First of all, yes, James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is better than the 2016 Suicide Squad. That movie is a mess, this one isn’t, it’s not even a contest. Gunn, who writes and directs, also seems to have freer rein than David Ayer did, as Gunn got to make a full-on, R-rated action flick with an amount of gore worthy of a Troma alum like Gunn. This feels like the Suicide Squad that always should have been: a fun, funny, violent action flick made up of DC villains from the D-through-Z list. The best part of The Suicide Squad is that it probably won’t appeal to everyone, given the outrageous level of violence. For once, it feels like a superhero movie was made to suit the shape of the characters, not bending the shape of the characters to suit a desired audience. You’re either going to be on board for Gunn’s gonzo vision, or you’re not.
Though the film boasts a long list of recognizable names in the credit, the core squad is made up of Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Peacemaker (John Cena), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone), and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), both returning from the original movie. (Jai Courtney also has a cameo as Captain Boomerang, but none of the other original squad members appear.) The Suicide Squad opens with a lean, efficient expository sequence that reintroduces “Task Force X” and the viciously efficient Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), who calls the shots behind the scenes. We see the lengths Waller is willing to go to as she threatens to have Bloodsport’s 16-year-old daughter (Storm Reid) tried as an adult in court unless he agrees to go on one of her missions. A great recurring bit throughout the film is how uneasy Waller’s staff is with her threats, even as they lay bets on which task force members won’t survive each mission.
Every member of the core group gets a standout moment, but the story revolves most heavily around Bloodsport as the reluctant leader. Elba is entirely up to the task, effectively anchoring the film and his chemistry with Daniela Melchior is fantastic. She, along with her rat Sebastian (played by Jaws and Crisp Ratt), becomes the secret heart of the squad and the film itself, providing a touch of grounded humanity amidst the more colorful characters like Harley and Polka Dot Man. John Cena’s Peacemaker is getting a television spin-off, and Gunn lands on an interesting character beat with him that challenges the inherent hypocrisy of a “peace at any cost” credo, but Daniela Melchior radiates so much charisma and Ratcatcher 2 is so interesting and has so much potential as an Artful Dodger type wending her way through the background of bigger DC stories that investing in more Peacemaker but not Ratcatcher 2 feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. (Speaking of missed opportunities, The Suicide Squad makes one fatal decision that feels like a huge mistake for future storytelling opportunities.)
Gunn also gives Harley Quinn a mid-film interlude that might be the best any director has handled the character yet. This is still a post-Joker Harley who is determined to make better choices, at least in some regards, but who is genuinely unpredictable and unreliable, and Robbie continues to be having a tangibly good time in the role. Gunn also doesn’t gawk at Harley, the comparison of how she is photographed in this film and the 2016 version does not flatter David Ayer at all. However, The Suicide Squad is, at two hours and twelve minutes, a little bit too long, and the Harley interlude is an obvious spot of excess. The Harley Problem remains, where she sucks up a lot of oxygen in the room even when the film isn’t about her. As an actor, Robbie is fully capable of blending into the ensemble and ceding the spotlight when the focus of a scene is on someone else, but Harley is such a big character who lends herself so well to cool action, which Gunn makes the most of, that she dominates the screen in a way no one else but Elba does.
The Suicide Squad is fun and funny, though the over-the-top violence won’t appeal to everyone. But if big, gory spectacle is your bag, then James Gunn made the perfect superhero movie for you. There is also a strong vein of humanity under all the bloody hijinks that makes the finale feel earned and a couple of the (inevitable) deaths actually land with a gut-punch. (The tagline for this film is “Don’t get attached” and you should take that literally.) This is easily one of the most creatively satisfying films DC has made in the post-Nolan era, and since it doesn’t have to fit around the shapes of other stories, it works entirely on its own. You don’t need to know anything about the former movie, or any other DC movie, to roll with this one. You just need a strong stomach. Seriously, it gets quite gross.
The Suicide Squad is now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.