Am I the only one who feels like new movies are just sneaking up on me these days? With all the stuff that was delayed due to COVID-19 finally coming out, I feel taken off guard when suddenly I’m able to see F9, The Green Knight, Black Widow, Snake Eyes, Jungle Cruise, and The Suicide Squad in theaters all at the same time. This isn’t really to say anything about the quality of these movies; it’s just that I watched The Suicide Squad last night, and I’m realizing it didn’t feel like an event like most superhero movies do.
The Suicide Squad is the latest of these releases. It’s the “sequel” to the 2016 film written and directed by David Ayer (except, it was only written and directed by Ayer the way that 2017’s Justice League was written and directed by Zack Snyder — Ayer’s version of the film was hacked to unrecognizable pieces by Warner Bros.). This latest film, which was written and directed by James Gunn, is better than its predecessor, but that really isn’t saying much. It would be an overstatement to say it is far superior to what came before it, but this at least feels like the singular vision of someone who makes a specific kind of movie.
I think there are two ways to look at this movie: first, as a fresh(ish) take on the superhero team that lets the filmmaker carry out their vision without excessive notes or reshoots from the studio. Through that lens, The Suicide Squad works well enough. It’s fun, consistently funny, has plenty of clever action set pieces, and tries to get to the core of these characters as humans.
But the key there is that it tries to get to the core of these characters. Because while the film is very obviously trying to get you to buy into the character dynamics and relationships, I had an incredibly hard time doing so. Like a few superhero movies have been doing since the 2016 release of Deadpool, The Suicide Squad is rated R. Like, it’s really rated R, and it’s to its detriment.
I love Gunn’s two Guardians of the Galaxy movies and I think they’re miles better than anything else in the MCU. It turns out, maybe having The Mouse Overlord works to his benefit. Because while the Guardians are violent, irreverent, and sometimes lascivious, they’re reined in. But with The Suicide Squad, the brass at Warner Bros. apparently decided now was the time to give a filmmaker full creative control over a comic book movie, and Gunn takes all the qualities I just mentioned from the Guardians movies and just makes them R-rated. We’ve got F-bombs, we’ve got strip clubs, we’ve got unnecessary nudity, we’ve got jokes about buttholes, and most of all, we’ve got guts and gore. Lots of guts and gore.
I’m not some prude, but I think this stuff has to be legitimately motivated and not just included onscreen because “they’re the villains!” Amazon’s excellent show The Boys uses copious amounts of profanity and guts in order to show the cost of having the kinds of superpowers that these characters possess. But with The Suicide Squad, Gunn revels in it all, without a second thought to the morality or ethics of what he’s showing on screen. About a quarter of the way through the movie, I began to wonder if any of this was adding to the story or characters at all, and the answer was a resounding “no.” Lines of dialogue would have the same weight without the F-bombs and the action would be just as well-done and creative without seeing someone’s guts stretched out in slow motion. It’s painfully obvious that it’s all being shown because he thinks it’s cool and for no further reason, and it’s just not for me.
The other problem with the plot is that it feels so by-the-numbers and non-inventive. It’s lots of action — which, again, I’ll admit is well-done aside from its graphic nature — with some slow, small character moments built in to give them an ounce or so of motivation. It does a very obvious, subtext-lacking job of commenting on American imperialism, which I bought into for the most part. But that’s only because they repeat “imperialism bad!” about a dozen times.
Otherwise, we get paper thin motivations and relationships between the Squad. The actors are good considering what they’re given — Margot Robbie continues to show she’s one of the most versatile movie stars we have today. She has no problem going from The Wolf of Wall Street to Suicide Squad to I, Tonya, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, and Bombshell back to portraying Harley Quinn. She’s perhaps a bit underutilized in this outing, but she’s as great as ever. But the real standout is newcomer Daniela Melchior in her role as Ratcatcher 2. She embodies what little of an emotional core this film has and you can’t help but fall in love with the character. I hope to see more of her in future DCEU installments.
The Suicide Squad has some redeeming elements — it’s competently made and is a cinematic vision fully realized. But that doesn’t inherently mean it’s good. Good action and sporadic chuckles do not a good movie make, especially when so much of what’s done cinematically is unmotivated. I’m glad DC brought in Gunn to make a Suicide Squad movie and I hope that they get another unique voice to helm the inevitable sequel. But I’m mostly glad that he’ll be back to helming the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise instead of more unhinged outings like this one.