Spoiler alert: The following conversation discusses the entirety of “The Suicide Squad” and is intended to be read after you’ve seen the film. We’re dissecting the movie’s most surprising twists and turns, and reading this before you see the movie would spoil that fun.
JUSTIN CHANG: One of the best surprises, for a moviegoer, is walking into a film for which you had low expectations — or no expectations at all — and watching it blossom before your eyes into one of the better, smarter, funnier entertainments you’ve seen in some time. And I do mean blossom: Of all the memorably bizarre images in “The Suicide Squad,” I keep coming back to the sight of Margot Robbie unleashing a whirlwind of cartoon flowers as she hacks and slashes her way through an army of bad guys; it’s like a Harley Quinn fight scene meets a Mary Poppins musical number.
And like so much of what works in James Gunn’s movie — an incalculably superior sequel to 2016’s misbegotten “Suicide Squad” — it plays out with the kind of comic gusto and daring that might have seemed like sub-Tarantino obnoxiousness in less assured hands.
I felt I was in those hands from the movie’s surprise-laden opening frames, in which Gunn and some very game actors pull off a pretty amusing narrative fake-out. For a while you think you’re watching a movie about a harrowing top-secret mission featuring a bunch of shlubby third-rate comic-book villains with names like Blackguard (Pete Davidson) and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) and Javelin (Flula Borg) and Savant (Michael Rooker) and TDK (Nathan Fillion) and Weasel (Sean Gunn, the director’s younger brother). But then, (nearly) all of them are gruesomely killed in the first 15 minutes or so, at which point the movie’s actual protagonists — Bloodshot (Idris Elba), Peacemaker (John Cena), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) and Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), plus those original “Squad” holdovers Harley Quinn and Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) — take their place centerstage.
Having entered the theater with, as stated, zero expectations or knowledge of what was going to happen, I went along with the gag more or less completely. One reason it works is that Gunn is basically thumbing his nose at the dubious premise of these movies, and also at the very nature of the superhero/supervillain mashup subgenre. He’s laughing at how ridiculously arbitrary the process of character selection can be when it comes to these mass-convergence exercises.
He’s also foreshadowing something: Unlike, say, “Justice League” (whichever version) or “The Avengers,” which are all about preserving narrative continuity between franchise installments, this movie seems to have very little interest in long-term brand extension, and as such will have no qualms about killing off some of its leads. OK, so Harley Quinn isn’t going anywhere. But a couple of her costars, I’m happy to say, aren’t so lucky.
TRACY BROWN: The body count in this movie is just absurd. But to echo Justin’s point about expectations, what is so refreshing about “The Suicide Squad” is that it doesn’t appear to care about them at all.
I love comic book movies, but after a decade of watching multiple Marvel and DC offerings every year, I’m not always surprised by them anymore. That’s not to say they aren’t still delightful — a lot of them are also just predictable. But “The Suicide Squad” manages to be surprising, without coming across as just shock for shock’s sake. So even though I feel like I shouldn’t have been surprised that Gunn presented us with a ridiculously fun adventure starring a ragtag group of misfit criminals, I was.
I really enjoyed how much “The Suicide Squad” embraced the weird, which for me is best reflected in all of the deadly marine life. King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone) comes off as just stupid comic relief in the trailer, but he’s got some layers in the film, and works so well in this version of Task Force X. He wants to eat you but he also wants you to be his friend! And I still think about the tank of cute, colorful jellyfish-like things that initially come across as much less harmless than they actually are. The highlight, of course, is Starro, the giant alien starfish that unleashes tiny versions of himself to take over people’s minds. He’s terrifying and kind of gross, and amps up the stakes by suddenly turning “The Suicide Squad” into a kaiju movie.
SONAIYA KELLEY: One of my favorite things about this movie — and about James Gunn’s films overall — is the balance between absurdity and moments of levity. Ratcatcher 2’s loving monologue about her late father, Ratcatcher 1 (Taika Waititi), was heart-wrenching, particularly since it came as a counterpoint to Bloodshot’s more tragic and traumatic memories of his own father. But Gunn is able to plumb the depths of his character’s trauma for comedic effect as well, as evinced by Polka-Dot Man’s murderous fixation on his mother.
Gunn is also a master at knowing how to give depth to characters who are silly or just plain cute. Much as he did with Baby Groot in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” the director incorporates aww-inducing characters like Weasel and King Shark while employing the most unlikely meathead actors (Stallone! Vin Diesel!) to play them.
I can also appreciate Gunn’s loyalty to his actors. It’s nice to see him cast “Guardians” holdovers like Stallone, Rooker and Pom Klementieff, even in small roles. It’s no wonder his cast rallied around him when that whole Twitter controversy went down.
CHANG: That controversy Sonaiya mentions is, of course, one of the reasons we have this movie in the first place: After Disney fired Gunn from “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” in response to those resurfaced tweets, Warner Bros. quickly swooped in, giving him creative carte blanche and making Gunn the rare director to steer films in both dominant comic-book cinema universes. So, thanks, I guess, Twitter trolls? The franchise wars usually bore me to tears, but the Gunn affair is fascinating because it resonates with the story told in “The Suicide Squad” itself: It’s a coded parable about the irredeemable finding redemption.
Happily, the movie wears that subtext lightly. More than anything — and more so than the first two “Guardians” movies, where Gunn’s delightfully warped sensibility felt tamed and constrained by Marvel specifications — “The Suicide Squad” feels very much like the movie he wanted to make, and also a movie made by someone with nothing to lose (but also, of course, the heftiest studio resources at his disposal).
Gunn has since been reinstated by Disney — and, as apparently every Marvel filmmaker is obligated to do, recently fired off some comments berating Martin Scorsese for his now-notorious distaste for comic-book movies. Without reviving the tedious “Are superhero movies cinema?” debate, I will say that “The Suicide Squad” certainly feels cinematic in ways that most recent Marvel and DC movies haven’t.
That’s partly because of the vibrantly seedy texture of the filmmaking; I can’t remember the last time I saw an extraterrestrial menace lay waste to human civilization and found myself pausing, amid the onslaught, to admire the surreal beauty of the images. Witness the captivating sight of Harley Quinn swimming around inside the giant starfish’s eyeball, its rainbow hues matching her own colorful hair and wardrobe. (Like Tracy, I’m enchanted by this movie’s commitment to super-weird marine life.)
Another reason “The Suicide Squad” feels more cinematic: It doesn’t feel like a movie that was made to accommodate some overarching narrative strategy, or to usher a franchise from one tedious setup phase to another. That’s partly why the deaths have such impact, such finality. OK, I gather that John Cena’s Peacemaker isn’t gone for good, as his upcoming HBO Max series makes clear. But when, say, Polka-Dot Man gets unceremoniously trampled by the starfish, it seems pretty clear he’s a goner. And too bad, really: This ridiculous, willfully off-putting character is played with such freakish poignancy by David Dastmalchian that you actually wish he’d come back.
BROWN: A moment of silence for Dastmalchian’s Polka-Dot Man — one of my favorite (human) performances in the movie. He gave “The Suicide Squad” a side of mommy issues to go with the bigger daddy-issues theme.
I also want to avoid getting into the minutiae of the “Are superhero films cinema?” debate but ... “The Suicide Squad” absolutely shows they can be. I think the argument gets muddled sometimes because of people who don’t make much of a distinction between cinema and movie-theater experience. I only bring this up because it’s such a shame that this movie is being released amid this latest surge in COVID cases — “The Suicide Squad” is one of the few films I saw in a theater setting when I felt more safe about going to them. I’m glad that’s how I got to experience it, since now I don’t know when I’ll be going back to one.
I would say the death that surprised me the most was Rick Flag’s, and not because I thought he wasn’t as expendable as anybody else on the team. But he was one of the few remaining threads that tied this movie to the much-maligned 2016 “Suicide Squad” by that point in the story, so his death really hammered it in for me that “The Suicide Squad” wasn’t playing by any rules around a shared universe or franchise continuity.
Plus, when I watched the movie I’d forgotten that the Peacemaker series had already been announced. So up until the very end, a part of me thought, “Well, maybe Rick Flag isn’t dead dead.”
KELLEY: I too was surprised by Rick Flag’s death, mostly because I appreciate Joel Kinnaman as the straight man to all of these other zany characters. Sure, Bloodsport seems poised to take a similar leadership position by the end of this film, but Flag’s death felt meaningful, a sign that “good” doesn’t always prevail in these movies (as the lone non-felon on the squad, Flag is the only character who is not forced to be there).
I’d forgotten about the upcoming Peacemaker series too, so his death also surprised me. But not to the same extent as Flag’s, whose shrapnel to the heart seems pretty unambiguously final. And I was grateful that the Weasel was revived in the mid-credits scene, I’m looking forward to seeing more of him!
I’m curious to see how the story continues in the Peacemaker HBO series but I feel like this format can be rinsed and repeated endlessly. This reinvigorated franchise has raw potential for DC and Warner Bros. in a way similar to what “Iron Man” did for Marvel. Because these characters are relatively obscure, there’s less at stake in taking creative license with them than, say, another Batman outing (although I have high hopes for Robert Pattinson in the role). I think that if the studio continues to prioritize strong filmmakers and unexpected takes as it did here and with Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” DC could have a film franchise that is not necessarily interconnected like the MCU but performs at the box office and wins over both critics and die-hard fans.
CHANG: It’ll be interesting to see how “The Suicide Squad” fares amid the ongoing COVID surges; like you, Tracy, I was grateful to have seen it in a proper theater (with super-sharp Imax projection to boot). Will audiences shell out money for the same experience, or will they stay home and watch it on HBO Max? As Scarlett Johansson’s recent lawsuit against Disney in the wake of “Black Widow’s” day-and-date release strategy and disappointing theatrical performance shows, the effects of the pandemic on the economics of the movie industry are significant — and likely to reverberate for years to come.
I find myself of two minds on a lot of these issues: Most of the time I wouldn’t mind seeing most new superhero movies crash and burn at the box office, if only so the studios might be persuaded to invest their time, talent and resources in, y’know, different kinds of movies for a change. But then, when a movie like “The Suicide Squad” comes along — a rare comic-book adaptation that possesses an actual, tangible directorial sensibility — well, it’s hard not to root for it, or at least hope it fares better than most, for all the reasons Sonaiya noted. If we must have superhero and supervillain blockbusters, surely they should be as smartly written and directed as possible. (And more of them, I agree, should star Kinnaman, whose role as the Suicide Squad’s leader and conscience is one of the movie’s bright spots.)
These days, of course, it’s hard not to cheer when any movie draws people to theaters — though, of course, it’s also hard not to shudder at the thought of the coronavirus spreading through packed houses. A lot of us would quite literally breathe easier if theaters began requiring all patrons to show proof of vaccination — a proposal that the LA City Council is weighing as we speak.
Whatever gets decided on that front, I will tip my hat to “The Suicide Squad” for doing something unexpected and almost certainly unintended: turning one of the movie’s climactic sequences into a metaphor for the importance of mask wearing. Surely I’m not the only one who saw all those parasitic little starfish minions attaching themselves to any exposed human hosts, sparing only those who were quick enough to cover their faces — and thought immediately of the pandemic. Yes, I know the movie finished shooting before all COVID hell broke loose; I’m reading too much into this, which is of course part of my job. But since Gunn’s Twitter downfall was spearheaded by the kinds of folks who now vehemently object to masks and vaccines, there’s a certain satisfaction in imagining that he might be thumbing his nose at them.
BROWN: One of the things Gunn said that resonated with me the most when I spoke to him about “The Suicide Squad” is how “taking crappy Z-grade supervillains and giving them meaning and depth means that we all have meaning and depth. If they can have that, then maybe ... we all have that sort of humanity and depth to each of us.”
So as much as I also find some satisfaction in imagining Gunn taking jabs at the types of people who went out of their way to target him, I think the message I walked away with is this reminder about how complicated humanity is. Something to grapple with at a time where we have a tendency to flatten people and ideas into absolutes, especially if we disagree with them. (Though, to be clear, sometimes things are actually black-and-white — just wear your masks, people.)
What I hope DC and Marvel take from “The Suicide Squad” is a reminder that comic books aren’t a genre, they’re a medium to tell stories. There isn’t one formula for comic books, or even superhero comic books, so it doesn’t make sense to try to find one type of mold for all superhero comic-book movies. That’s why “The Suicide Squad” and “Joker” and “Birds of Prey” are exciting. More movies with filmmakers getting to present their sensibilities and points of view, please.
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