The Suicide Squad, from Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn, is one of the best superhero movies I’ve seen in years. It’s a foul-mouthed, ultra-violent and absurdly funny action romp that starts with a head-fake and ends with a final showdown that’s somewhere between Godzilla, Cthulhu and just plain absurd.
The Suicide Squad itself, referred to officially as Task Force X, is an elite unit of bad guys—or antiheroes—sent on super dangerous missions by the execrable Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) under threat of imminent death. Disobey Waller’s orders, and the tiny bomb implanted at the base of your skull will go boom.
The Suicide Squad is only partly a sequel to the 2016 David Ayer film. Few of that movie’s characters make the leap to this one. There’s Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and Waller and Colonel Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and . . . I’m pretty sure that’s it, at least for main cast members. Oh and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney).
You don’t even need to see the first film to enjoy this one, as you get the gist of the Suicide Squad’s raison d’etre in the film’s opening sequence. None of the major plot points from the first movie carry over beyond the nature of Task Force X itself, and its principle antagonist, Amanda Waller.
Without spoiling the story, our “heroes” are sent on a mission to a small Latin American country called Corto Maltese where a vicious dictatorship has fallen after a bloody military coup. The new leaders are just as ruthless as the previous regime, but they’re also far more anti-American. These generals now have access to a secret extraterrestrial project (called Project Starfish) that could allegedly put American security at risk. So the Suicide Squad is sent in to stop them, destroy the project and hopefully make it out alive.
What follows is a bloody, ridiculously funny romp with a cast of genuinely entertaining characters that makes most of the DCEU pale in comparison. If the DC movies had been this good up to this point, we’d be having a very different conversation about the MCU vs DCEU debate.
John Cena plays Peacemaker, essentially an ultra-violent take on Captain America. “I cherish peace with all of my heart,” he says when another character questions his superhero moniker. “I don’t care how many men, women and children I kill to get it.”
The squad’s leader is of the reluctant variety. Bloodsport (Idris Elba) is an assassin who wants no part in any of this, but finds himself pressed into service by Waller. Alongside these two arsenal-happy warriors we have the rat-controlling Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), the deeply disturbed Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) and the strangely adorable, always-ravenous King Shark (Sylvester Stallone). As you’ve probably noticed from the trailers and posters for the film, there are other heroes in this film, but these are the main ones.
It’s a great team of misfits and vagabonds. Bloodsport is the team’s center, the grudging hero in an antihero’s costume, a man of honor even if he doesn’t want to admit it, to himself or his daughter or anyone.
Peacemaker is his twin in many ways. “He does exactly what I do,” laments Bloodsport when Waller introduces the two. But Peacemaker is a clown, a jingoistic patriot and a ruthless killer with no moral code. “I think liberty’s your excuse to do whatever you want,” Bloodsport tells him at one point.
Ratcatcher 2, the daughter of the original Ratcatcher (Taika Waititi) is the squad’s moral center, the one character who truly places value in friendship and love and kindness. Her power—the ability to control rats—seems goofy, but ends up being more useful—and poignant–than we realize at first. In many ways, it’s the friendships she forms with Bloodsport and King Shark that make all the difference.
King Shark, well, he’s mostly just here for comic relief, though I guess that’s not quite the right term in a film that’s mostly comedy. They could have made King Shark a fearsome beast, but he’s more like a very large, very hungry, toddler.
The other two main heroes are Colonel Flag and Harley Quinn. Through misadventure and misfortune, these two aren’t with the rest of the squad until later in the film. Flag has a bit more of a role this time around, so we get to see Kinnaman flex his (literal and figurative) muscles a bit more this time around. (Indeed, between Elba, Cena and Kinnaman, and one of the generals, this movie has a lot more male eye candy than female, though of course Harley Quinn / Margot Robie is always radiant in her own quirky way).
The last time we saw Harley Quinn was in Birds of Prey, a decent DC movie but ultimately a bit of a mixed bag. Here she really shines, unfettered by any attachment to bad boy friends, free to kickass and crack wise. She really dazzles in a frilly red dress, and one flowery action sequence, that somehow gets right to the heart of Quinn’s psyche, really shines.
The mission goes FUBAR, of course, and naturally everything is not quite how it seems (at least not how Waller painted it) and by the end the film descends into some truly nutty territory. I remarked at one point that if someone had just walked in on the scene with no context they’d really, truly have no clue what they were watching. (Without spoiling, it involves the film’s final boss and Polka-Dot Man’s delusions).
I have few complaints. Does my 20-minute rule apply here? I think so, though I’m not as worried with The Suicide Squad as I am with other films simply because it’s so consistently entertaining.
I’ve been arguing over and over again that too many movies are about 20 to 30 minutes too long these days (especially genre films) sacrificing quality for quantity, as though somehow making moviegoers spend more time at a movie translates to a better reception. But there’s nothing inherently better about a 150 minute move than there is about a 120 minute or 90 minute movie.
Black Widow was definitely too long at 2 hours and 14 minutes, but it was also just a deeply mediocre picture. Simply cutting down the film’s length would have helped with its poor pacing, though obviously there were other issues that no amount of pacing could fix.
Army of the Dead was at least a half-an-hour too long, and would have been much less of a dreary slog with some much-needed cuts (not that Zach Snyder ever really gets the pacing right). Go back even further to Aquaman, which was the movie that first made me really hyper-aware of this problem. At least one of its overly long battles could have been slashed—though really, only an entirely new script could have saved that movie.
Meanwhile, better films like Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse clock in at just under two hours. A Quiet Place II barely topped an hour-and-a-half.
The Suicide Squad pushes the upper limits at 2 hours and 17 minutes (not to mention waiting around for the post-credits scene) and shaving 15 or 20 minutes probably would have helped it feel a little less all over the place. Still, by and large I think it gets the pacing mostly right and hits all the right story strides, however silly; even its more superfluous story beats are entertaining. The pacing is a bit uneven, but it’s never boring.
Some may find the film’s vulgarity off-putting, or its heroes too flagrantly anti-heroic, or its jokes too relentless. There’s no doubt that the story itself is basically a sideshow to the character gags, existing largely in service to the characters’ various ticks and impulses.
You’ll find yourself more attached to the characters than to the narrative stakes, no doubt about it. It’s just that kind of movie—almost, at times, a parody of the superhero genre itself and the DCEU’s ridiculous villains and monsters in particular, most of which have been decidedly over-the-top and more than a little unintentionally goofy. Gods, aliens, mythical monsters—a far cry from the types of villain we encountered in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.
Gunn’s monster is at once horrifying and laughably, purposefully ridiculous, and yet the way the conflict finally resolves in the end is surprisingly heartfelt, punctuating all that irreverence and violence with a surprisingly human moment.
I won’t spoil the movie for you. Go see it in theaters if you can. It’s worth the price of admission, with plenty of big screen goodness that simply won’t pop as much on smaller TVs. It’s a foul-mouthed, ultra-violent, wholly irreverent and yet strangely . . . wholesome comic book movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously, packing in tons of great fight scenes and plenty of laughs. I’ve been burned out on superhero movies and TV shows lately, but The Suicide Squad was a blast.