some spoilers below but no major reveals.)

As I’ve written previouslyThe Suicide Squad is not a direct sequel to the 2016 film directed by David Ayer. Gunn wanted to take the franchise in a new direction and introduce new characters. But Joel Kinnaman and Viola Davis do reprise their 2016 roles as Col. Rick Flag, the squad’s understandably jaded field leader, and Intelligence Officer Amanda Waller, respectively. Steve Agee plays John Economos, prison warden and aide to Waller.  As with the 2016 film, the titular squad is composed entirely of criminal supervillains, led by Flag, under the authority of Waller. Waller plants nanite bombs in their necks to keep them reasonably under control, promising to shorten their sentences if their missions are successfully fulfilled.

In addition to fan favorite Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the squad this time around includes Bloodsport (Idris Elba), aka Robert DuBois, a mercenary with military training who is in prison for shooting Superman with a kryptonite bullet. Gunn has said he modeled many of the squad characters after different film genres, and Bloodsport channels the 1960s action hero Steve McQueen. He has a a bickering rivalry with Peacemaker (John Cena), another military veteran portrayed as a “douchey, bro-y Captain America,” purportedly inspired by 1970s TV series like Wonder Woman.

Jai Courtney reprises his role as Captain Boomerang. There’s also Ratcatcher 2, aka Cleo Cazo (Daniela Melchior); vigilante hacker Savant (Michael Rooker); Nanaue, aka King Shark (voiced by Rooker’s Cliffhanger co-star Sylvester Stallone); Blackguard (Pete Davidson); Javelin (Flula Borg), Weasel (Sean Gunn, James’ kid brother), an anthropomorphic weasel; alien mass murderer Mongal (Mayling Ng); TDK (Nathan Fillion), a metahuman whose arms detach from his body; and Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), who is far more deadly than his trademark polka-dot suit and big-time mommy issues would imply.

That is a jam-packed ensemble cast, and anyone familiar with The Dirty Dozen knows that many of them are bound to become cannon fodder. Gunn had hinted as much in pre-release interviews, expressing his delight that the studio gave him permission to draw deep from the DC Comics archives and kill off characters as he saw fit, thereby ensuring the film lives up to its name.

The director wastes no time establishing that he’s willing to do just that. The mission kicks off with the squad’s disastrous deployment on a Corto Maltese beach that is reminiscent of the opening sequence in Saving Private Ryan, except with a lot more (very) dark humor. Let’s just say Belle Reve penitentiary hasn’t really sent their best.

The survivors do manage to regroup and carry on with their mission: to infiltrate a high-security prison call Jotunheim—a former WW2 Nazi stronghold—and destroy all evidence related to the mysterious “Project Starfish.” The squad must kidnap mad scientist Gaius Grieves, aka The Thinker (Peter Capaldi), to gain access to Jotunheim. Fortunately, Flag finds an unexpected ally in Sol Soria (Alice Braga), leader of a band of rebels seeking to regain control of their country’s government. The current president is President Silvio Luna (Juan Diego Botto), who has only just assumed the role in the wake of a military coup, led by Major General Mateo Suarez (Joaquin Cosio).

Gunn’s willingness to sacrifice characters ensures that there are very real stakes for this squad, and while some are obviously doomed to die, there’s a few genuine surprises in the mix. That alone is a welcome change from your average superhero movie, where heroes are almost always protected by the plot (if only to ensure a possible sequel).

The director is also careful to develop key relationships among the surviving squad members, which makes later events that much more poignant as they unfold. Bloodsport and Peacemaker are highly competitive and engage in a lot of testosterone-fueled one-up-manship, while Flag and Peacemaker have a shared “brothers in arms” history despite their differences. Ratcatcher 2, with her trusty pet rat, Sebastian, serves as the group’s heart, befriending King Shark and forming a bond with Bloodsport. Even though the latter really hates rats, Cleo is confident there is good in him, if only because Sebastian really likes him. (Taika Waititi has a cameo in flashbacks as Cleo’s late father, the original Ratcather.)

As for Harley Quinn, she gets a twisted narrative arc that includes a literal Cinderella story when President Luna becomes enamored—if Cinderella were a crazed, wildly unpredictable psychopath. It ends about as well as you’d expect, given Harley’s terrible taste in men. Birds of Prey played up a certain bubble-gum sweetness to the character, despite her violent outbreaks. There’s still some of that sweetness here, but Robbie also shows just how dangerously unhinged her character is, switching emotional gears on a dime and perceiving all the carnage she inflicts through a burst of Technicolor flowers and butterflies.

Gunn proved with the PG-13 Guardians of the Galaxy that he could take an ensemble cast of B- and C-list comic book characters and still produce a wildly entertaining, action-packed blockbuster with tons of irreverent humor and a touch of heart. He brings a similar slyly self-aware sensibility to The Suicide Squad, but the R rating meant the director could pull out all the stops on the blood and gore front. This is not a film for the squeamishly inclined. The humor is darker, the body count is higher, and the finale becomes truly bonkers with the appearance of a giant alien starfish (Starro the Conquerer, another deep cut from the comics). In Gunn’s capable hands, it all comes together to give us the group of supervillains-turned-unexpected-heroes that we all wanted to see.

The Suicide Squad is now playing in theaters, as well as streaming on HBO Max. We strongly recommend only watching movies in theaters if you are fully vaccinated. HBO Max has already ordered a Peacemaker spinoff straight-to-series, with Cena and Agee reprising their roles, although Gunn was cagey about revealing whether it would be set before or after the film until after The Suicide Squad‘s release. The series is slated for a January 2022 debut.