Warner Bros. Pictures’ “The Suicide Squad” (2021), not to be confused with Warner Bros. Pictures’ “Suicide Squad” (2016), may just kick off a new era in comic book movies. After a decade of struggling to find something that worked, James Gunn’s latest feature film has given the comic book franchise a brand-new, surprisingly entertaining model to follow.
A stridently expletive-laden and sometimes blood-drenched film, the R-rated movie brings everything the current family-friendly and bowdlerized superhero trend has left out and has a whole lot of fun in the process.
After a decade of struggling to find something that worked, James Gunn’s latest feature film has given the comic book franchise a brand-new, surprisingly entertaining model to follow.
When 2016’s “Suicide Squad” came out, it felt like the nadir of a floundering DC Extended Universe. For decades, DC Comics had been dominant in Hollywood, from the 1970s “Superman” films to the 1990s “Batman” movies. The late-aughts Oscar-winning “Dark Knight” trilogy was the pinnacle of comic film respectability.
But by the time the final “Dark Knight” installment came out in July 2012, it was already last century’s model. A few months before, Marvel’s “The Avengers” premiered, taking comic adaptations from standalone trilogies to a never-ending interconnected universe of multiple franchises built into massive crossover events.
Everything DC Films had planned was turned upside down to compete. A brooding take on Superman in “Man of Steel” suddenly became the basis for a “dark and gritty” franchise that would differentiate itself from candy-colored Marvel rivals. When the first of the crossover films, “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” was critically savaged on the way to 2017’s box-office bomb “Justice League,” the studio heads panicked. The next film in the lineup, “Suicide Squad,” was turned into a wannabe Marvel clone in post-production. A film that was already unnecessarily ugly and stupid suddenly became both ugly and stupid and desperately derivative. Fans were not pleased.
Since then, DC Films has debuted the much stronger “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman” franchises, both of which took the best part of its Marvel rivals — the bright colors, the message of hope — and made surprisingly exciting films. “The Suicide Squad” goes a different path, finding an anti-Disney, anti-Marvel lane that is so bloody disgusting, it just might work.
The new film boasts an ensemble so big it might be taken for an “Avengers” parody. There are no less than 17 members of the Squad, all of whom are various ridiculous-sounding powered people, from Polka-Dot Man to The Detachable Kid, whose arms fly around in a disembodied state. Not to worry, though, fans won’t have to keep track of most of these characters for long, as the bulk of them are gleefully massacred in the film’s opening sequence. Gunn is like a hyperactive 8-year-old who ate too much chocolate and then went in the backyard with his action figures and dropped rocks on them. The director revels in the blood, guts and gore that his other masters over at Marvel (where he oversees the “Guardians of the Galaxy” trilogy) would never allow.
The mission these characters are sent on isn’t all that important. There’s a dangerous extraterrestrial creature in a place where sensible people wouldn’t go, so naturally, that’s everyone’s destination. Most of the team don’t like each other very much, except in the case of King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone), who finds his supposed comrades very tasty. (He’s a shark, so that’s to be expected.)
Harley Quinn’s incredible massacre sequence in which she kills an entire building full of people amid “Mary Poppins”-like cartoon birds and flowers is a highlight.
“The Suicide Squad” feels like an out-of-control roller coaster that could go off the rails at any moment. But it’s actually the most imaginative DC film so far, veering from laugh-out-loud hilarity to horror, shifting from pathos to extraordinary violence that would make Quentin Tarantino question its excesses. All that and cartoons too; Harley Quinn’s incredible massacre sequence in which she kills an entire building full of people amid “Mary Poppins”-like cartoon birds and flowers is a highlight.
Speaking of which, it helps that Gunn has assembled a crackerjack cast. Margot Robbie returns as Quinn in what has become a character-defining turn in the role. Joel Kinnaman is also back as Rick Flag from the first “Suicide Squad” movie, since his vaguely bland and nice white guy Army leader works in basically any film. Viola Davis is also back as the hard-edged Amanda Waller. Idris Elba’s Bloodsport replaces Will Smith’s Deadshot from the 2016 film, as Smith refused to come back. The new movie also adds John Cena as Peacemaker in a breakout comedy turn that has already spawned a spinoff series due to premiere on HBO Max next year.
This being a James Gunn superhero film, the soundtrack is key. His “Guardians of the Galaxy” is as well known for having a talking raccoon and a monologistic tree as it is for its classic rock vibes. “The Suicide Squad” goes in a different direction, creating an indie powerhouse soundtrack that may help define the current sound of the genre.
After a decade primarily filled with disappointments, DC Films is working to redefine itself with yet another new Batman film (another not-exactly-a-reboot that uses the definite article to separate itself from what came before), rumored Superman recastings and a streaming service. “The Suicide Squad” finally gives the DC Comics universe a unique voice that’s both over-the-top ridiculous and utterly distinct from anything else on the market. Expect many more just like it to follow.