There are times during the first hour of James Gunn’s remix of The Suicide Squad when it feels like it’s on track to be the best comic book movie ever made.
There’s a scene early on, a version of the “slow-motion hero walk” sequence that’s in so many superhero movies, shot gorgeously in vivid colors with the characters framed in front of a giant American flag backdrop for maximum kitsch. It functions as a pump-up jam even as it eventually reveals itself to be derisive — in the next five minutes, every slow-motion cool guy in it will die gruesomely, their gory ends played for laughs.
At its best, The Suicide Squad works like this, a satirical critique of both American imperialism and of jingoistic comic book conventions, delivered with punk rock panache and Corman-esque schlock. Suicide Squad is, after all, about a group of expendable anti-heroes, and it’s easy to connect that to the hundreds or thousands of would-be “freedom fighters” the CIA sent over the iron curtain or into the southern hemisphere to “foment revolution,” only for them to die or get captured almost instantly. That they just kept dying and the US just kept sending more anyway has a twisted Looney Tunes quality that The Suicide Squad is well-positioned to capture. At first, it does perfectly.
Then about three-quarters of the way through the movie, Gunn does the slow-motion hero walk again, but this time seemingly in earnest. What begins as a story about self-interested antiheroes working for an amoral government ends up just sort of turning back into a regular superhero movie by the end, complete with mindless stakes-raising, noisy and nonsensical CGI set pieces, an ill-defined villain, and characters working selflessly towards a vaguely defined “greater good.” It’s like watching Johnny Rotten lose his sneer halfway through a song.
The idea with The Suicide Squad seems to be to poke fun both at superhero movie conventions and the concept of “heroes.” It centers around a team, put together by an evil government functionary played by Viola Davis (one of the holdovers from the David Ayer Suicide Squad), of supernatural(ish) criminals sent to recapture a fictional South American island after a coup. It consists of Bloodsport (Idris Elba), a professional assassin trained to kill since birth by his father; Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the evil clown’s hot jester (ex?) girlfriend; Peacemaker (John Cena), a sort of jingoistic three percenter version of Bloodsport; Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), a girl who can control rats; King Shark (voiced by Sly Stallone), a dopey Shark creature who eats people; and Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), a nerdy oddball with mom issues whose powers are something of a big reveal.
James Gunn has a flair for absurdity, a punk rock sensibility, and a grasp of comedic timing that makes the whole thing work beautifully for a while. Yes, it feels like he’s self-plagiarizing Guardians of the Galaxy at times (Sharkman is just the new Groot, for instance), but mostly in a good way, and some of his exuberant compositions look like Ralph Steadman drawings come to life. He writes great banter between the characters, can shoot a wonderfully gory death scene, and the actors seem fully onboard with the concept. After F9 I thought I’d never want to see John Cena in a movie ever again, but it turns out when he’s not scowling for an entire movie with a camera shoved artlessly into his right nostril, his blocky head isn’t so hard to look at. He’s actually pretty charming here.
So where does it go wrong? The Suicide Squad never stops trying to be a critique of American foreign policy or a send-up of comic book conventions, but Gunn can’t seem to help turning his protagonists into his story’s heroes. That Tony Soprano isn’t the “hero” of the Sopranos, just the main character, is a distinction that The Suicide Squad doesn’t seem to be able to manage. That Gunn can’t seem to give his characters arcs without turning them into babyfaces smacks of studio meddling. Did they think we needed “someone to root for” in this story of death and destruction?
That didn’t seem like the movie Gunn was making for the first hour of The Suicide Squad.
There’s a brilliant moment where Harley Quinn murders a potential paramour, explaining why he wouldn’t make a suitable mate while he lies bleeding to death on the floor. This, for some reason, leads into a stylized sequence of Quinn taking on an entire army of South American henchman while they bleed CGI flowers. Say what? Justin Halpern, showrunner of DC’s shockingly good Harley Quinn show, has said that their model for the Harley Quinn character was Bugs Bunny, a clever and formidable character who is nonetheless entirely self-interested. In the later parts of The Suicide Squad Harley seems more like Black Widow. You can practically hear some suit whispering “yeah, but do we ever get to see her kick ass?” over James Gunn’s shoulder.
What started as this slightly subversive send-up eventually descends into the usual convoluted savin’-the-world nonsense. Gunn disguises it well, with bonkers visuals, gore, and cursing, but by the time a bystander shouts “it’s a freakin’ kaiju!” it feels like Suicide Squad has become nothing more than a Guillermo Del Toro-esque genre mash-up, inviting the nerds to simply cheer without questioning the gesture.
The movie invites us to question American meddling, then turns its heroes into an anti-imperial avenging army, then ends without them ever questioning the destruction they themselves have wrought. The first half of the movie had me convinced that this could’ve been done with a wink, a sneer, a punchline — something. Yet by the end of The Suicide Squad, the distance between how the characters see themselves and how we see them has flattened.
Is this a failure of storytelling or simply a limitation of the format? It makes you wonder just how much any creator can critique the concept of a comic book movie from within the confines of a comic book movie.