The success of a motion picture is never one thing. If you consider James Gunn’s soft reboot of DC’s Suicide Squad film series under only a financial lens, it is a tragic failure, an undeserved one.
If you view it in basically any other category, it is a deserving relief of a success. The biggest consequence being that James Gunn, who all but made a bunch of unknown space rogues into household names at Marvel can’t continue exploring his vision of this grittier but no less enjoyable side of DC’s intellectual property catalogue.
Actually Gunn can, but not on the big screen. A spin off series about one of the Squad members, Peacemaker, played perfectly by John Cena, will be having his own HBO Max exclusive show next year. When it comes to the feature length adventures of Amanda Waller’s Task Force X, that time has ended, barring some strange miracle. Then again, getting a rebound from the reportedly atrocious 2016 Suicide Squad movie was kinda of a miracle to begin with.
Many factors play into the sad fortunes of Suicide Squad 2021. The most obvious example being the resurgence of COVID-19 as a deleterious effect in American public life. The Delta and to a lesser extent so far Lambda variants have once again led to a rise in COVID cases/deaths and to those oblivious, stubbornly ignorant or without good faith, the blame is on too much of the American population being averse to receiving a free vaccine.
Be it buying into lies, understandable (to an extent) distrust in American institutions or just selfish to the point of validating ugly assumptions about the American character, we were unable to reach a 70% or higher threshold needed to create herd immunity and largely put COVID behind us as an aspect of life. It’s so bad that the success of the movie theater business is once again in question with major new titles like the next three MCU films, the second semi-promising Venom film, Daniel Craig’s oft delayed final Bond film and perhaps most painfully, the long awaited Dune film by Denis Villenueve being left in a concerning state.
It wasn’t just COVID. There was an understandable confusion over what exactly The Suicide Squad was in light of the 2016 film by David Ayer. The original movie was and remains panned by critics, disliked by audiences and held in low esteem by the DC fanbase. Some consider it one of the worst superhero films ever made. So, a sequel to a bad movie. Sound like fun!
But it’s also not called Suicide Squad 2. Instead, it is called “Suicide Squad” but with a “The” at the beginning. So, it’s a reboot? Sorta yeah. But it also has actors reprising their roles from the prior movie with Viola Davis as Suicide Squad manager Amanda Waller, Joel Kinnaman as Col. Rick Flagg( the field commander of the squad), Jai Courtney as Captain Boomerang and Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn all returning.
None of this is to suggest it will be a bad movie of course, but then again poor marketing and being a follow-up of any sort to a badly regarded movie in a mostly badly regarded cinematic universe is a recipe for disaster. Even though James Gunn’s Suicide Squad received acclaim and the marketing heavily promoted Gunn himself as a new bright feature of this film, it wasn’t enough.
Of course, The Suicide Squad was also released on HBO Max as part of a strategy Warner Bros. started last year to get their films out in spite of the pandemic, starting with the ill-conceived Wonder Woman 1984. It being available to anyone who had a subscription to the streaming service also cut into box office but on the other hand it does mean the actual viewership of the movie is actually higher than its paltry theater returns would suggest.
Like many cult classic films which fizzled and burned at the cineplex, like personal favorite of mine Big Trouble in Little China and by extension most of John Carpenter’s filmography for that matter, The Suicide Squad will likely be seen long term as a success of some sort. It being a good even great superhero picture will make that process easier.
The Suicide Squad as the comics make them out to be, are a group of convict supervillains forced to do black op work for the US government under the aforementioned agent Waller, finding some use for DC’s scum and villainy. They incentivize the super-crooks to do Waller’s bidding with two methods: reduced prison time/and or better standards of living in prison and a bomb implanted in their head that will blow their craniums up if they disobey or try to leave the squad. Persuasion and coercion in equal measure.
Of course, despite having a bunch of villains make up the squad’s makeup, you have to have some in the Task Force who are not wholly evil or perhaps not evil at all. James Gunn already showed his strengths in taking characters who starting off at least were more than a little morally compromised in Guardians of the Galaxy.
Peter Quill/ Star Lord was a thief and former member of a space pirate group called the Ravagers. Gamora was an assassin and the best agent for her adoptive father Space Emperor Thanos, Drax was a criminal who was happy to use violent ends to get revenge on those who had killed his family. Rocket Raccoon and Groot were perhaps the most innocent, with them being bounty hunters.
The only other Guardian barring Nebula( Gamora’s fellow “sister” under Thanos) was Mantis and well, she was a slave of a planet sized, lower-case god. Unlike Captain America and Thor, who essentially start off as heroes, the Guardians of the Galaxy were antiheroes or even probable villains who gradually become irreverent full blown heroes.
If it worked at Marvel, why wouldn’t it work at DC? Well, it does.
Compared to the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, The Suicide Squad is more crass, adult and clearly meant to echo James Gunn’s early career among Troma Entertainment, one of the premiere independent studio success stories. Troma stood out for its gives-no-f**ks attitude and very low brow humor which was still charming enough to allow a cult following to occur.
The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke em’ High are among Troma’s best known contributions to cinema so to speak and Gunn was involved in the fourth Toxie movie, Citizen Toxie, considered by many including Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman to be the best in that series, save for the original. Kaufman has had cute blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameos in Gunn’s movies including the first Guardians of the Galaxy and there’s one here too. Gunn’s biggest movie with Troma and arguably his first real film he did was Tromeo and Juliet.
To an extent, The Suicide Squad is a Troma film with a Hollywood budget, though it is much more than that. It’s not all gross out or sexual humor, some of it is directed in a manner not too dissimilar to a Deadpool film though the self-deprecating humor isn’t as blunt due to DP being a fourth wall breaking figure and not even Harley Quinn goes quite as far in bringing attention to what movie she is in.
It’s a film which juggles many different tones and manages to not slip up surprisingly well. Some moments of violence are definitely played for laughs like an insanely violent sneak-in to a camp of enemies with one gut-busting twist to the end of the scene. Others play the violence more seriously and even sadly, like with the fates of some Suicide Squad members being tragic, sudden and without heartlessness. There’s one moment of violence that actually pans away before the carnage to emphasize this as not funny at all.
Not everyone will appreciate Gunn’s juggle of superhero comedy and military/espionage drama. But at the same time, it’s easy to emphasize with the squad members meant to be liked, to despise the members meant to be despised and to feel conflicted about the members that fall inbetween.
The crazy thing is that not every squad member is necessarilly evil or even criminal: it is the circumstances of who they are and their abilities that make them unable to be among the general population. Poor Polka-Dot man. One of Batman’s dumbest adversaries is played as a guy with an absolutely awful life that was brought upon him rather than by choice.
His abilities, which do involve polka dots in some fashion, were not used for a life of crime but were instead the consequence of having one awful, awful mother with access to STAR Labs technology. For a host of reasons, he’s quite alright being in something called a suicide squad.
Ratcatcher 2 is also a supervillain who hasn’t, as far as we know, done anything wrong to anyone personally. The worst she’s done is that she’s a thief and she steals through proxy by being able to, well, summon rats. Being raised with a drug addict father in Portugal meant she wasn’t raised in a context where she could use her in truth, very useful technology for a clear good. In another world, she would be a superhero and now she is forced to become something she doesn’t mind being.
Then, there’s King Shark, voiced beautifully by Sylvester Stallone. A spiritual analogue to Groot in some ways, Nanuae/King Shark is simple-minded, has a limited but growing vocabulary and he is taught like a dog or the Iron Giant not to eat people willy-nilly, especially if they’re his friends. He’s terrifying when he’s angry, adorable in every other context, strangely enough. Of course, the people that make him angry more or less deserve what comes next.
There are two teams to this film’s Task Force X, one headlined by Col. Flagg and Harley Quinn and the other by Deadshot replacement Bloodsport (Idris Elba) and Cena’s Peacemaker. The team led by Flagg has too spoilerific a role to delve into and it is the team led by Bloodsport that is more or less the team for the film.
Waller sends the larger suicide squad/task force X into the Caribbean island nation of Corto Maltese to infiltrate, steal information and destroy the base of a Project Jotunheim, which was once under American control through the puppet government. That government had a coup and now a duo of power hungry brothers want to use what’s inside Jotunheim to get their country into a place of real prestige on the global stage.
The Squad’s mission through Corto Maltese and how they interact with its denizens, both in friendly and aggressive ways, act as commentary on American imperialism and the deep state. It’s hardly a surprise that a story about the American government using hardened criminals to do their dirty work undercover wouldn’t have a positive opinion of that system.
Waller is a cruel, cruel person and you can just feel the cold ruthlessness come off of Viola Davis’ performance almost like a chill. In spite of Task Force X consisting of some who are not whatsoever decent, you still feel sad at them being forced into the position they’re in. It’s almost akin to the teenagers in both Battle Royale and the Hunger Games forced against their will to fight and die all while being monitored by an uncaring and somewhat amused authority.
They’re many different arenas of thought on how The Suicide Squad’s politics can be extrapolated but it is, dare I say it, much more clear cut in its intent than this year’s Falcon and Winter Soldier show. It’s almost brave in how brazen it’s political intention is though if there is one thing Gunn has more or less succeeded in, it’s getting away with something brazen.
What makes it work is that for all the lowbrow or sometimes middlebrow humor and content Gunn presents here, there is a earnest sense of heart that makes it easy to follow and be invested in the squad’s trials. Much like the thematic mission statement of Ayer’s Suicide Squad, Bloodsport’s group overtime go from being interested in simply surviving their mission to wanting to be more than they are.
Elba’s Bloodsport is especially prone to this positive compulsion due to his mercenary lifestyle all but ruining his relationship with his understandably angry daughter. His talents made him a killer for money but can he use those same skills for something more worthwhile?
Harley Quinn, who has long since dumped his utterly evil boyfriend The Joker, is still an insane individual but one who wants to express her insanity in ways that are helpful, not just to others but to herself. Like Bloodsport, her talents often lead to messy results, but at least she’s there enough mentally to not to express them on victims. After all, she was a victim herself.
The Suicide Squad pulls off the impressive feat of being an entertaining, wacky story that deals in grey morality but with a rare optimistic conclusion. That even people you and I would consider either criminal or to step back from can do the right thing in their own way. That maybe blanket assumptions of certain people and their lifestyles should not doom them to certain fates.
It’s a film that seems nihilistic for its colorful expression of violence and dark comedy. It is anything but a meaningless film about meaningless people and their meaningless actions. It’s a shame that the DCEU’s best film seems destined to be their least profitable.
The film financially, will not survive the mission. Doesn’t mean the mission was a failure.