The vast majority of The Suicide Squad is spent with the titular members, and the film begins with an introduction period for characters who were mostly not in the promotional materials. Michael Rooker notably plays a silent soldier type, alongside Flula Borg’s javelin wielding adonis, a giant weasel, and several others. A heavy body count reduces the cast before the title card and establishes a bloody tone that’s not going to dwell on casualties. Survivors Flag and Margot Robbie’s recurring character Harley Quinn survive and unite with a team that has more success infiltrating Corto Maltese. Led by Idris Elba’s Bloodsport or John Cena’s Peacemaker (they fight about it a lot), they are also accompanied by David Dastmalchian’s Polka Dot Man, Daniela Melchior’s Ratcatcher 2, and a pseudo-verbal giant walking shark named Nanuae and voiced by Sylvester Stallone. The septet work their way through the jungle and into the capital, where the pro-American dictator has recently been overthrown by a combination of military and business interests that want to use whatever’s in the secret lab to subjugate the country and anyone else that threatens them.
Gunn received sole script credit, but based on the shockingly accusatory developments of the film, one has to wonder if Noam Chomsky got a consulting credit. Summer blockbusters are often overflowing with military equipment and the subtle propaganda that accompanies it. Top Gun screenings were famously stalked by Navy recruiters. The Suicide Squad, of all things, somehow takes the opposite tack and becomes stridently anti-imperial. Its biggest twist is that a film that contains John Cena bulging out of his tighty-whities can also credibly jab its finger into the chests of American audiences. Peacemaker is a walking American flag who can truthfully say that he’ll do anything for peace, including kill any man, woman, or child to get it. His strident belief in his righteousness has enabled him to do anything. His deeds are in pursuit of a supposed noble cause so he doesn’t have to feel bad about them, or even classify them as bad in the first place. The last hundred-plus years of American history provide an endless list of ‘lesser evils’ chosen on the world stage, hidden away from the citizenry in out-of-the-way countries not unlike Corto Maltese until the inevitable blowback arrives in allies-turned-enemies or hostage crises or planes used as missiles. Gunn heightens the stakes on this dynamic with sci-fi monstrosities, but the underlying patterns are recognizable even if the outcomes are CGI spectacles.
In keeping with that theme, the film holds the greatest sin to be manipulation, with murder somewhere further down the list. All of the main characters, with maybe one exception, have high body counts, but they also have people in their past who drove them towards this end. Waller’s holding the leash now, but she’s not the first one who sharpened their knives and pointed them in a direction. Polka Dot Man, infected with a space virus that makes him discharge brightly colored acidic projectiles, was experimented on by his own mother and is the only one of his siblings who survived. Bloodsport and Peacemaker both had brutalizing fathers, while Harley was abused and manipulated by The Joker, who thankfully is nowhere near this film. Nanuae’s fighting his own nature, but his dull joviality and desperate need to fit in could be easily redirected towards something other than stuffing goons into his maw. It’s the removal of choice that’s held in the most contempt, a theme that brings in Ratcatcher 2 thanks to her gentle father’s (Taika Waititi in flashback) heroin addiction which subsequently pushed them both into a grubby life of crime. With Waller’s use of remote-control brain bombs that will be triggered in the case of disobedience, the tyranny of control is introduced immediately. It comes back again in the final act on a grander scale, though Gunn still finds a way to remind the viewer of the greater original sin and spare a moment for a creature that’s just smooshed a beloved cast member.
For all its commentary about ruthless geopolitical exploitation, The Suicide Squad is still an action comedy that takes no small degree of delight in over-the-top violence. Gunn moves from set piece to set piece with purpose and speed, breaking up the action with banter that is on par with his best work from Guardians of the Galaxy and avoids the more cloying and emotionally manipulative parts of those films. There are bursts of feeling in The Suicide Squad but it’s either darkened by an immediate undercutting or made absurd by one of the film’s many surreal moments where Gunn shifts perspective to inside the semi-deranged mind of one of the characters. The action itself is overwhelming and wide-ranging, from the gun-kata of Bloodsport to Harley’s acrobatics and the physical intensity of Peacemaker. Setpieces skip between military battles, infiltrations, and monster fights. There’s so much on offer here that a scene that doesn’t work for some might be followed by the best scene of the film.
Stepping in for Will Smith, Elba stretches himself in a way that it’s unlikely Smith would’ve been interested in. Known in most of his other work for his unflappable cool, Elba’s Bloodsport is capable of wild outbursts that carry a whiff of real danger. He’s also an able straight man for the more eccentric castmates to bounce off of, and he has a serious fear of rats that turns him into a scared little boy. This is not a role that asks for anything more than movie star charisma, and Elba brings more to it than required. Robbie remains plugged in to Harley’s particular wavelength. If she’s not bringing anything new after two earlier outings, then she’s sticking with success. Cena, all veins and musculature, brings the comic timing he’s been honing for years, and Kinnaman acquits himself much better compared to the previous film. Stallone does for Nanuae what Vin Diesel did for Groot in Guardians, though Nanuae has a wider vocabulary and a lower IQ. He gets the requisite James Gunn scene of sci-fi awe, and, like Robbie’s performance, why mess with what works. It’s the least known members of the cast who make the most impact with Dastmalchian and Melchior. The former is perhaps the most damaged and he draws both dark humor and pathos out of his fatalistic loneliness, while the latter provides the only dose of unvarnished innocence in an acidic film.
Leave it to Gunn to swoop in and make the best thing in this latest round of DC films. Due to the influence of Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan before him, this is a franchise that’s not shy about big ideas, except those ideas have heretofore been conveyed in the most plodding and unnatural way possible. Sometimes something real and tangible sneaks through, like with Shazam’s raw child abandonment plotline, but more often than not, superhero films as a genre have remained stuck in the Nolan paradigm of a lot of words that don’t say anything. The Suicide Squad manages to do right by its characters, wow its audience, and leave them with persistent imagery and ideas that stick around long after the thrill of the film has worn off. Gunn’s got a foot in two comic-book worlds, and he’s the greatest talent in both. A-