Back in the Summer of 2014, Marvel Studios was riding high on a string of hits based on their comic properties, and was poised to release the first film in their quasi-franchise that was considered a bit of a risk. Guardians of the Galaxy seemed like it would be heavily disconnected from the rest of the series so far, featured characters that had virtually no mainstream recognition at that point, and looked to be the weirdest story the studio had told yet. It quickly proved all the naysayers wrong, going on to gross nearly $750 million worldwide and earning some of the best reviews of any Marvel movie. I admit that I was unsure of what to think of the film going in, for some of the reasons mentioned above and having only known director James Gunn for his comedic horror work prior to this, but wound up leaving the theater grinning from ear to ear and eager to see it again.
The DC Extended Universe, while financially pretty healthy, has critically been received far worse than the Marvel Connected Universe, and rightfully so. Therefore it wasn’t too surprising that Warner Bros. would want to bring in one their competitor’s more successful directors to take the reins of one of their films. What is surprising, and is perhaps both the best thing and the worst thing about the DCEU, is just how willing they are to let their directors have more or less free reign to do as they please with the property. This keeps them from being able to consistently churn out satisfying stories, but does open the door to the possibility of producing something truly unique in this kind of movie. And as he did with the first Guardians movie, Gunn has again exceeded expectations and done exactly that.
This sequel / reboot to the 2016 film Suicide Squad sees Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) return to assemble a team of criminals for a dangerous mission, to be lead by Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman). This time the titular Suicide Squad is flown to the fictional South American island nation of Corto Maltese, where a tyrannical regime that was non-confrontational with the United States has been overthrown and replaced with another one that takes a very opposite view of that relationship. Waller isn’t asking them to take out the new rulers however, instead asking them to infiltrate a not-so-secret facility in which dangerous scientific research has been going on, under the control of mad-scientist Thinker (Peter Capaldi), and destroy whatever they find. So Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Peacemaker (John Cena), and the rest of their motley crew storm the beach and set about trying to save the world, as ineptly and violently as possible.
This movie is absolutely everything that the original promised to be and then some. It brings back the characters that worked best in the first one (Quinn, Flag, Waller, Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney)), while introducing an amusingly unusual assortment of new ones pulled from the “D-list” of DC comics baddies. While the core idea of the story isn’t anything really new for the genre, the way it is handled is, expertly building on the unique style Gunn has been developing with the Guardians movies. The characters are allowed to be flawed and conflicted in ways that makes them feel more real than the purely “good guys” we typically get. His stupid-but-smart sense of humor is better integrated throughout the whole story and not limited to some randomly inserted quips. In particular, the film’s skewering of unchecked machismo, American exceptionalism, and blind patriotism lend the story a sense of deeper (if fairly unsubtle) meaning and serve to make it more tartly humorous, though the more juvenile jokes peppered throughout certainly elicit their share of laughs.
It could also be the most stylish example of this type of movie ever made. Well shot throughout, with impressive fight choreography which is edited in a way that makes the action clear to follow, something that can unfortunately still be a problem in today’s era of flashy, quick cuts. It’s the different visual flourishes though that really make it a treat to look at. One sequence sees the film’s usual, gleefully over-the-top gore replaced instead with flower petals and cartoon birds (and works far better than that description implies), and even the title cards are integrated into their shots, starting with the standard “Warner Bros. Pictures presents” text spelled out in one character’s blood and leading up to the name of the towering laboratory Jötunheim being spelled out by various rooftop accoutrements that separate as the camera pans up and away from them.
These kind of movies are never going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and the absurdist streak running throughout this one is especially likely to put some people off, but fans of comic book movies and blockbusters will find much to appreciate here. Visually interesting, well written, willing to completely subvert expectations over and over again, consistently funny, perfectly cast, exciting and suspenseful, with just the right amount of horror thrown in and a surprisingly effective amount of genuine heart (in both the literal and figurative sense), it’s the rare complete success in a Summer of otherwise mediocre big-budget fare. One of the best of its kind ever made, and I can’t wait to watch it again. ★★★★★
Available in theaters. Coming soon on DVD.
Rated R for strong violence and gore, language throughout, some sexual references, drug use, and brief graphic nudity.
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor