Remember when director James Gunn was involved in the weirdest bit of movie studio BS of the past ten years? To recap, when Disney fired him after acquiescing to a bad faith witch hunt levied at the filmmaker, he was quickly picked up by Warner Bros to direct the Suicide Squad sequel. Then, after much hand wringing (and several outbursts by Dave Bautista), Disney does a 180 and re-hires the guy to direct Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. It seems the only thing Disney gained in the controversy was allowing Gunn to become bedfellows with the competition.
That unexpected relationship bears fruit in The Suicide Squad, a sequel that is so much more violent and grotesque than its PG-13 predecessor. The new film is basically the same premise as the last – Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) bargains an array of super-powered criminals to perform a top-secret, but highly dangerous, mission with the reward of reduced prison time (amid other potential agreements) used as collateral. The difference is most of the faces have changed, as we welcome newcomers like Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Peacemaker (John Cena), Ratcatcher (Daniela Melchior), and King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone).
However, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is still here and seemingly still in Waller’s clutches. It’s unclear how adequately this fits in the Harley Quinn personal timeline, as she seemed quite unburdened by government control in Birds of Prey (2020). Waller dispatches the Squad to Corto Maltese, where an anti-U.S. group has exercised a coup and seized power on the South American island. The Squad must find, and destroy, a laboratory by the name of Jötunheim in order to complete the mission. However, they soon discover that the history behind their objective implicates the government in a decades-long project that could endanger all of humanity.
The Suicide Squad, as a concept of the story, has always aimed to position fun/eccentric characters as protagonists; but due to their unsavory ethics, their exploits must be housed as a means of government control – they do these jobs for the government because they don’t have the power to turn it down. But, it’s apropos that a brand about a roster full of villains positions their bosses as the real bad guys. Waller is seen as a heartless, power-drunk tyrant while Bloodsport, Ratcatcher, and Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) are afforded sympathy for their afflictions.
The latter two have deep-seated trauma associated with their parents, while Bloodsport can’t find a way to adequately show love for his daughter (Storm Reid). Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) returns to shepherd the squad, but his worldview ends up colliding with Peacemaker. Gunn’s use of Peacemaker further illustrates his point on how nationalistic pride can go sideways in the wrong hands and is a much more concise rendering of that idea than whatever the hell Disney was doing with U.S. Agent in Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
Gunn’s film is a dizzying farce of gunshots, bloodshed, and cartoonish violence. It’s as if he set out to make a live-action Looney Tunes, but turned the violence and carnage up to 15. Seeing John Cena and Idris Elba get oners as they rampage through a jungle is weirdly exhilarating, preying on the darker portions of our id, which in a way is the reason violence in cinema is so popular in the first place. But this is certainly video game violence, that would feel just at home in Grand Theft Auto or Resident Evil. Some may call the brutality mean spirited, but it’s really just irreverent. Gunn is showing a heightened world where physical powers and weaponry have made humans easier to kill, and the characters’ damaged psyches allow them to express little remorse for the loss of life.
The film also posits that everyone involved, from the squad to the story’s antagonists, have all done terrible things, but there are degrees to the villainy – which helps determines who has potential for redemption and who isn’t worth the remorse. In addition, the characters all have various reasons for why they choose violence as their method of solution, but it’s not entirely heroic. When Harley Quinn murders a tyrant, who proves capable of killing children without blinking an eye, she’s less concerned about the guy’s death and more interested in what her standing up to that person means for her personal character arc. His unsavory actions, in her mind, justifies her own brand of violence and how her mental fragility motivated that violence.
To a certain extent, that is what the Suicide Squad members represent – damaged people who are perpetrators, but also victims, and repurposing that anger as government pawns in an effort to reduce their prison sentence while exercising their demons in the form of violence. This makes Amanda Waller a master strategist – she understands these characters on a psychological level, and she exploits them for labor. This says a lot about the prison system and the military, as bodies are consistently sacrificed in the real world. Waller doesn’t seem to care about any life, and she can’t be in the position she’s employed for. These are villainous people, but their humanity is stripped away as they’re re-worked into society by being expendable cogs in a greater machine. To add insult to injury, when we first meet Bloodsport, and many of the other characters in prison, he’s seen wearing crocs!
What works here is the marriage of theme with visceral action. Gunn hits a balance where he can indulge in the ultra-violence without betraying the tenets of his film’s narrative; such a balance was a big problem in the Snyder-era DCEU films. The Suicide Squad explores the irony of a corrupt system leading to the very liberation the system was trying to oppress. In doing so, Gunn displays an idea about humanity prevailing in the most depraved and unexpected circumstances. It’s to show that in even the uglier corners of society, the issue of justice, what’s right, and who has value will still be applicable. In the end, a major character has a breakthrough in their personal fear. Finally finding yourself in the madness is harrowing, but unlike the title suggests – it is a challenge we can certainly survive.