Among comic-book movies that mock and subvert the genre, two titles stand above the others: The Lego Batman Movie and Deadpool 2. The Suicide Squad is nowhere near as funny or clever as either of those, but it’s a reasonably amusing summer spectacle and a huge improvement over the 2016 clunker Suicide Squad. Fair warning, though: It carries an America-bashing theme born of a stridently lefty view, albeit one that will have some purchase among right-wingers in the age of, “What, do you think our country’s so innocent?”
Jettisoning most of the characters from the 2016 movie and leaning hard into absurd elements, writer-director James Gunn (best known for the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, neither of which I liked) orchestrates a mostly funny mission-from-hell adventure that ranks right up there among the goriest comedies ever made.
Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), now merely a ditzy sweetheart instead of a nihilistic psycho, returns with stolid team leader Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) but is otherwise surrounded by a new cast of expendables, an acknowledgment that the earlier Suicide Squad is in a special category of incredibly lucrative movies that no one wanted to see replicated. Commanded as before by the sinister Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), who threatens to punish the disobedient by blowing off their heads via remote control, a dirty half-dozen or so hardcore criminals get sprung from prison in order to take out a monster alien starfish living in a South American Nazi silo that will probably kill everyone if it gets loose. (Non-spoiler: It gets loose.)
Roll call. We meet the British killing machine Bloodsport (Idris Elba); the ludicrous Peacemaker (John Cena), whose chrome helmet would embarrass a first-grader; a depressed weirdo named Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) who imagines he’s attacking his mom whenever he launches his lethal colored dots at his enemies; Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), a girl who commands rodent armies; and a giant, moronic walking shark named Nanaue. The latter is voiced by Sylvester Stallone, which sounds a lot funnier in theory than it winds up being in the movie. Both Misterjaw and Chevy Chase’s landshark were more amusing. Stallone tries to get laughs via a Grootian menu of low-cognitive-function dialogue. Gunn seems to think, “Put a crazy-looking thing on screen and laughs must ensue,” but I believe he’s wrong.
Most of the fun lies in appreciating the blunderbuss incompetence of the team, whose errors result in innocent people’s heads getting sliced in two or their viscera getting exploded all over the scenery. There are two mass-slaughter scenes Gunn accents with enough thick, jammy red stuff to rival the Smuckers factory, and they’re both as vividly anarchic as they are disgusting. There’s also a scene that features more rats than I’ve ever seen in a movie before. It’s like Willard squared. As I’m unperturbed by comedic violence, I found the rats more stomach-churning than the gore. If you’re thinking of dinner and this movie, save the dinner part till later.
I don’t want to oversell The Suicide Squad, because it’s inconsistent. It’s at its best when it’s pantsing such genre clichés as the “dying hero bequeaths his magical weapon to a chosen successor” scene or the “let’s sneak into this hostile camp and raise hell” scene. Cena’s jingo-meets-Rambo hero Peacemaker is also very funny, and Gunn uses him to land a few jabs at what he sees as our national tendency to kill people in the name of liberating them. He’s quite a warrior, this Peacemaker.
But the plot, though refreshingly free of the convolution and digital clutter that marred several other recent blockbusters, is pretty standard stuff. Moreover, the film flags for 20 minutes in the middle, when Gunn temporarily turns it into a non-ironic, conventional 1980s action flick of the Sylvester SchwarzeNorris school. Gunn has no particular gift for action scenes, orchestrating (for instance) a big set piece around some Harley Quinn ass-kicking that simply stitches together a series of stunt moves of the kind we’ve all seen a thousand times before; whenever the director tries to be thrilling, I wish he’d go back to just being funny. He does, however, come up with a solid feminist joke, built around the idea that the guys have no idea how capable Harley is, which is far wittier than any of the similarly minded but ineffectively executed jibes in recent woman-directed blockbusters like Birds of Prey, Wonder Woman 1984, and Black Widow.
It all builds to a climax that, while not a classic, is at least breezy rather than desperately overstuffed. Gunn doesn’t have a brilliant success here — the movie’s not as delightful as the similar-in-tone Thor: Ragnarok, for instance. But he’s found a winning register, which is to say, the Marvel approach that gives both comedy and action their due. After one too many of Zack Snyder’s broody existential epics, it’s a good time to trade earnestness and angst for cartoony self-mockery.