To call The Suicide Squad, James Gunn’s sequel to 2016’s critically-maligned Suicide Squad, a vast improvement on its predecessor sounds like hyperbole. But it’s not hyperbole if the statement is, in fact, true. And with Gunn writing and directing while on a non-voluntary hiatus from Marvel and the Guardians of the Galaxy series, it was practically guaranteed that his outsider sensibilities, developed at Troma Entertainment with Lloyd Kaufman, would result in a singularly different and infinitely better experience than David Ayer’s grim predecessor. The Suicide Squad is an ultra-violent, shockingly bloody, and excessively gory entry in the DC Extended Universe thanks to the free reign Gunn receives while giving the Squad an overhaul.
Playing with time signatures like a Jazz Age musician, Gunn skips forward and backward. He starts with the obligatory team-building set-up as returning character Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), the amoral America First leader of the Task Force X/black ops project, taps Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) to lead a team of C- and D-level criminal miscreants. Waller offers each member 10 years deducted from their long-term incarcerations for violent crimes in exchange for participating in a suicidal mission. They must infiltrate the post-coup island nation of Corte Maltese and destroy a super-secret government facility housing an extinction-level threat. Any semi-willing member of Task Force X who strays off-mission or tries to escape will lose their heads (literally) at Waller’s discretion.
The Task Force X team led by Flag meets predictably heavy resistance, leaving Flag on the run for his life and another returning member, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), captured by the island’s military and forced to commiserate with Corte Maltese’s newly installed dictator. That Task Force X team was just a diversion, though–disposable cannon fodder as Waller’s A-Team, led by Bloodsport (Idris Elba), takes a less frontal approach to infiltrating Corte Maltese and destroying their objective. Bloodsport functionally replaces Will Smith’s non-returning character, Deadshot, down to a troubled father-daughter relationship as motivation to join the team. Bloodsport’s team includes Peacemaker (John Cena), a xenophobic, jingoistic mercenary with a twisted sense of morality; Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), a meta-human with surface-deep psychological scars; Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), a felon who prefers rats to humans and naps to action; and King Shark (Sylvester Stallone), a super-strong, slow-witted man-shark hybrid with a taste for human flesh that’s only matched by his desire for genuine, non-judgmental friends.
Eventually, the remnants of Task Force X’s teams join up, but not before Gunn, inserting an incredibly unsubtle critique of America’s history of forcibly intervening in South American and Caribbean politics, has Bloodsport’s team wipe out an entire village filled with armed men and women who aren’t aligned with the military dictatorship. Shocking? Sure, but Gunn, remembering he has a big-budget superhero actioner to deliver, almost immediately gives Task Force X a hall pass for their misguided actions and aligns them with what’s left of the anti-military forces. Although it’s contrary to their mission and Waller’s directive, the members of Task Force X inadvertently become the island’s liberators. This development suggests Gunn wants to have it both ways. The Americans may leave a body count numbering in the dozens if not hundreds, but as long as they help Corte Maltese free itself from the military dictatorship, it’s all good.
Not quite, of course, but that’s par for Gunn’s approach to his anti-heroes, psychopaths, and wannabe superheroes. One moment he’s throwing up indiscriminate amounts of blood, gore, and body parts on the screen. The next minute, he wants us to embrace his critique of American foreign policy or the glorification/deification of violence-prone antiheroes, complete with irony-rich, slow-motion hero shots, posturing, and world-saving antics, with the seriousness they apparently deserve. It’s a big ask of any audience, especially audiences long weaned on Marvel’s generally unadventurous, corporate-branded product, and one that’s at odds with The Suicide Squad’s overall goal of delivering escapist entertainment, hard R-rating or no hard R-rating.
And to be fair, Gunn certainly pushes the limits of that hard R-rating, beginning with a title sequence written out in the blood of a newly dead, half-decapitated character and on through an absurdist replay of Saving Private Ryan’s opening beach scene before settling in for a prolonged splatterfest atypical of the genre. As always, your mileage — and tolerance for excessive violence — may vary, but if nothing else, Warner Bros. deserves credit for giving Gunn the seemingly unsupervised opportunity to put his unique spin on comic-book material that is too often homogenized for mass consumption.
The Suicide Squad opens in theatres and on HBO Max on Friday, August 6.