The Suicide Squad movie review: primrose psychopaths

MaryAnn’s quick take: Spanks the 2016 film and sends it off to the corner to think about what it did. This one is the definite article: Gory, grim, bleakly funny. Full of feverish, anarchic energy and exhausting cynicism.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): hated the 2016 film
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

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.

The Suicide Squad
Raindrops keep fallin’ on their heads. But that doesn’t mean their eyes will soon be turnin’ red: cryin’s not for them…

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.

The Suicide Squad John Cena Joel Kinnaman
Is this the bus to Hell? Yes. Yes, it is.

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.

The Suicide Squad Peter Capaldi
What is the etiquette regarding being seen in public wearing your brain curlers?

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.

see also:
Suicide Squad movie review: sh*t squad

share and enjoy
If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
If you haven’t commented here before, your first comment will be held for MaryAnn’s approval. This is an anti-spam, anti-troll measure. If you’re not a spammer or a troll, your comment will be approved, and all your future comments will post immediately.
notify of
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
view all comments
Fri, Aug 06, 2021 5:47pm

I’ve been careful not to watch any trailers, so all I knew going in was that Gunn was directing. Not being a huge fan of his previous work, I had moderately low expectations. Watching it felt like seeing a huge painting of a generic landscape from far away, then walking closer and noticing a few interesting little details and bursts of color.

As MA writes in the review, the plot is standard A-Team (and B-Team) stuff. The writing is uneven – the jokes and comical asides are mostly cringeworthy (I chuckled a couple times, but this isn’t a film that goes after big laughs) however, Bloodsport and Harley get a couple really juicy lines. Other than Elba, Davis (who goes completely boobs-to-the-wall ham, and blows everyone else out of the water as usual), and Robbie the acting is mediocre, which in Cena’s case is an enormous step forward. He’s still wooden, but kudos for leveling up a lot since Bumblebee. Capaldi is utterly wasted, in three different senses of the word – not too much thinkin’ going on up there, Thinker – I was hoping he’d at least blow a fuse at some point.

There’s an odd mismatch between the goofy Mortal Kombat gore and the somber, cynical tone. I’d say 5-10% of the gore added something interesting and substantial, the vast majority is just there because a lot of people like to see guts flying and heads exploding. If you’ve seen the Harley animated series, Stallone’s more comics accurate King Shark will be a bit of a let down – however, the character is, oddly enough, the sensitive emotional core of the team, and gets a few small, tender moments of vulnerability that work well. At a couple points, I thought the film was going to subvert schmaltzy expectations and let Shark eat one of the other members…I’ll uh, leave it at that.

Gratuitous gore aside, the fight scenes in general are gorgeous. Gunn never really wowed me before as a director, but when I say gorgeous, I mean there are some ludicrously pretty shots of Harley that are worth the price of admission on their own. She does her best IG-11 impression during the best fight, and I thought it was amusing when she sequentially murders one goon from every racial and ethnic group. There is a brief bouncing boob shot satirizing military dictators that’s played for laughs, otherwise, no male gaze to be found. The strip club scene even flips the script and predominantly shows women staring back into the camera in a challenging, non-passive way.

Overall, as MA said via Ebert’s quote, this is a movie that tells an ordinary and mundane story in a stylish and interesting fashion. I’m not a fan of gimmicky time skippiness, but I loved the comic bookish “meanwhile at the ranch” environmental title cards. There are at least ten action shots that are aesthetically pleasing, full of color, and fresh with life and energy. It’s just joyfully directed, and a lot of fun to watch on a purely visual level. One small example: there’s a standard infodumpy backstory cleverly delivered with the aid of a series of images hazily superimposed on a bus window. The whole film is like that – predictable, boring plot content (there’s even some dull macguffin juggling) presented with fresh vigor and imagination.


The most interesting aspect of the film for me was the main villain. There’s the surface stuff about the US government/military creating weapons and outsourcing torture, but that’s not as interesting as the subtext. I’m almost positive it’s meant to be a not so subtle dig at Disney and a symbolic reenactment of cancel culture. The Star symbolizes Hollywood, and Disney in particular, getting larger and larger by turning people into walking zombie hive-minds that are just another eye for the main corporation until they proclaim, “I own this town!” The Thinker’s lab is a satirical metaphor for a ficus group/test audience. The giant star also symbolizes the Hollywood superstar, whose army of devoted, mindless fans leads them to megalomania.

The weird thing is that the “heroes” that take down the huge corporation and inflated superstar are rats, who are directly compared with ordinary poor people and the misfits in the Squad. On one hand, “aww how sweet, the rats are cute and the little guys can win if they unify and organize because they’re the ones who truly own the city.” On the other hand though, Gunn is essentially saying that most of humanity are a bunch of rats – an incredibly cynical take for a big blockbuster. The final shot of the film can be seen as a touching admission by Gunn that “maybe ordinary people aren’t as horrible as I thought they were,” but it’s also a bit condescending. It’s complicated, but it works on a few levels, and even though I thought most of the character development was undercooked and not emotionally gripping, I really enjoyed that final scene.


I’ve said before that I like some movies just because I like the lighting in a one or two shots. This was one of those experiences – as a whole, not a good movie (not a bad movie either), but it has so many flashes of brilliance, beauty, and life, that it’s worth seeing for the aesthetic pleasure alone. It’s as if a teacher handed out a really boring homework prompt, and one student (the first movie) handed in a half-assed attempt, cut and pasted from Wikipedia the night before, and one student did everything possible to juice it up and make it as interesting as possible. It’s given me newfound respect for Gunn as a director. And really, any movie that causes me to mentally exclaim for the first (and hopefully last) time in my life, “KAIJU STARFISH ARMPIT-VAGINA EJACULATION??!” is worth seeing on a big screen at least once.

reply to  amanohyo
Fri, Aug 06, 2021 7:00pm

Interesting point about Starro and Hollywood – this point will bite deeper if Gunn opts to go back to his low budget indie roots after Guardians 3 – I still think Slither and Super are his best films – unless you count Brightburn, which really impressed me

I don’t know if anyone else noticed – but, during the opening credits sequence, the moment where James Gunn’s own name appears on the screen is during an image of explicit revenge – so, since he planted his own name on that, I couldn’t help thinking of who (or what) in the film is getting such bloody and tasty revenge (symbolizing the director?) – and I thought carefully about who he/she/it was getting revenge on – this individual who had committed the “crime” during the opening minutes, and the appearance of this person (does this long, blonde “surfer” look on an established celebrity symbolize California meaning Hollywood?), that many of the characters commented on in this short time –

Something else that shook me up a bit was seeing how Gunn’s hair has suddenly turned strikingly white – when he was making the Guardian movies it was brown – so that makes me wonder at the toll this scandal and transition might have taken on him

reply to  zak1
Sat, Aug 07, 2021 2:48am

Gunn ain’t going back now that he’s tasted that sweet, sweet Disney (and WB) dump truck full of red hot American dollaridoos. The whole “we’re cancelling you, but not really just wait until things blow over and we’ll totally hire you again.” thing left a bad taste for me on both sides. I’m not a fan of the dude personally or professionally (although I did enjoy Slither and Super), but I have to give him credit for pushing this tired “team of misfits) formula as far as he could, and creating some truly memorable shots in this movie.

The confident, saucy swagger of Starro as he marched through the city was one of the funniest parts of the film – I’m pretty sure the whole star body-snatcher thing is partially an inside joke for Gunn and the writers. I think he’ll continue to slide in little digs at his corporate overlords from time to time to prove to himself that he’s still a rebel at heart. Perhaps he’ll alternate between big and small films for a while after this, who knows. I’m just hoping he takes the visual flair and energy of this film and uses it to tell a more interesting story in GotG3.

Dr. Rocketscience
Dr. Rocketscience
Sun, Sep 05, 2021 4:59pm

The lack of sentimentality is why this movie works and both Ayer’s movie and Gunn’s Gaurdians of the Galaxy movies don’t. I suppose GotG works better, largely because Gunn doesn’t also waste/mute his actors’ natural talents and charisma (at least to the extent that Chris Pratt is talented or charismatic).

Hamburgers of Kazuhira Miller
Sun, Jan 09, 2022 3:10am

The new website looks great!