I hated 2016’s Suicide Squad… and I love this brand-spankin’-new The Suicide Squad. These two movies side by side are an excellent illustration of that brilliant thing that the great critic Roger Ebert once said: “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it’s about it.”
Like the 2016 movie, this one is based on the comic books about literal psychopaths let loose to do as much damage as possible in the putative name of freedom and democracy. About the previous movie, I said that it “should be grim, bitter, and as horrifyingly alluring as Hannibal Lecter.” But it wasn’t. This one? Well, perhaps love is too pleasant a word. For this movie is indeed all those things, and more. It is incredibly gory, positively reveling in the sort of extreme violence that does massive bodily harm to anyone who gets in front of it. It’s funny, but only in a bleak way. It is utterly lacking in sentiment (the first one drenched us in it), and yet it engages you with its psychopaths in ways that you may find disturbing.
So here we have a very similar story to 2016, and yet a wildly different movie, one genuinely suited to so unsettling an array of villains. That The in the title? That is writer-director James Gunn’s way of spanking the earlier film and sending it off to the corner to think about what it did. This one is the definite article. And in case there was any doubt about Gunn’s dismissal of the 2016 movie, he opens this sequel — for this is most certainly a sequel — by showing the door to most of the characters his predecessor, writer-director David Ayer, took such great pains to introduce us to.
Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Movie 43) keeps only those members of the team worth telling another story about. He uses them in manners befitting our fascination with them, and uses the actors who portray them in manners befitting their talents. Viola Davis (Widows, Lila & Eve) is back as Amanda Waller, the prison warden who runs this dubious secret program, offering the monsters in her charge years off their sentences in exchange for accepting impossible missions from her. But this time Davis is allowed to go full bore, her immense screen presence and towering power fueling the suspicion that Waller is as much as psychopath as her prisoners. Joel Kinnaman (Child 44, Run All Night) is back as Colonel Rick Flag, the soldier who has to wrangle the monsters in the field… and while he’s not a psychopath, this time around he is much more our stand-in for how he finds some of them, at least, intriguing, and for how he inevitably gets caught up in concern for their well-being.
And of course, also returning is punk social irritant and force of nature — like a tornado is a force of nature — Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie [Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway, Mary Queen of Scots], who steals the movie, even from such an all-around terrific cast). Gunn has hardly been the most feminist of filmmakers in the past, but he has managed not to shoot Quinn like he’s drooling all over her, and has managed to write her a subplot about bad boyfriends and the romantic fantasies that are fed to women that lead some of us to get involved with the wrong sort of guy. The princess trope will come in for some heavy snarking, is all I’ll say about that. (Maybe Gunn studied Quinn’s standalone movie, last year’s Birds of Prey, for tips on how to do her justice.)
The mission this time involves a coup on the small (and fictional) South American island nation of Corto Maltese, where a secret military weapons project called Project Starfish has now fallen into hands not friendly to the United States. (Peter Capaldi [Paddington 2, The Fifth Estate] plays the quite-mad scientist in charge, like a vile version of his heroic Doctor Who Time Lord.) So the Squad is being sent in to destroy it. Along for the ride with Quinn and Flag are absolute lunatics Peacemaker (John Cena: Fighting with My Family, Bumblebee), who isn’t kidding when he says he believes in “peace at any price,” and assassin Bloodsport (Idris Elba: Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw, Avengers: Infinity War), whose unloving relationship with his teenaged daughter (Storm Reid: A Happening of Monumental Proportions) would appear to be a smack at a similar dynamic in the 2016 movie that was portrayed with absurd schmaltz.
But the other members of the Squad don’t seem to be actual psychopaths. Dangerous, yes, but for reasons understandable and full of unexpected — and authentic — pathos. Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) controls rats — a pretty useful superpower, as we see — and she has a little companion rodent who rides around on her shoulder and waves to people, because he’s friendly. (The rat! Is wearing a little backpack! *squee* Honestly, if I have one true complaint about this movie, it’s that there’s not enough of the rat. His name is Sebastian and I love him.) Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian: Blade Runner 2049, The Belko Experiment), who bears the burden of an unlikely superpower, is a deeply damaged survivor of extreme child abuse. King Shark, who is a shark-man (CGI, with the voice of Sylvester Stallone: Creed II, Ratchet & Clank), is little more than very lonely and always hungry. He has a taste for human flesh, it’s true, but it doesn’t appear he has a lot of other dietary options. And he doesn’t chow down indiscriminately…
The Suicide Squad is not without a sense of morality, even given its protagonists. It’s not subtle: Gunn shivs in pointed commentary on American military adventurism and its carceral state: shouldn’t we consider these psychopathic, too? But this is mostly a movie about style: the energy here is feverish and anarchic, winkingly aping conventions of the 1970s grindhouse flicks it has more in common with than it does most superhero movies. This is not a movie for children. This is not a movie for many adults, either. Its cynicism is exhausting. I wonder if we will look back, ten years from now, and mark this as the beginning of the end of the current cycle of comic-book movies as bombastic cinematic explosions. Because it’s difficult to see where they can go from here except smaller, quieter, and kinder.
• Suicide Squad movie review: sh*t squad