Back in high school I wrote a short story which I thought was brilliant. However, when I let friends who had always liked my previous stories read it, they weren’t impressed. They didn’t care about the characters, the individual plots didn’t connect, there was no narrative thrust, and events happened simply because the author wanted them to happen. This, of course, meant that my friends were idiots incapable of understanding the nuance of my brilliant story. It wasn’t until years and some distance later that I could admit the story was pretty bad. This one incident of grossly overestimating the story’s quality while underestimating the audience’s reaction made me realize that I, like artists in any field, require feedback if for no other reason than to know that I’m not wasting time on something that only appeals to me. What I think is obvious may not be that way to people who don’t live in my head. Same for what I think is cool, or fun, or deep, or funny, or sad, or whatever other reaction I want my readers to have. As much as artists love freedom, and as great as such work can be, a little guidance away from our personal indulgences and more toward the tastes of people who aren’t us can make the work overall better. In other words, there are times when a little interference, whether it’s from a trusted group of friends or a major motion picture studio, can actually be a good thing. Such is the case with The Suicide Squad.
In looking at writer/director James Gunn’s filmography it’s easy to notice Guardians of the Galaxy is an anomaly. Gunn’s work prior to joining the MCU were black humor horror and superhero films (Slither and Super respectively) which both have their supporters but failed to appeal beyond fans of Troma-style horror or gore and violence for the sake of gore and violence. Even GotG2, with its extended gags that didn’t work and sequences of needless brutality, at times slipped from quirky to self-indulgent. Clearly, the success of Guardians freed Gunn to make Guardians 2, which then freed him to make The Suicide Squad, to diminishing returns as each subsequent film inches closer and closer to Gunn’s earlier, more niche work. For those who like Gunn’s earlier black comedies, this is great as they get a big-budget version of his particular interests in a mainstream superhero film. However, for the rest of us, we get yet another piece of media juxtaposing happy music with brutal violence, passing psychopaths off as heroes, and pushing that “anyone can die at anytime.”
Beyond a “The” in its title, The Suicide Squad begins to separate itself from 2016’s Suicide Squad by immediately thrusting the team, and the audience, into action, only for it to end in a predictable gag. The intended shock of the scene is undercut by the fact that the film’s own promotional materials have already conditioned the audience to know who is going to be important and who’s going to be cannon fodder. The whole opening sequence is clearly designed to create a sense of danger, the proverbial “anyone can die at anytime,” in the same way that Slipknot’s entire presence in the 2016 film was intended to show how callous and sudden character deaths will be. This is the exact same tactic used in Deadpool 2, The Boys, Invincible, and more famously in Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. The intention is to create unease in the audience, but more often than not the effect is to create numbness.
Years ago I wrote about the trouble that “anyone can die at anytime” can have on our connection to characters, making the audience withhold our sympathies and thus dulling the character’s inevitable death. The same is true in The Suicide Squad. By establishing an atmosphere of indifference toward the characters, the audience in turn doesn’t care who lives or dies, turning the film’s greatest strength – its sense of danger – into its greatest weakness. It’s only dangerous if we care. It’s hard not to view the opening sequence as similar to that of Transformers: The Movie, clearing the deck of the oldies and b-listers before the shiny, new toys show up. The choice of beginning The Suicide Squad in this way is especially baffling as we then have an opportunity to see backstory which would’ve made the previous sequence exponentially more impactful. Fortunately, the film improves as it continues on, but it takes a long time for the film to pick the momentum squandered from what was clearly something James Gunn really, really wanted to do and DC allowed because he’s the same director who made Guardians of the Galaxy.
The Suicide Squad‘s strength, eventually, comes from the characters who we are allowed to invest in, specifically Idris Elba’s Bloodsport, Daniela Melchoir’s Ratcatcher 2, and, most notably, John Cena’s Peacemaker. Although their banter never rises to that of Quill, Rocket, and Drax, the conflicts between these characters forms the heart of the film, with Bloodsport and Peacemaker established as opposites, and Ratcatcher providing surprisingly poignant moments. Although fine in his role, it’s hard to watch Sylvester Stallone’s King Shark and not find him lacking compared to Ron Funches’s version from the Harley Quinn cartoon. In fact, while Margot Robbie’s take on the character has been the standout of the recent DC films, I’d argue even more than Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, she too is outdone by her cartoon counterpart, particularly as her inclusion in The Suicide Squad is more for popularity than necessity.
There’s no question that Jared Leto’s Joker was the most contentious point of the 2016 Suicide Squad with some arguing that he was the highlight of the film and demanding that he be included more while others argued that he was the worst part and, as I said at the time, would have been better had he been included much less. The same could be said for Harley Quinn in The Suicide Squad. Here Harley could have been replaced by another character and it would have made no difference to either the film’s tone or narrative. Sure, there’s a neat sequence which seems to tap into a trait of Harley’s that we hadn’t seen in her previous two movies, but there is nothing, nothing, that Harley does which wouldn’t fit another character. As a result, the narrative never comes together, resulting a mess of a story that wants, really wants, to say something about American imperialism and exploitation of foreign countries, but would rather skip along, ripping heads off, leaving flower petals in pools of blood… which in itself could be an adept description of American imperialism.
Although a vast improvement over 2016’s original (which, in retrospect, I should have given a lower rating), and much more in-line with the spirit of the comics, The Suicide Squad still feels like a toss-away that is both underdeveloped and overindulgent. It’s stuffed with all the gore and violence a Troma vet like Gunn can fit into a mainstream superhero film, but beyond buckets of blood, very little is offered. There are excellent sequences but few of them serve a point other than that they look cool. A fight scene reflected in Peacemaker’s helmet looks neat, but doesn’t add to our understanding of the character or how he sees the world. In contrast to the care with which licensed music is used as an in-universe grounding element in Guardians of the Galaxy, The Suicide Squad is closer to the 2016’s approach of glorified music videos pretending to be inspired action sequences. It’s fine, it’s fun, but it’s impossible not to think the film could have been so much better had more thought been put into than just what appeals to the director himself.
Filmmakers of vision, from geniuses like Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan, to overrated hacks like Quentin Tarantino and Zack Snyder, are often prone to self-indulgence and thinking whatever they want to do will be great because they are great. The results are as likely to be flawed masterpiece like Gangs of New York as they are to be an overstuffed tech-demo like The Irishman. In the case of James Gunn, we have a filmmaker who, left to on his own, is inclined to gear cult films to his very specific brand of humor. Again, this is great for the people in that audience, but for the rest of us, viscera and brutality aren’t as appealing as tightly-knit stories featuring characters we want to invest in. After years of criticism for overstepping its bounds, Warner Bros clearly now wants to grant its filmmakers freedom, however that also creates the chance of an individual making something which appeals only to that individual, and people of similar tastes, and not to anyone who doesn’t share those fancies. Just because something is gory or violent or cruel, doesn’t mean it’s enjoyable, or even necessary. And just because a filmmaker has crafted one excellent, fun, well-written film franchise, doesn’t mean everything that filmmaker does will be equally brilliant. After all, the same director who made Avengers also made Justice League. We saw what happened there.