"Remember, we're the bad guys" or some variant thereof was a line uttered multiple times in David Ayer's Suicide Squad (2016), a constant reminder of the movie's narrative opposition to superhero tropes. However, in the overall context of the film itself, the line came across as over-compensation, not least because Suicide Squad fell into the same traps it set out to parody: incoherence, schmaltzy sentimentality and cardboard cut-out characters. Even a last-ditch rewrite couldn't quite rescue the film from its generally confused tonality.
James Gunn's The Suicide Squad (now in theatres), a sequel that also shoulders the responsibility of being a 'soft reboot', manages to undo most of these errors while notching up a few missteps of its own along the way. Gunn, who helms the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise for Marvel, is fast developing a reputation for dark, douche-y, oddball humour (which this film deploys almost constantly). With The Suicide Squad, he also displays a talent for visual unpredictability, a knack for seeing ludicrous visual premises through till their breaking points " a spore-spilling kaiju that looks like a giant starfish, a side-scrolling shoot-'em-up sequence with innards replaced by flowers, a bored assassin figuring out the right tennis-ball trick shot to kill a bird.
Robert DuBois / Bloodsport (Idris Elba) and King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone. Warner Bros
The basic plot of both movies is not entirely dissimilar (hence the 'soft reboot' mentioned earlier). The titular Suicide Squad assembles for a suitably dangerous mission behind enemy lines " in this case, a top-secret Nazi-era research facility named JÃ¶tunheim (like the eponymous land of giants from Norse mythology) on the island nation of Corto Maltese. Along the way, they have to deal with turncoats, otherworldly beings and the ever-shifting priorities of the American government.
The Squad is controlled by senior intelligence officer Amanda Waller (Viola Davis). Much like her 2016 outing in Suicide Squad, Waller functions as a kind of stand-in for American excess " she's ruthless, Machiavellian and willing to do whatever it takes to serve the government's interests. Among the returning members of the squad, Special Forces veteran Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) have major roles here, too, while Idris Elba plays Robert Dubois/Bloodsport, a variation on Will Smith's Deadshot from the first movie.
John Cena as Peacemaker. Warner Bros
Among the newcomers, John Cena's Peacemaker, an obvious diss-character aimed at Captain America, gets the best lines and generous screentime (Gunn is also developing a spinoff Peacemaker series for HBO Max). At one point, Cena riffs off his own name, "I cherish peace with all my heart. I don't care how many men, women and children I have to kill to get it." The casting of Cena is a nice touch in this context, because even in his WWE days, his 'character' was a military man wearing the dog tags, throwing salutes to the crowd. When the Peacemaker talks about the greater good, the audience is in on the joke partially because we know this is an old, familiar tune for Cena; the irony compounds with the weight of the intervening years.
The others are either blink-and-you-miss gimmick characters, like Nathan Fillion's TDK, Pete Davidson's Blackguard and Michael Rooker's Savant " or unevenly written, like Harley Quinn's second outing (neither Ayer nor Gunn has written her well whereas she was a delight in Birds of Prey, written by Christina Hodson) or the new character 'Ratcatcher 2' (Daniella Melchior). I suppose it could be argued that for a film that's essentially a series of well-designed action setpieces, these fleeting appearances are gimmicky on purpose. But even so, actors like Fillion, Rooker and Peter Capaldi are largely wasted, which is a bit of a shame.
The Suicide Squad is a competently mounted piece of popcorn entertainment, for the most part. For me, it works better than several other notable examples of the 'anti-superhero' subgenre, like the Kick-Ass films or Amazon Prime Video's The Boys. Coasting on the strength of its visuals and the irreverence of its key characters, it launches a flat-out sensory assault from the word go. However, it's also the kind of film that you'll likely forget within hours of leaving the theatre. It doesn't quite have the writing heft or the controlled weirdness of Doom Patrol or Invincible, two streaming shows that present the strongest critiques of the superhero genre yet.
I do think, however, that Gunn has it in him to produce a genuinely (and not superficially) weird masterpiece one of these days. I would suggest doing away with live-action entirely and making an animated film instead: Gunn really isn't much good at directing actors, I get the feeling. And the animation medium will unlock his obvious visual potential, which is more than a fringe benefit.
But until that happens, Gunn's fans can dig into The Suicide Squad and its rejuvenation of the DC Universe " even if the movie, like its director, is more committed to a good time than a long time.
The Suicide Squad is now in theatres.