You don’t go into a superhero movie expecting a critique of American interventionism and imperialism. After all, the contemporary superhero movie is all about law and order and preserving the establishment from any outside threats—in other words, all that good stuff that makes conservatives drool. But The Suicide Squad is not your average superhero movie. From first frame to last, writer/director James Gunn (best known for his tongue-in-cheek, pop culture-infused Guardians of the Galaxy films) takes not so subtle jabs at the way this country intervenes in the affairs of other countries to those countries’ detriment, especially Spanish-speaking ones.
The Suicide Squad is not exactly a sequel to David Ayer’s ugly, dull, humorless, critically panned and yet commercially successful Suicide Squad. The only good thing you can say about that timewasting effort was the cinematic introduction of Harley Quinn as rambunctiously and memorably portrayed by the hard to replace Margot Robbie, who went on to play the character in Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn) and in this new film.
But then Disney, that ardent defender of First Amendment rights, fired Gunn from its third Guardians film after a bunch of conservative trolls with too much time on their hands took offense at Gunn’s anti-Trump tweets and dug out some very old offensive tweets Gunn had previously apologized for. Disney’s brief loss (he has since been reinstated) became DC’s and Warner’s gain, inviting him to write and direct The Suicide Squad, giving him carte blanche to do whatever the hell he wanted with their franchise.
The result is more a palate cleanser than an outright sequel or reboot. It wipes completely from your mind any memory you may have of Ayer’s film. The Suicide Squad is funny, irreverent, incredibly gory—having only seen The Toxic Avenger and not much else from the Troma film factory, I’ll take my fellow critics’ word that with this film, Gunn acknowledges and even pays tribute to his time at that studio—and even tender. Watching it, you can’t help but feel that Gunn told Ayer, DC and Warner to stand aside and let the professionals handle this.
The concept is still the same: a group of supervillains jailed in a maximum-security prison are recruited by boss-from-hell Amanda Waller (Viola Davis as bad ass as ever) for covert missions on behalf of the U.S. government in exchange for a sentence reduction or some other wish. It’s your basic The Dirty Dozen/The Inglorious Bastards (the 1978 Italian original starring Fred Williamson, not the Tarantino tribute) scenario. It’s what Gunn does to that simple concept that makes half the fun. He bends the rules, defies our expectation, he even plays tricks on us.
As the film opens, we are introduced to about a dozen of these supervillains (including Harley) as they are recruited and, led by Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), prepare to land on the beaches of Corto Maltese to be ambushed and slaughtered (well, most of them) by the country’s armed forces after one of the Squad betrays them. They turn out to be a decoy for the true Force 10 from Navarone that has landed elsewhere on the island.
The film then backtracks to a couple of days earlier as Bloodsport (Idris Elba), the man responsible for sending Superman to a hospital after shooting him with a kryptonite bullet, reluctantly accepts Waller’s offer to lead this second team in exchange for his daughter not facing a long term in prison for shoplifting. Bloodsport, like every member of his team, is injected with a small explosive device in his brain that will be detonated if he strays from his mission (talk about expendable!). The team Waller assembles for Bloodsport to lead includes a silver-helmeted man who calls himself The Peacemaker but whose methods are anything but peaceful (John Cena, who has mastered the art of poking fun at himself), Ratcatcher 2 (Portuguese actress Daniela Melchior) who does what Ant-Man does but with rats, Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian, a veteran of such comic book films as The Dark Knight and the two Ant-Man films) who kills his enemies with polka dots after picturing them as his mother, and King Shark (joyfully voiced by Sly Stallone and with far more lines than Vin Diesel’s Groot).
Their mission: infiltrate Corto Maltese (named after the comic book adventure series created by Italian artist and writer Hugo Pratt in the ’60s, the island first made its appearance in print in Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns) and destroy a Nazi-era lab containing a gigantic and deadly alien Starfish before it falls in the hands of the island’s new anti-U.S. rulers, Presidente General Silvio Luna (Argentinean actor Juan Diego Botto) and his right-hand man Mayor General Mateo Suárez (Mexican actor Joaquín Cossio). Flag and Harley, the only two survivors of that ambush (and alongside Davis and Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang, the only survivors of the first film), will join this wild bunch later on. And, of course, no movie set in Latin America would be complete without a guerrilla army, this one led by Brazilian actress Alice Braga (talk about Pan-Americanism!).
Unlike the original Suicide Squad, Gunn’s film is a true ensemble film, one where each actor plays off each other with ease and where each character, even Luna and Suárez, gets their moment in the sun, backstory included in most cases. Botto and Cossio know they are playing stereotypes of a sort, but at the same time they are having some fun at the expense of those stereotypes, Botto playing the suave romantic half to Cossio’s more power-hungry military official. They are both defiantly anti-First World. Gunn has some fun with those attitudes by having Luna explain to Harley Quinn how she has become a symbol of rebellion and anti-American fervor. Harley is even given a romantic fling with Luna to boot (however fleeting) and an exhilarating, pretty bloody, incredibly well directed and edited action sequence, one that obeys the laws of physics while being totally inventive, use of animated flowers popping everywhere included.
Melchior’s character is the heart and soul of this team: a sad, lonely recluse who takes to heart every lesson her father, the original Ratcatcher (Taika Waititi) taught her, and who somehow still believes in the goodness of others (which makes you wonder what brought her here in the first place). Melchior goes so far as to embue her character with saudade, that distinctively Portuguese and Brazilian feeling of longing that is so prevalent in their music.
Gunn is as interested in team and character dynamics as he is in unleashing bloody mayhem, sometimes even marrying the two as when Peacemaker and Bloodsport brag about their murderous skills as they mow down a guerrilla compound they have mistakenly taken for government forces. Or the rare quiet moments when Ratcatcher 2 and Bloodsport share personal stories, as Elba’s character becomes a surrogate father for girl. Even Polka-Dot Man’s ludicrous origin story possesses a certain amount of pathos.
Gunn’s politics come in full force towards the end as our antiheroes, after almost decimating the country’s incredibly diverse armed forces (the number of women in charge would put most Latin American country’s armed forces to shame) not only have to contend with the monster inside the tower but the more human monsters they left behind in their own country. They discover that, in the end, the real supervillains wear suits and ties, elegant dresses or, even at times, t-shirts and jeans.
I went into The Suicide Squad expecting more than two hours of mindless fun but the film is much more than that. It may be anarchic, nihilistic even, and its action sequences will satisfy the most bloodthirsty in the audience. But The Suicide Squad is that rare franchise film that has a distinctive voice, a style, a clear point-of-view, a personality. It’s not filmmaking by numbers. It’s a true subversive film, one that sneaks its ideas in the form of entertainment.
Featured image: Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in ‘The Suicide Squad’ (Warner Bros. Pictures/DC Comics)