“No-one likes a show-off.”
“Unless what they’re showing off is dope as f**k!”
This exchange, which takes place during a particularly entertaining action scene in The Suicide Squad, could be taken as something as a manifesto for the film itself – because frankly, this entire project is a huge flex.
Written and directed by James Gunn on a brief secondment away from Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, The Suicide Squad takes the modern superhero movie model and largely throws it in the bin, ignoring the events of the earlier 2016 Suicide Squad, populating the action with (largely) Z-list DC comic-book characters and merrily killing them off one by one in a hail of blood, dark humour and swearing.
It’s a hugely confident, often funny experience, which sometimes felt catered directly to my interests (right down to the soundtrack). So I was surprised and a little disappointed by just how cold the whole experience left me, largely down to what has been touted as the film’s great strength – its ruthlessness.
Put simply, the film has so many characters (who often die off so quickly) that it’s hard for any of their truncated arcs to feel satisfying or even convincing, while the hyperactive pace of the film (which includes various time jumps, “chapter” headings and subplots) sometimes makes it feel overstuffed.
While there were bits I loved and it was still a significant improvement on the original film, the final effect felt a little shallow – far from what I might have expected from the director of the often emotional Guardians films.
Still, perhaps it should be expected for a film filled with characters so cynical. Based on the comics by John Ostrander (who cameos as a scientist in the film), The Suicide Squad follows a mission by Task Force X (you can guess what their nickname is), a squad of incarcerated supervillains who pay off their debt to society by undertaking deadly missions for the US government (in the form of Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller).
This time, they’ve been sent to Corto Maltese, a fictional island nation going through a coup that houses a deadly extraterrestrial weapon that needs to be taken out. It’s up to the viciously uninterested Bloodsport (Idris Elba) and a team of miscreants including Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, Sylvester Stallone’s King Shark and John Cena’s Peacemaker to complete the mission, assuming they don’t kill each other first.
It’s no secret that the characters I’ve just listed there are a drop in the ocean compared to the full cast of this film, which also includes Jai Courtney, Pete Davidson, Peter Capaldi, Joel Kinnaman, David Dastmalchian, Michael Rooker, Nathan Fillion, Daniela Melchior, Sean Gunn, Mayling Ng, Alice Braga and Flula Borg among others. And while a lot of them don’t last too long, in a two hour-10 runtime it’s hard for even the main-focus characters to get a chance to shine, making some of their journeys feel a little underdeveloped or rushed (even Avengers: Endgame had to kill off half their cast until the end to make for a satisfying experience).
In particular Elba’s Bloodsport starts the film off as so genuinely unpleasant a character that it’s hard to convincingly redeem him after a weekend hanging out with super-powered strangers, and more generally scenes where the squad dance in a bar and share their emotional backstories don’t feel like they’ve been earned by what we’ve seen on-screen.
Despite this, some characters do get a chance to shine. Melchior’s Ratcatcher 2 is undoubtedly the heart of the film and gives an unusually relaxed, louche performance, and her rat sidekick Sebastian is a low-key scene stealer (my notes at one point just read “Sebastian the rat! Amazing. Sweet.”).
Alongside her, Dastmalchian’s Polka-Dot Man is a weird and wired take on a character who could be dismissed as a punchline while Stallone’s King Shark (embodied on set by Steve Agee) feels like Gunn delivering an entertaining riff on his Guardians hero Groot by introducing another sweetheart of few words but with a far more violent streak.
Meanwhile, Kinnaman’s Colonel Rick Flag (along with Robbie, Courtney and Davis, one of the only returning actors from the original film) brings a warmth and sense of goodness to his character that deepens him from his first appearance, and contrasts him with Cena’s pragmatic and violent Peacemaker.
The action of the movie is also a highlight. While Robbie’s extended fight sequence doesn’t reach the heights of Harley’s battles in 2020’s Birds of Prey, Elba and Cena deliver the goods in several scenes including a genuinely hilarious massacre where their casual murders and petty rivalry give a hint at what The Suicide Squad could have been.
By the final epic clash with a skyscraper-sized Starfish (“I call it Starro the Conqueror. It’s meant to be derisive,” Peter Capaldi’s sleazy scientist The Thinker notes) I was more or less back on board. The chemistry between the leads was finally hitting, the action choreography was on point and the last moments felt like the big, redemptive moment the movie had been aiming for all along.
But really, it wasn’t quite enough to redeem a movie that continued to feel a little thin, even in its abrupt, standoffish treatment of a couple of final character deaths that deserved a little more impact on the overall story. A shame, really – especially for a film that sometimes seems to be grasping towards a deeper meaning than a lot of modern superhero movies.
“Rats are the lowliest and most despised of creatures m’love,” Ratcatcher 2’s father tells her in flashback. “If they have purpose, so do we all.”
In a film about bad people trying to do better, it’s a nice message – but in The Suicide Squad, that purpose feels a little lost in the rush to keep things fun, unusual and edgy. Sometimes, being dope as f**k isn’t enough.