Dir: James Gunn. Starring: Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Sylvester Stallone, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Peter Capaldi. 15, 132 mins.
When the words “directed by James Gunn” first pop up on screen in The Suicide Squad, they’re accompanied by a rather curious visual: a tiny, daffodil-coloured bird pecking delicately at a human brain stem. Think of it as a statement of the artist’s intent. Gunn’s film is as sugary sweet as it is bloody, like an ice cream sundae drizzled with organs. It’s a far cry from – and an unbelievably vast improvement on – 2016’s Suicide Squad. Besides lacking the presence of a single human emotion, the previous outing possessed all the edge of one of those bile-green shots of Sourz Apple.
In fact, Gunn’s distinct and self-assured vision, which he’s said was left untouched and unbothered by studio interference, puts The Suicide Squad alongside the very best of modern comic-book filmmaking. His film, which now comes with an all-important “The” at the beginning of its title, functions both as a sequel and a fresh start. Almost everything about the previous instalment has been slashed except for a handful of favoured characters – Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, of course, one of the jewels in DC’s crown, alongside Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang and Joel Kinnaman’s Rick Flag.
It does, however, benefit from the familiarity audiences have with the very concept of the Suicide Squad, otherwise known as Task Force X – a pick ‘n’ mix line-up of villains and ne’er-do-wells assembled by the government and sent to complete the hardest and most impossible tasks, all with bombs strapped to their necks in case they try to play hooky. Viola Davis’s Amanda Waller, also returning as the head of Task Force X, has put together a new team for a new mission. This one involves a highly secretive piece of alien technology cloistered away on the (fictional) South American island of Corto Maltese – a place that’s newly come under the rule of the thoroughly anti-American Silvio Luna (Juan Diego Botto).
But here, she’s an efficient and pitiless villain complex enough to be worthy of Davis’s unmatched talents. Gunn lets her dive straight into the action, sending out faces both familiar and unfamiliar to their probable deaths. The director, who also has sole credit for the film’s script, has scoured the wildest and weirdest corners of comic book history to fill his own beefed-up platoon, introducing such characters as Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) and Weasel (Sean Gunn, brother of James, in a mo-cap suit).
Where 2016’s Suicide Squad was all posturing, Gunn’s follow-up delivers the goods and never flinches while doing so. The death toll is high and surprisingly indiscriminate. Thanks partially to the presence of King Shark (played by Steve Agee, but voiced by Sylvester Stallone), there are enough torn limbs and blasted brains to ensure that no one ever forgets Gunn’s roots in B-movie style horror. There’s an obvious comparison to be made here with the distinctly family-friendly Guardians of the Galaxy – the director’s other superhero franchise, which he was briefly dismissed from following a right-wing campaign targeting old, offensive tweets.
Warner Bros used that small window of opportunity to play some corporate mind games – not only did they snatch up Gunn, but they promised him all the swearing and violence that was still verboten over at Marvel. Yet these films are all built up from the same, core strength: a surprising and tender sincerity beneath all the spectacle. The violence and the outrageousness alone aren’t what makes The Suicide Squad tick – it’s Gunn’s understanding of the transgressive power of the outsider figure.
His film provides a firm critique of the kind of imperialism often tethered to the genre, where superheroes are free to mow through foreign countries, leaving destruction in their wake – all to advance the American Way. There’s a deftness, too, in how his characters are all written as products of, and eventual champions over, their own trauma. Robbie, now so at home in the role of Harley Quinn, gets to continue her narrative of self-actualisation begun in her spin-off outing, Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey. It all culminates in a fight scene that features a striking and colourful hail of flowers, birds, and pure female rage.
There’s an ease and a grace with which Idris Elba settles into the role of Bloodsport, who could so easily have been just another grizzled mercenary à la Will Smith’s Deadshot – a character reportedly meant to return for the sequel, before Smith turned down the opportunity. But it’s Daniela Melchior’s Ratcatcher 2, the kind heart of the group and a friend to all creatures, who becomes the unexpected emotional lynchpin of the film. All this, and Jared Leto’s Joker doesn’t crop up once.