“The Suicide Squad” is a curiosity, both in form and function. It’s a sequel and a reboot to 2016’s “Suicide Squad,” which grossed three-quarters of a billion dollars but was still considered a disappointment. Such is cinema in 2021. The movie was bad, it was savaged by critics, and even its supporters weren’t particularly enthusiastic. That’s no way to kickstart a new franchise, which is what DC Comics had in mind, and always have in mind.
So what the braintrust at DC has done is construct a movie that is technically a sequel involving a few of the same characters but, with a new director and a similar get-the-team-together structure, plays more like a reboot. If all goes well, these are the characters we’ll be seeing for another, oh I don’t know, twenty movies or so. All things being equal, the right decision was made.The 2016 film was narratively incoherent, visually unappealing, and tonally sour. This film is a first-rate summer blockbuster, wielding sympathetic characters, inventive set pieces, clever one-liners, and perfectly-placed pop songs to create a relatively euphoric experience.
Here we go: Once again, American intelligence operative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) is overseeing a team of criminals and thugs tasked with carrying out a top-secret operation. Once again, she has installed remote-controlled explosive devices in their brains that allow her to blow their heads to bits if they dare deviate from mission. Here’s where things get interesting. One of the many great decisions made by writer/director James Gunn was to basically ignore this gimmick for the rest of the film. Once the group – including a woman who controls rats (Daniela Melchior), a guy who throws deadly polka dots (David Dastmalchian), a badass supersoldier (Idris Elba), another badass supersoldier (John Cena), and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) – embarks on its mission to battle a corrupt Central American regime, the film asks us to forget about the whole “exploding head” thing (which is really a bit of a bummer, anyway), and the viewing experience becomes about the glorious process more than the grim stakes. Put simply, “The Suicide Squad” is a goof, and that’s for the best.
It helps if you like fun, a concept which “The Suicide Squad” treats like a founding principle. There’s the hyper-violence; so many people are murdered in such casual but inventive ways that the bloodshed ceases to be disturbing and can simply be appreciated for its aesthetics. The most enervating sequence comes when Ms. Quinn is forced to break out of a dictator’s well-guarded palace; as she commits numerous acts of violent carnage, flowers spill out of her victims’ wounds, a magnificent window into her singular brain. Quinn has been in four recent films, but this is the first that bothered to look past her glossy exterior and present her inner world. And if you’re turned off by a film that wants to sympathize killers, “The Suicide Squad” just ain’t for you. Every single character gets at least a moment of sympathy, from its hardened criminals and evil dictators to its mega-starfish villains (yup) and its vermin.
All in all, it feels a lot like the blockbuster movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s, in which a warbled quip by Arnold Schwarzenegger went a lot further than an intergalactic showdown. Movies can be silly and violent and funny, and they can blatantly tug on our heartstrings, and we can love them for it all the same. As such, “The Suicide Squad” feels like the perfect antidote to a superhero movie experience that has grown stale of late. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is now 24 films deep, and while its films still capture the attention of the world’s moviegoers, there’s a palpable sense of impatience that they continue to replicate the same plot formulas, the same semi-ironic tone, the same metallic blue-orange color palette that has become de rigueur for would-be blockbusters, and achieve the same success. The DC universe, meanwhile, has been scattershot at best, with Zack Snyder’s “Justice League” films making boatloads of cash but inspiring no more than a collective shrug from those with no allegiance to the source material.
“The Suicide Squad” is decidedly different, and thank goodness for that. Despite its massive scale – this is a film where a giant starfish decimates a city, after all – it feels decidedly down-to-earth. The characters feel human. The relationships matter. It’s heart is in the right place, even when it’s laying on the ground next to a rotting corpse. It’s joyful. And maybe it’s part of a trend. Zack Snyder’s “Army of the Dead,” a zombie heist film that was released on Netflix earlier this year, feels akin to it because they are both more interested in presenting the pure pleasures of moviegoing than adhering to strict rules of a genre only its superfans really care about.
In fact, “Army of the Dead” isn’t really a zombie movie any more than “The Suicide Squad” is a superhero movie. They both belong to a different genre: the blockbuster. And whereas once the blockbuster was defined narrowly by its financial metrics, things have changed. “The Suicide Squad” made only $25 million last weekend, but that’s because it was released simultaneously on HBO Max, and lots of folks – we’re still waiting on the actual numbers – just watched it at home. But if a blockbuster can’t be measured by dollars and cents, it can still be identified by the sheer delight it conveys, and “The Suicide Squad,” despite its spurting blood and severed limbs, is pure happiness.
“The Suicide Squad” is now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.