In 2016, Warner Bros. released Suicide Squad, David Ayer’s version of the all-guys team from the DC Comics. The reviews were poor, and while it had a flashy style, it didn’t make a positive impression on the mainstream audience overall. After director James Gunn was briefly released from Disney over a couple of tweets, he signed up to give his own take on the terrible, terminal team, a release so eagerly anticipated that even a pandemic couldn’t kill the hype . But does it live up to all of our high hopes?
… well, that’s a complicated question …
The Suicide Squad follows a team made up of Harley Quinn, Rick Flag, Bloodsport, Peacemaker, Ratcatcher 2, King Shark and Polka-Dot Man on their way to Corto Maltese to destroy the Jotunheim project. When they arrive, however, they find that Waller has not given them all of the information they need, nor has their true mission statement been made, and that they are facing a much greater threat than they thought.
The plot is solidly constructed as it lacks the weird plot holes and pointless character choices of the previous film. The characterization is solid, the dialogues are crisp and fun, and overall make for an entertaining watch. I think there are some narrative issues that keep it from making a great movie, but I’ll get into that in a moment in the spoilers section.
Overall, the cast is great. We have returning cast Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, Viola Davis as Amanda Waller and Joel Kinnaman as Rick Flag. Of the three, Kinnaman gets the most time to shine, and it’s a welcome change from his act on Ayer’s suicide squad. However, both Waller and Harley remain pretty stagnant. Waller still plays the big boss, though now with a crew I hope we’ll see more given the role they play in the finale of the film. And Harley, well … she’s basically the same character as in any other movie, except for a moment of introspection that is actually funny and heartbreaking. Robbie still played the manic pixie nightmare girl, but it’s not as strong as it is in Birds of Prey.
Daniela Melchior as Ratcatcher 2 is the heart of this film. At every turn she approaches scenarios with empathy and compassion, a subject that I thought signaled death to her, but luckily not. She doesn’t get much from a narrative arc; their attitudes and powers don’t really change, but characters are changed by their presence. Still, she was by far the most personable character and is portrayed as such throughout the film.
The big stars of Idris Elba (who plays Bloodsport) and John Cena (who plays Peacemaker) are good at their roles. Your characters shine the most when interacting with each other, with a great scene where they try to outdo each other by killing people in the most eccentric way in one seamless, ongoing take. Cena perfectly slips into the role of peacemaker, which is not surprising given that the character is about as nuanced as a typical pro wrestler role and his comedic timing is strong. Elba’s battered and angry Bloodsport is also great fun, but works best when paired against others in the squad rather than alone.
Another highlight is David Dastmalchian as the Polka-Dot Man, who is so crazy it’s hard not to like him. His backstory is strange, as due to his mother’s obsession with creating superpowered humans, he is infected with an interdimensional virus and now has to drive out polka dots or die twice a day. Even so, his defeated affect and general madness really made him popular. And of course, Sylvester Stallone was adorable as King Shark, a bloodier and slightly dumber version of the Groot character.
Overall, Gunn’s characteristic style shines through. We have a good soundtrack, well choreographed action and fight scenes and great costumes. That’s what people mean when they talk about cinematic eye candy; Every scene is balanced, bright, and full of fun details. There’s as much comedy in the pictures as there is in the dialogue, with just enough blood and sexual innuendo to remind you that this isn’t just a copy of his Marvel work. It goes well with the Suicide Squad brand, with quick edits, gross overall feel, and exaggerated violence.
In order to understand why this film is a little flat on the whole, we have to enter a lot of spoiler territory. If you want to avoid these, I’ll just sum it up by saying that the structure in both the plot and the characters is not there to support and improve the story where it could be. It’s surprising considering the balance of humor and heart that Gunn had in the Guardians of the Galaxy films.
The problem with The Suicide Squad is threefold: delayed low stakes, lack of character arcs, poor team dynamics. Let’s break this down component by component.
The Suicide Squad’s missions ultimately non-existent until the third act of the film. We have no idea why Task Force X is directed to Corto Maltese by the middle of Act 1 and why it matters until Act 2. Sure, we’re given reasons why Bloodsport has to leave (which I’ll get to), but the rest of the roster? Not as much. It is implied that Amanda Waller does this kind of thing often enough for everyone to know the exercise, but it seems odd not to give the other characters missions until the last minute, i.e., “Look, it’s the giant starfish of death that is easy could take “across the planet.”
I think I realized this was going to be a recurring problem when they killed a large chunk of their newly “introduced” characters in the first fifteen minutes or so. And by introduced, I mean involving famous people and making it clear that none of them would make it by not giving a reason to care or like them. It all felt like a wink-wink-nudge-nudge moment of meta-humor that might have worked in 2016, but not so much now.
But this problem goes on. As soon as we finally meet Starro the Conqueror, we hardly have time to process the threat they pose and the effects of their actions no further than just “Borg but with starfish”. There are no real villains in this story (unless you count Waller) and it doesn’t make any sense why Starro would want to take over a city instead of just heading back to space. Does every story need a villain? No. Does this one? Yes. Poorly. Because without a solid villain, without a threat, there is nothing that drives the story.
Which leads to the second problem: There is little to no character arcs in this film. Bloodsport is the exception as he becomes a leader, saves his child from jail, learns not to fear rats, and wins his tail measurement contest with Peacemaker. However, since we didn’t have enough time to learn about Bloodsport at the beginning of the movie, that growth isn’t getting the weight it should. Interaction with his daughter is strained, but there doesn’t seem to be any real affection. It doesn’t help that the “Perfect Target Man Does This For His Daughter” storyline was used in the first Suicide Squad.
Peacemaker does show some growth, but not enough to get him out of his flat characterization and eventual heel twist (what surprised anyone?). Ratcatcher 2 doesn’t evolve with the story, nor does Harley, which remains so manic and chaotic in the beginning and in the end. Polka-Dot You get your moment of growth … before he’s killed, we don’t count that either. At least King Shark is learning about friendship, so he points it out.
Finally bad team dynamics. What do I mean by that? Well, it feels like the movie is broken into two sections: the Harley Quinn section, and then the everyone else section. In most team films, subplots include at least two of the cast’s characters so we can see them interact and develop a relationship. By dragging Harley away and not giving her a character arc in which she changes in any way, it feels like watching a series of shorts that are meant to be a companion to the film, not part of the whole film. We see how the other members of the new Suicide Squad like each other, learn about each other’s past, and develop a relationship. Then Harley comes to the grand finale, and as much as the dialogues try, it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the group.
A case in point is that her reputation fight with Polka-Dot Man is forced – of course she doesn’t know who Milton the driver is, she only knew him about five minutes before they besieged Jotunheim! But the dialogue makes you think that she should, that it should be funny, that Milton was there all along and Harley never noticed. Then, as the big fight begins, Harley immediately goes out alone to get Starro in the eye while the others work together to slow him down. If you keep them separate for that long, the movie really feels split in two and takes away any sense of narrative cohesion.
If anything, this film feels like one of those special edition comics where a number of characters meet, fight a meaningless villain and no development takes place because that would mess up the continuity of their other series. Does that mean The Suicide Squad is a bad movie? No, but neither is it substantive or satisfactory. It’s a movie that has nothing to say, but it definitely looks good.
If there is one word to describe The Suicide Squad it would be “fun”. Excellent action set pieces, cool locations and costumes and generally a good relationship with a strong cast. However, the narrative structure leaves a lot to be desired and doesn’t make it great.