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Non-Review Review: The Suicide Squad

The Suicide Squad is a stunning piece of blockbuster cinema.

There’s an understandable urge to treat The Suicide Squad as something of an outlier, particularly in the modern wave of big superhero blockbusters. After all, this is an R-rated blockbuster about a bunch of super-villains populated largely be characters that few people will recognise, let alone care about, and which exists in something of a strange continuity limbo away from the rest of the shared continuity. It is darkly funny, bitterly bleak, and decidedly uninterested in things like brand synergy. It is a sequel to a maligned film from a director now best known for his work with a rival studio and a rival property.

Squad goals.

Looked at from a certain angle, The Suicide Squad must seem as alien as the monster that rampages through the film’s third act – a space oddity that fell to Earth. However, this just makes it all the more remarkable that writer and director James Gunn has managed to fashion all of this into a thrilling and spectacular piece of blockbuster cinema that understands the appeal and the potential of the superhero genre without forsaking its own distinct perspective and while delivering on everything that a well-made populist blockbuster should.

There are very few superhero movies that are put together like The Suicide Squad. That’s their problem.

In some ways, The Suicide Squad feels like a thankless assignment. After all, despite an impressive box office haul, Suicide Squad was a deeply troubled blockbuster that generated a strongly negative response. More than that, James Gunn was drafted in to work on The Suicide Squad during something of a career lacuna, after a series of disingenuous right-wing agitators managed to get him briefly fired from Disney after he directed Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. He was subsequently rehired to direct The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3.

As such, The Suicide Squad seems destined to remain an oddity in Gunn’s career. His schedule is full enough that this film, no matter its performance or reception, will likely be something of a strange creative cul de sac. Gunn is working on a spin-off series titled Peacemaker about one of the characters for HBO Max, but it seems highly unlikely that he will take charge of the larger and inevitable Suicide Squad franchise in the same way that he did with Guardians of the Galaxy.

Truth be told, there is something refreshing in all of this. In an era where blockbusters increasingly feel like installments of interlocking content, where each film is inevitably an advertisement for the next, it is refreshing that The Suicide Squad is simply comfortable in its own skin. There’s something genuinely exciting about watching Gunn revel in the comic book geekery of the Suicide Squad concept, making playful references to obscurities like Calendar Man, because it doesn’t feel as calculated as something like the Flash’s cameo in Suicide Squad. Gunn isn’t setting up a twelve-part HBO Max series about Calendar Man.

There’s a refreshing lack of insecurity about how much James Gunn loves superheroes. Many modern superhero projects feel the need to couch their enthusiasm defensively, as if worried that audiences will laugh at them if they don’t insulate their more comic book aspects. WandaVision will put Wanda in her classic and silly comic book outfit, but with the excuse that it’s just a silly Halloween costume. Avengers: Infinity War will invest a lot of effort in bringing Thanos to the screen, but will rewrite his motivations to make him more serious and earnest.

In contrast, The Suicide Squad clearly and unapologetically adores its source material and inspirations. Characers like Savant, Mongol, Peacemaker and Javelin are dressed surprisingly accurate to their comic book counterparts. The trailers and publicity have already revealed the presence of Starro the Conqueror in the movie, and James Gunn doesn’t attempt a gritty reboot or reimagining of the classic monster. Starro is just a giant space starfish with a monstrous blinking eye.

Then again, this comes baked into the premise. The entire concept of the Suicide Squad created by John Ostrander and Luke McConnell wasn’t the “darker and edgier” joke that the team became, fueled by the “anyone can die!” promise on the cover. That promise derived from the book’s status as something of a holding pen for loose strands of continuity in the wake of the DC universe reset in Crisis on Infinite Earths. The central premise of the book was always a team of supervillains being released from prison, but that was always a very thin metaphor for character who had been exiled from continuity.

The Suicide Squad is graphic and violent. It earns its R-rating. While it’s too much to draw a straight line from Gunn’s work at Troma to the blockbuster sensibilities of The Suicide Squad, it is true that The Suicide Squad is more reflective of Gunn’s earlier aesthetic than his work on Guardians of the Galaxy. The film is stunningly brutal at times, with characters torn limb for limb, blown up in graphic detail, shot and exploded with casual ease. The entire premise of The Suicide Squad is that nobody on the team is safe, with perhaps a single very obvious exception owing to that character’s ubiquity and popularity.

Gunn balances tone with remarkable skill. The violence in The Suicide Squad is often blackly comic, reflecting the mode in which the movie is operating. The Suicide Squad is positioned as a classic “men on a mission” picture, suggesting classics like The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare or Force 10 From Navarone. In terms of how it plays with genre conventions, it might be more relevant to compare it to something like the original Predator or Inglourious Basterds. It’s a war movie, but a particular kind of war movie that is filtered through a lens of seventies and eighties cynicism about the use of such violence.

It is tempting to dismiss the violence in The Suicide Squad as cynical and to suggest that the film’s bleak sense of humour borders on nihilism. After all, this is a film where two American superheroes brutally murder their way through an encampment, competing for who can look the most “badass” while dispatching their opponents. “Nobody likes a show-off,” Bloodsport chides Peacemaker. Peacemaker calmly and smugly responds, “They do when what they’re showing off is dope as f&!k.” Bloodsport winces. “F&!k, he’s right,” he whispers to himself. It’s a funny moment, but a very dark one – given the carnage these men have caused.

However, the violence in The Suicide Squad always serves a clear point. The horror inflicted on these characters, and the horror that they inflict upon each other, is very deliberately intended to serve the film’s themes and its characters. At the core of the movie is the idea that these beings, these people, have been turned into weapons and monsters in service of powers that care little for their own wants and desires. “I was happy just staring at the stars,” confesses the monstrous alien at the heart of the film, reflecting on how it was tortured and transformed to be used as a potential weapon of mass destruction.

This theme permeates The Suicide Squad. Much is made of the fact that the three de facto leaders of the central mission – Colonel Rick Flagg, the mercenary Bloodsport and the patriot Peacemaker – are all trained soldiers with military experience. Bloodsport and Peacemaker are explicitly mirrored with one another, to the point that Bloodsport openly complains that the presence of both characters who were trained by their fathers to “turn anything into a weapon” on the same team makes one of them redundant. The Suicide Squad parallels and contrasts its three veterans, finding nuance in how they approach violence and duty.

It’s to Gunn’s credit that The Suicide Squad never loses sight of this idea, and that it informs pretty much all of his characterisation. Although less prominent than some of the other major characters, Harley Quinn gets a character arc that makes a point to reflect on her own growth and development as a character, and her desire to avoid falling into the same patterns of behaviour that defined her earlier life. Polka Dot Man talks about his mother’s experiments on him and his siblings as part of a plan to create a superhero. Nanaue, known as “King Shark”, tries to be accepted as more than just the monster others see him to be.

In some ways, despite its unconventional aspects, The Suicide Squad is a quintessential superhero movie. Gunn clearly loves and adores the genre, revelling in its tropes and conventions. However, The Suicide Squad is particularly interested in the core of the modern superhero genre: the idea of power. Most modern superhero movies are transparently power fantasies. Some are empowerment fantasies. However, very few entries in the genre directly grapple with the thornier implications of the superhero myth: the question of who gets to hold power and how they choose to wield it.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has, by and large, been completely unwilling to interrogate and explore its central obsession with power. In contrast, the DC films have grappled – occasionally clumsily – with the uncomfortable questions that flow from these sorts of power fantasies about people who can bend the world to their will. In Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Luthor effectively articulates the core tension of these kinds of stories when he identifies “the oldest lie in America” as the idea that “power can be innocent.”

The Suicide Squad wrestles with this idea of power and innocence. In keeping with the film’s roots in seventies and eighties military action movies, the plot is driven by a coup on the fictional island of Colto Maltese, itself an allusion to Frank Miller’s eighties masterpiece The Dark Knight Returns. In keeping with the presentation of Colto Maltese in The Dark Knight Returns, Gunn presents the island as a pawn in American foreign policy. There is a potential weapon of mass destruction hidden on the island, and the eponymous team is tasked with preventing the new (and less friendly) government from taking control of it.

Gunn approaches this theme in a very bleak and very wry manner that befits the cynicism that underpins so much foreign policy. Repeatedly in The Suicide Squad, the American heroes blunder into situations that they do not understand and wind up causing more harm as a result. At one point during the initial launch, Colonel Rick Flag is shocked to discover that one of his team has been assigned a water landing, despite the fact that nobody bothered to check if that was feasible. “Did anybody check if the Weasel could swim?” he asks over the radio, more than slightly frustrated.

This sets the tone for a lot of the movie that will follow, a pitch black comedy of errors that somewhat deconstructs the familiar archetype embodied by chessmaster and team leader Amanda Waller. Waller is a very typical sort of figure in stories like this, the master manipulator with a very long game and a very large reach, who can often boast of seeing twelve or twenty moves ahead. The Suicide Squad doesn’t portray Waller as particularly badass, but instead as a ruthless character who wins largely through complete indifference to the collateral damage that her chess moves accrue.

At the climax of the movie, as the dust settles, Waller assures the last members of the team standing that everything went exactly to plan. “I told you I’d make a leader out of you,” she boasts over the communications device, the obvious implication being that this was exactly what Waller had wanted all along. While other movies might buy that line, The Suicide Squad seems to mercilessly lampoon it. The audience sees what is happening in Waller’s headquarters as the action unfolds, and it certain suggests that she had no real control over the situation whatsoever.

There’s a wry sense of humour to all this – a sense that there is nothing to do but laugh in the face of this carnage and the chaos that flows from this sort of self-interested and indifferent interventionism. One key sequence has the eponymous team brutally murder an entire encampment of enemy soldiers, only to realise after the fact that these people were actually their allies in this mission to infiltrate the island. It’s dark and horrific and violent, but deservedly so.

Indeed, it’s to Gunn’s credit that he balances tone so skilfully and so efficiently. Much of the violence in The Suicide Squad is played as bleak comedy, but Gunn is also smart enough to pull back when he needs to and acknowledge the horror that underpins this. There is a moment towards the climax of the film when the characters are confronted with the reality of what has been happening on Colto Maltese and their own complicity in it all, and it really hits home. Despite featuring men in silly costumes and aliens from outer space, its as cynical and as bleak a critique of American foreign policy as exists in a modern blockbuster.

There’s a surprising amount of depth and complexity layered into this, particularly within the context of the superhero genre. Gunn makes a point to tie the movie’s central threat into the end of the Second World War and the emergence of the American space race, effectively anchoring its geopolitics in the Golden and Silver Ages of Comic Books. More to the point, Gunn subtly ties the two ideas together. The central threat in The Suicide Squad was recovered by American astronauts in space and taken to a fortress build by Nazis in exile for experimentation. It’s hardly the most subtle way of making the point, but it works.

However, Gunn doesn’t revel in that bleakness. One of the most interesting aspects of The Suicide Squad is the way in which he takes time and care to demonstrate that the people who operate within these systems are still human beings with their own desires and their own morality. Gunn does some surprisingly effective work with the character of Rick Flag, played by Joel Kinneman, who is a veteran soldier who has committed his life to this cause, and who then finds himself confronted with what that really means.

Gunn affords all of his individual characters a quiet dignity and grace in spite of all of this carnage and chaos. The Suicide Squad is a movie that finds time and space for a sort scene of Nanaue crying in the back seat of a van when his team mates have to leave him behind, because he cannot convincingly “disguise” himself. There’s an extended stretch in the middle of the movie that finds the characters drinking at a bar, enjoying each other’s company. Flag steadfastly refuses to leave a captured colleague behind, even derailing the mission for a potentially dangerous rescue.

At its core, there’s a warm humanism to The Suicide Squad, a movie that understands that the “hero” should be as important as the “super” in superhero cinema. In one flashback, Ratcatcher II asks her father why he became so obsessed with training and using rats rather than any other animal. Her father explains that the rats are perhaps “the lowliest of all God’s creatures”, and so if they can find purpose there is hope for everyone. One of the film’s most surprising and endearing recurring threads involves the throw-away character Javelin, and Harley Quinn’s efforts to find a useful purpose for his weapon.

This gets at what is truly effective about The Suicide Squad as a modern studio blockbuster. Gunn walks a very fine tightrope in terms of balancing the sort of chaos and randomness expected in a film like this and adhering to the basics of functional storytelling. As with the movies that inspired it, The Suicide Squad is a film about a mission that spirals out of control. As a result, the script needs to look like it is somewhat messy and arbitrary. It doesn’t move linearly from set-up to pay-off, instead occasionally hitting a dead-end or doubling back on itself, to create a sense of events getting out of hand.

However, despite this superficial appearance of chaos, The Suicide Squad is immaculately and carefully structured. Characters are very deliberately set up to work within a team dynamic. As with most modern blockbusters, The Suicide Squad is a movie about the idea of a found family, and the structure of the film is designed so that characters slot into roles. Polka Dot Man is clearly meant to be a child, so he is given mother issues. Bloodsport is supposed to be a surrogate father, so he is given an estranged daughter. Ratcatcher II is positioned as “a millennial”, so her character is defined by her relationship to a lost father.

As mentioned, the script takes pains to position Rick Flag, Bloodsport and Peacemaker in relation to one another. Flag and Bloodsport even served together in the army, giving them a shared background that naturally then suggests an equivalence between Flag and Peacemaker because of the equivalence between Bloodsport and Peacemaker. As such, the film is able to slyly and deliberately set up a major confrontation between Flag and Peacemaker without signposting it directly and awkwardly; both serve as mirrors of Bloodsport, so both are mirrors of each other. It is very deft structuring.

The result of all of this is that the characters neatly fit together, even amid the carnage around them. When the script does take detours, those detours inevitably serve the thematic and character dynamics. At one point, Rick Flag, Bloodsport and Peacemaker are briefly taken into custody by enemy soldiers only to fairly easily free themselves. It would be easy enough to eliminate this narrative detour from the script, but that would undermine the actual purpose of the sequence. It forces Polka Dot Man and Ratcatcher II to step up, to become – in the “derisive” words of their hostage – “the Alphas” of this mission.

The Suicide Squad is the kind of movie that is constructed with enough skill that it can turn what initially appears to be a throwaway joke about “smaller bullets” in the first act into a significant character and plot pay-off in the third act. It is very basic set-up and pay-off, but it’s deliberate and it’s skilled. Part of what makes Gunn such a great filmmaker working in this particular framework is that his set-ups are almost as much fun as the inevitable pay-offs, and so they don’t feel mandatory or obligatory.

Again, none of this is revolutionary. It is just good storytelling in a fundamental sense. The Suicide Squad doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to superhero films. It inevitably builds to one of those climaxes where a giant computer-generated threat tears through an urban environment, the stock ending for a superhero movie like this. However, Gunn is simply skilled enough and smart enough that he ties that gigantic spectacle into the character and the themes of the story that he’s telling. It shouldn’t be rocket science, but it is frustrating how refreshing The Suicide Squad feels for bothering to do something that obvious.

It helps that Gunn retains a clear sense of authorship over the entirety of The Suicide Squad. Many modern blockbusters feel designed by committee, with movies like Black Widow descending into computer-generated noise towards the climax. Even amid that action-driven climax, The Suicide Squad retains a sensibility that feels distinct to Gunn. There is a beautiful moment towards the climax when Peacemaker is wrestling with an opponent, and the camera captures the fight in the chrome reflection of Peacemaker’s distinctive helmet. It’s hardly arthouse filmmaking, but it’s a creative and playful choice.

The Suicide Squad is a delight. It would be a summer highlight even in a better blockbuster season.

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