Review: ‘The Suicide Squad’

by Erik Amaya

There something quite miraculous about The Suicide Squad. It is a product of WarnerMedia during the turbulent AT&T era, but it still manages to be a lot of fun. Unlike fellow 2021 films Godzilla vs. Kong and Mortal Kombat, it has a sense of humor about itself and its IP universe. Also, it’s a movie in which you care about Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman).

(Some spoilers follow. Proceed with caution)

The plot sees Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) convene two teams of Task Force X — one led by Flag and the other by Bloodsport (Idris Elba). Their mission: infiltrate the island nation of Corto Maltese and prevent the exploitation of “Project Starfish,” a 30-year-long experiment conducted by Dr. Gaius Grieves, a new incarnation of the Thinker played by Peter Capaldi. Along for the ride are DC Comics zeroes like Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) and Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), and fan favorites like King Shark (an astonishing vocal performance by Sylvester Stallone) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, who just gets better in the part with each appearance). Some have more screen time than others, but no matter how long their appearance, there’s a fearlessness to them.

It is a fearlessness which feels new for the DC Films universe. Even in the more assured pictures like Birds of Prey and, yes, Zack Snyder’s Justice League, there is always the sensation that the studio is hedging its bets in regards to an IP it does not fully believe in. Sure, both films were made before AT&T and it could be argued the studio was trying to keep the waters as still as possible to insure the merger would go through, but the effect it has on the actual product makes them perceptively less alive. The Suicide Squad, meanwhile, never stops living with character interactions, segment titles, or Gunn’s particular talent for the right needle drop at the right time.

Leading the ensemble on screen is, of course, Elba, who transforms Bloodsport into an oddly honorable man. Sure, than honor is mysterious and strange, but it is something you’ll come to appreciate by the end. In terms of the performance, this may be the most assured he’s come off in a big budget film ever — yes, even Pacific Rim. That’s not to say he’s bad in a film like The Dark Tower, but when compared to The Suicide Squad, it is easy to detect his misgivings in his performance in that film. Here, he seems to genuinely enjoy what’s going on around him and interacting with characters like Harley and King Shark. He also has a touching rapport with Melchior’s Ratcatcher (who also proves to be one of the film’s great surprises), which anchors the more emotional content of the film.

And make no mistake, The Suicide Squad has its emotions. Gunn is no stranger to imbuing comic book characters with pathos, and he continues to do so here. The one character oddly resistant to that is Peacemaker (John Cena), which may be why Gunn wrote an eight-episode series for him scheduled to debut on HBO Max this January. The other key characters, though, all get a chance to be vulnerable and, as a consequence, become more endearing. As we teased earlier, even Flag — who was a nothing character in 2016’s Suicide Squad — gets a chance to resonate with the viewer.

Now that we think about it, we wonder what Gunn would’ve done with some of the other members of the 2016 team.

One thing’s for sure: they’d be able to weave pathos in with humor. This is Gunn’s strength as a filmmaker and that ability to switch between both tones with little notice is on prime display in The Suicide Squad. Jokes build on top of themselves and get expert callbacks ten, twenty, and even forty minutes later. They also get squeezed in between moments of genuine human interaction. It keeps the film lively and rewards those who pay strict attention to the proceedings. It’s really satisfying.

Oh, also, this is a film in which Starro is not just rendered faithfully, but is also a credible threat in all its Silver Age glory. It is silly, serious, and wonderful all at once.

Which, in turn, maybe the clearest example of the movie’s overall greatest strength: it believes in itself so much than it can deliver campier comics ideas without breaking the world around it. The other Warner films we mentioned above take their worlds so deadly serious that their few moments of comedy feel incredibly forced — almost as though filmmaker or studio were afraid the films would shatter to pieces if they acknowledged the cheesiness of the source material. The Suicide Squad, meanwhile, embraces the DC Comics universe for all its myriad looks, tones, and silliness. And thanks to Gunn’s sharp direction, it feels like it was made by a filmmaker and studio apparatus genuinely in love with all DC has to offer.

The Suicide Squad is in theaters now and available on HBO Max through September 5th.

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