Coming back from the brink: Can James Gunn save The Suicide Squad?

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David Dastmalchian, John Cena, Idris Elba and Daniela Melchior in ‘The Suicide Squad' (Jessica Miglio/Warner Bros)
David Dastmalchian, John Cena, Idris Elba and Daniela Melchior in ‘The Suicide Squad' (Jessica Miglio/Warner Bros)

Back when the Suicide Squad trailer first dropped, the internet was abuzz with excitement. The neon-blasted visuals! The rapidly rattled-off one liners! Jared Leto’s Joker in all his gangster glory! There was just one small problem. The teaser, produced by a company called Trailer Park, was nothing like what was filmed.

The actual movie was dark and violent. Written and directed by David Ayer – best known for gritty crime films such as Training Day and End of Watch – it was allegedly closer in tone to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice than, say, Deadpool. When DC saw how the Suicide Squad trailer went down online, and compared it to the overwhelmingly negative reception Batman v Superman received, they panicked. Changes were needed, they were sure of it.

Ayer had little to do with what ended up on cinema screens. That didn’t stop him being boisterous in the run up to the film’s release, proudly shouting “f*** Marvel” at the premiere. It typified the “us and them” mentality of Marvel and DC. Like warring football teams, fans of the lighter shades of the MCU tend to clash with those who prefer the sombre melancholy of the Snyder-led DC Extended Universe.

But when audiences finally saw the finished article, nobody liked it. Suicide Squad didn’t fit in anywhere, so it ended up being an accidentally avant-garde disaster, an amalgamation of amateur filmmaking. The darkness Ayer promised was nowhere to be found, but neither was the colourful carnage shown in the trailer. The first hour was devoted entirely to character introductions. Ten of them! From there, it stumbled from poorly edited set piece to poorly edited set piece, seemingly put together by a marketing manager. Leto’s Joker was on screen for a total of 10 minutes, which in its own way is the best thing about the film (it is a bad performance for the ages).

All of this was thanks to the clash between nervy studio executives, a director in over his head and a lack of long-term creative direction which has hampered the DC Extended Universe from ever gaining the same kind of cohesive momentum seen with the MCU.

Still, it worked. Sort of. The film was critically derided, but a record-breaking opening weekend guaranteed it a sequel. The executives at DC just had to figure out how to fix all of the issues from the first film.

Enter James Gunn. The director was a natural choice to save DC and the Suicide Squad – though his road here has been an odd one. With 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, where he took a group of fringe characters in the Marvel universe and turned them into box office behemoths, he’d become one of the biggest names in the business – an indie genre filmmaker turned titan. Fast forward to 2018. A number of tweets were unearthed featuring rather unseemly jokes about paedophilia, 9/11 and the Holocaust, and Gunn was promptly dismissed by Disney. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 was to be put in someone else’s hands – but it was never announced who, after fans and the cast of the film rallied around in support of Gunn. It didn’t take long for Marvel’s arch rivals, DC, to snatch him up to direct a sequel to Suicide Squad.

It was a canny move. Gunn’s brand of referential, irreverent humour and propensity for over-the-top violence make him a better fit for the superhero genre than Ayer ever was. His eye is closer to that of Cathy Yan, whose anarchic and visually distinct Birds of Prey was well-received, if not commercially successful, in the weeks prior to the pandemic closing down cinemas worldwide. And judging from the trailer to The Suicide Squad – yes it has the same title as the first one but with an added “the”, how wacky – it seems made in the same spirit. It is an attempt to deliver on what fans want from a James Gunn film – and from a movie starring Robbie as the deliciously maniacal Harley Quinn.

In recent weeks, DC and Warner Bros have found themselves in a quagmire since bowing to online fan pressure and releasing Zack Snyder’s original vision for Justice League. After that movie hit HBO Max, campaigns calling on the media conglomerate to release Ayer’s version of Suicide Squad have been trending on social media, supported by the director and the film’s stars.

It has been a turbulent time for DC in general, with actor Ray Fisher, who plays Cyborg in Justice League, accusing Joss Whedon of “abusive” behaviour and studio executive Walter Hamada of being “the most dangerous kind of enabler”. Adding that to Wonder Woman 1984 receiving middling reviews and, according to The Hollywood Reporter, losing the studio in excess of $100m (£72.5m), and DC are in dire need of some positive news.

In what would be a twist of irony given he made his name at Marvel, James Gunn might just be DC’s superhero. In Robbie, Idris Elba and John Cena, he has a game cast of superstars. And he has blockbuster experience without having allowed the corporate structures of Hollywood filmmaking to quell his offbeat, freewheeling style.

In the often bland world of big budget extravaganzas, Gunn has a personal style. It has been a hit for Marvel, but DC need him now – and so does the rest of the film industry.

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