'The Suicide Squad' Is the Gory, Angry Little Brother of DC Movies

It doesn't follow through on all of its big ideas, but at least it has them.

the suicide squad, john cena, idris elba
Warner Bros. Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures

There are a couple of questions you'll have to grapple with when approaching The Suicide Squad, the latest movie in Warner Bros.'s ever more chaotic DC cinematic universe. First of all, it's technically a sequel to 2016's Suicide Squad, except it's called The Suicide Squad, which is the same title with an added article. (It's like they did a reverse Social Network and added a "the" to make it less clean.) Second, it's directed by James Gunn, the controversial provocateur best known for DC competitor Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy movies. Like the Suicide Squad, the Guardians of the Galaxy are also a motley crew mostly consisting of former convicts who bicker as they almost inadvertently save the planet. So: Is The Suicide Squad just a Guardians redux?

Not exactly. Gunn takes the lessons he learned about building a team for Marvel and runs wild with it, now free from the shackles of that other company's needs for propriety. The Suicide Squad is hyper-violent and messy in both its gore and its ideas, ultimately amounting to a quasi-criticism of the superhero industrial complex while still indulging in some of its most played out tropes. Gunn uses David Ayer's Suicide Squad simply as an excuse not to spend a lot of time explaining the concept of the Suicide Squad itself. Criminals are plucked from Belle Reve prison by Viola Davis' ruthless government official Amanda Waller and offered a deal: They'll get reduced sentences if they work for her, with a warning that, if they go off course, she'll kill them by detonating a bomb she's placed in a chip in the back of their skulls.

The movie opens with a misdirect, wherein Gunn violently kills as many comic book characters as he can in a beach battle that's like a zany version of Saving Private Ryan and Apocalypse Now, before he gets to his central team, led by Idris Elba's Bloodsport, an assassin who only participates because Waller threatens to imprison his teenage daughter (Storm Reid) for theft. He's sent into the fictional South American country of Corto Maltese where a military uprising has just deposed the ruling family that was sympathetic to US interests. His team is tasked with destroying a phallic-looking facility that contains what is known as Project Starfish, which they are told could have global ramifications in the wrong hands. It's no secret that the mission will ultimately lead to a showdown featuring the oversized alien known as Starro the Conqueror, but our sucker-equipped buddy is almost ancillary to the central conflict.

the suicide squad, margot robbie, harley quinn
Warner Bros. Pictures

Of course, even the movie's driving obstacle is ancillary to the dynamic between the super-powered antiheroes at its center. Waller pairs Bloodsport with John Cena's Peacemaker, another killer with essentially the same skills but a more jingoistic attitude; Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), a sweet and sleepy young woman who can control rats; Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), a troubled guy with mommy issues who can shoot lethal polka dots out of his body thanks to a virus; and King Shark (Sylvester Stallone), a humanoid shark prone to munching on anything he sees, including his fellow fighters. Eventually, this crew is joined by Joel Kinnaman's military guy Rick Flag, a holdover from Suicide Squad the first, and, naturally, Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn. 

Easily one of the best performances in any modern comic book franchise—even when everyone else around her is doing the bare minimum—Robbie can't help but take over any movie she's in. So Gunn gives Harley basically her own movie for a good portion of the running time, a sort of mini-adventure, that makes you long for a series of Margot as Harley shorts. Inevitably, she has to reunite with everyone else and fight the big bad at hand. 

Gunn keeps the question of just who they're after intriguingly malleable until the very end, but along the way he gets to indulge in his 1980s action-movie fantasies with jungle scenes that evoke Predator. His love of bits of human flesh and blood flying everywhere is admittedly fun, and often funny, when it's aimed at the characters ripped from the pages of comics. But when hundreds of nameless Latin American extras are the victims, it starts to get queasy, which is in part intentional, a set-up for the big second act turn. The only problem is The Suicide Squad operates at such extremes it's hard for the nuance to break through.

Without spoiling too much, ultimately, Gunn lands on a critique of American overreach blended with an American savior finale that feels alternately revolutionary for this type of product and exactly what we've come to expect. It's uncomfortable, but never wades in that discomfort the way, say, Amazon's superhero riff The Boys does, where superheroes become straight-up military contractors. 

But for all of that, you might forget about what Gunn is trying to say as you simply enjoy the ride. Yes, The Suicide Squad often provokes laughs—from Gunn's brother Sean's mo-cap creature known as Weasel to John Cena's perfectly preening Peacemaker, who is getting an HBO Max series of his own. When you boil it down, Gunn's a sentimentalist, who cares most about Melchior's Ratcatcher, her little rodent friend Sebastian, and how they can help Bloodsport overcome his daddy issues. 

The Suicide Squad is a lot of movie that can't always pull off its biggest, boldest ideas, but it's not the rehash its title implies. Instead, it probably gives its audience more to chew on than any other recent big screen comic book adaptation. Make like King Shark, and take a bite. 

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.