Looking for a summer blockbuster with all the feel-good cinematic thrills of over-the-top fight scenes and explosions while also delivering on a solid screenplay? Are you a fan of the Deadpool style of R-rated superhero tongue-in-cheek peril but wish it had a little more character and plot dimension like The Justice League’s Snyder Cut? Do you just want a re-do of the generally regarded botch of David Ayer’s 2016 adaptation of DC’s iconic antihero squad of misfits and mercenaries? Well then 2021’s The Suicide Squad may be the landmine that blows a whole in Marvel’s unfettered box office domination and redefines the blueprint of what constitutes a modern superhero classic!
DC has stuck gold previously with hit films like The Dark Knight and Joker, both of which garnered the respect of audiences and critics alike by exploring the complexities of human nature through the lens of everyone’s favorite Arkham psychopath. Arguably, the magic puzzle piece that cemented these films’ legacies were Joaquin Phoenix and the late great Heath Ledger’s total commitment to bringing the Joker’s madness to life. While recent forays into recruiting acting heavyweights Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, and Jason Mamoa into DC’s cinematic canon have produced legible depictions of Batman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman for 21st century audiences, these films have yet to find a way to humanize the fantastical personalities of a multi-millionaire, femme fatal, or mythical being in a way that’s as authentic and relatable as their Marvel counterparts Iron Man, Captain Marvel, and Thor.
Where Marvel excels at not only the zero-to-hero ascensions to power, as well as making audiences root for the noble, overpowered, overly wealthy, one-in-a-million prototypes, DC’s bread and butter has always been honing in on the dismal undersides of the super remarkable. That’s why 2016’s Suicide Squad had all the ammunition to revolutionize the superhero genre…but failed to go off. Talented A-list cast members like Will Smith and Cara Delevingne portrayed characters that were stiff and underutilized. While visually stunning, the plotline of the film is almost incomprehensible because of how quickly and sporadically scenes advance, stopping long enough to nod and wink at each of the many characters’ separate story arcs.
It was later revealed that Warner Bros. chopped and spliced Ayer’s original vision in post-production, eliminating the first 40 minutes to use as periodic source material for flashbacks, portraying a weaselly, wannabe kingpin husk of Jared Leto’s interpretation of the Joker by removing most of his speaking parts, and deciding instead of fully fleshing out the intricacies of multiple characters to focus primarily on Diablo’s backstory to give the audience a clear face to root for amongst a cast of heels. Except the premise of the Suicide Squad is that the antiheroes had been crafted into villains and rejects through hardship, trauma, and cynicism. Since every character in the 2016 version could’ve had their own Diablo moment (and since not every character would be given the redemption that Margot Robbie flawlessly executed in Birds of Prey), what we got was an undercooked two hours of swashbuckling while Marvel silently crept into DC’s bag of dreary tricks, entering their lane with the dark thematic elements of Dr. Strange, the post-Thanos world of Avengers: Endgame, and the haunting origin stories of Black Widow and the Scarlett Witch.
How could DC ever recover this franchise? By adopting one of Marvel’s own misfits, the then cancelled director of the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise of space bandits turned band of heroes, to reinvent the Suicide Squad and give the redemption both he and they deserved. Enter James Gunn.
James Gunn had already made magic with The Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 1 and 2, (not to mention his cult status adapting the original live action Scooby Doo and trademarking the gross-out tropes that have since become a staple in modern horror movies thanks to Slither) but Gunn’s 2021 The Suicide Squad is quite possibly his pinnacle. By taking all of the aforementioned knowledge and skills acquired through decades of directing varying genres, adding in a little Tarantino-style grindhouse gore and camp, and setting off to dispel the chip on his shoulder caused from the resurfaced edgy (or at least the attempt thereof), shock humor tweets threatening to blacklist him from major studio work forever, he was spurred into creating one of the first superhero movies to incorporate all of the kitschy, signature allures from the panels of comic book/graphic novel artwork onto the big screen and have it flow as seamlessly as the turning of a page.
The movie opens with the bleak realities of life in prison to the tune of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” One of the first lines explaining the Suicide Squad to new recruits is “People will do just about anything to get out of prison. Welcome to anything.” Viola Davis’s ruthless portrayal of Amanda Waller, ransoming time off inmates’ sentences and blackmailing the freedoms of their families, all in order to advance the interest of the government, flips the audiences’ loyalty and empathy towards the traditional “good guys” of the story almost immediately. In a 4D chess move of diversion, relics of the previously introduced Suicide Squads are sacrificed as pawns almost immediately. All of this occurs even before the opening credits, which in typical graphic novel fashion (as with each following title screen and scene progression), is literally spelled out visually somewhere within the shot.
Coming full circle, the first 40 minutes of The Suicide Squad is a conscious contradiction of the entirety of the 2016 release. The cast’s heavy hitters, including Idris Elba, John Cena, and Joel Kinnaman just to name a few, get more than their fair share of screen time to become adequately introduced and contribute something worthwhile in advancing the story’s plot. Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn and her subsequent love interest is presented as a complete 180 from the toxic and tumultuous nature of her abusive relationship with Jared Leto’s Joker. The villains, their motivation, and the motivation of the government’s decision to enlist the Suicide Squad to put a stop to them are clearly defined and easy to follow throughout. Plus, the fact that they were seamlessly able to weave in mutant weasels, sharks, and starfish alongside the ridiculous characters/superpowers of the Polka Dot Man, Ratcatcher 2, and the Thinker and somehow none of these choices comes across as inherently weird is absolutely commendable. If you’re looking for a movie that encapsulates the action, depth, and downright fun of imaginative comic books, The Suicide Squad atones for the cinematic sin of the original and is 2 hours of pure excellence all the way through!