Sure, I could’ve been a better blogger and rushed to type my thoughts after being flabbergasted (at IMAX size, no less) by James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad while it was still cool on opening weekend and before everyone decided it was “over” because it didn’t make $400 million at the box office, as if the HBO Max day-and-date release was never a mitigating factor. What else is there to say about a film so nakedly audacious about its primary objectives, so cocky about its body count in all the trailers and interviews, and so thorough in exceeding its dark-humored, extreme expectations? Besides adding that, yes, I too said “wow” and “YUCK” more times than I could count?
For anyone who skipped its predecessor (winner of two Academy Awards!), its sequel’s connections are few, tenuous, and swiftly recapped because they barely need any introduction. Viola Davis returns as Amanda Waller, the corrupt edgelady official in charge of the Task Force X project that recruits supervillains for nasty shadow-ops in exchange for years off their prison sentences, assuming they survive the experience. Also playing the encore are Joel Kinnaman as her non-villainous mission commander Rick Flag; Margot Robbie outdoing herself yet again as a fantastic Harley Quinn, whose astronomical merchandising sales guarantee she’ll make it to the end; and former star Jai Courtney as hearty disgrace Captain Boomerang. We’re free to assume all the other SS1 veterans were later hunted and killed offscreen, including hopefully Jared Leto’s Joker.
Those returnees are among a double-sized cast flown to the island nation of Corto Maltese, an Easter-egg name for Dark Knight Returns fans and even more so for European comics fans who recognized its reference the first time Frank Miller cribbed it. As nations subsisting on under-the-table American funding are wont to do, Corto Maltese has had a sudden, bloody regime change of which its enablers (i.e., our own officials) do not approve, particularly since it gave their new dictator control of some top-secret project in a foreboding tower that appears to be the only Corto Maltesian building over three stories tall, because of course zoning codes in all countries south of Mexico are extremely strict on building heights. Our Villains’ mission, should they choose to accept it rather than risk Waller killing them in their sleep: get in, get secrets, get out. What could possibly go wrong? Other than someone stupidly triggering full-scale slaughter merely by turning to the camera and asking, “What could possibly go wrong?”
And what a party it is! Familiar faces are everywhere as we once again cry, Hey, look, it’s that one actor!:
- The Idris Elba from The Wire as post-Crisis Superman nemesis Bloodsport, an assassin with all the weapons he can carry plus sixty pounds over, thanks to special tech.
- Wrestling’s own John Cena (Bumblebee) as Peacemaker, an old Charlton Comics has-been who will butcher anyone and everyone in the name of American values, though the film left out the part where sometimes he hears his special helmet talking to him.
- David Dastmalchian (Ant-Man, The Flash, The Dark Knight) as the Polka-Dot Man, a Silver Age novelty criminal with super polka-dot powers who’s now an insane mama’s-boy.
- The voice of Sylvester Stallone as King Shark, a superior take to the less funny version used on The Flash, though arguably just as comics-inaccurate as theirs, because not once does he sing his R-rated theme song.
- Michael Rooker as Savant, some Birds of Prey villain I don’t know, who’s just DC’s Bullseye here.
- Fellow Guardians of the Galaxy alum Sean Gunn as the Weasel, a third-rate Firestorm villain who was a knockoff of an OG Firestorm villain called the Hyena.
- SNL’s Pete Davidson as a Blue Devil baddie called Blackguard, probably the first Blue Devil baddie ever adapted to a screen.
- TV’s Nathan Fillion as a guy with detachable arms loosely based on a Legion of Super-Heroes reject named Arm-Fall-Off-Boy (last seen in Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen).
Among the actors playing protagonists that were new to me, MVP by far — both in plot focus and in performance — was Daniela Melchior (making her English-language feature debut) as Ratcatcher II, who’s basically Marvel’s Squirrel Girl but with rats. My son also recognized YouTube’s Flula Borg as Javelin, a D-lister from Green Lantern’s early-’80s doldrums. And so as not to rudely leave any Squaddies out, Mayling Ng (a spare Amazon in Wonder Woman) is Mongal, daughter of the alien warlord and heavyweight Super-foe Mongul, who’s one bucking helicopter ride away from nonentity status.
It’s a slightly smaller team than, say, the cast of Endgame, but that is a lot of costumes to sort. Most of them are murderers and/or psychopaths (lowest might be the Weasel, a serial killer of children), but we don’t have to feel conflicted about rooting for them for long because Gunn only restrains himself for about ten minutes before carnage ensues and blood pours over Corto Maltesian soil, actors you won’t miss are eliminated one by one, and offscreen you can imagine Jason, Freddy, and Michael Myers watching on a couch together like, “Wow, this is too much.” The opening scene alone is Saving Private Ryan in microcosm.
In between the bloodlettings are little, heartfelt moments where the audience and the survivors can catch their breath. King Shark finds fellowship in an aquarium. Harley meets a man who satisfies some cravings. Ratcatcher II achingly remembers whatever happened to her dad. Polka-Dot Man saunters dazedly into the land of TMI over his creepy mommy issues. Everyone who lives for more than three minutes has an inner thought life to reveal, a canvas that expands beyond their throwaway intro and the war zone around them. In those quieter scenes we can reflect on how sometimes life can make us feel like we’re all cannon fodder — obstacles to be mowed down by those who hate us, or disposable NPCs to those who don’t know us. Deep down all these felons are just like us, except our sins are hopefully smaller, number fewer, and won’t get us sent into overseas combat.
But mostly it’s all action, action, action. There’s a rollicking scuffle inside a police van in which not too many combatants die, some later throwdowns between teammates after everything go off the rails, and a swift stealth-attack sequence involving a team of relaxed rebels that plays like a parody of the first half-hour of Predator before the alien showed up. (Its concluding punchline is, despite its flagrantly callous disregard for human life, somehow among the funniest awkward bits. And there is much competition for that title.) There’s a frightening Viola Davis at her most deeply enraged since that time she went off on Denzel in Fences. And looming above all is Starro the Conqueror, the enigma inside the looming tower of secrets, best known to comics fans as the very first villain ever to take on the Justice League of America. Gunn and his effects team bring every single aspect of Starro to vivid and accurate life, far more horrifyingly and convincingly than Zack Snyder ever might’ve.
Comics fans can also go wild counting Easter eggs that keep flying at them, though my reaction to those isn’t as giddily Pavlovian as it used to be. (I mean, they’re fine if I recognize them, but I stopped awarding bonus points for them years ago.) Choice lines of dialogue and monologue abound, though my favorite satirical line (“Mine’s smaller”) is a bit too downplayed. Fellow fans of the meanly maligned Birds of Prey can appreciate Harley has held on to her flights of impure imagination. Best of all, Idris Elba fans who’ve been yearning to see him front-and-center as a relentless man of action and virtual godhead of willpower, and who still maintain he was robbed in Pacific Rim, absolutely get their wish fulfilled in Bloodsport. He isn’t a good man by his own admission, but he’s a commanding lead among the villains turned antiheroes. Perhaps it helps that he’s no stranger to watching everyone around him die harshly. (Shout-out to my fellow traumatized Luther fans out there.)
The Suicide Squad definitely isn’t for kids or sensitive viewers (my wife, who I can’t even believe came with us, shut her eyes a lot), but given how death has become all but meaningless in superhero comics, it’s a refreshing change of storytelling pace, and a disgustingly candid reminder (yet a fair one) that if superpowers actually existed, heroes and villains would totally die off in much larger and more permanent droves, because they wouldn’t stop throwing themselves recklessly into dire situations. Or stop getting waylaid into said situations by their even more reckless friends.
Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:
Hey, look, it’s also that one actor!: Among those not on the Squad, Peter Capaldi (the 12th Doctor!) is the Thinker, the evildoer in charge of the Starro project and yet another character wildly different from their Flash counterpart. Taika Waititi shows up for childhood flashbacks as the original Ratcatcher.
Alice Braga, who previously survived a high-body-count guilty-pleasure sequel in Predators, is a counterrevolutionary leader who liaises between the Squad and the Corto Maltesians who want the new dictator gone. Joaquín Cosío (Quantum of Solace) is the evil military leader serving as the new evil dictator’s right-hand man.
Storm Reid (A Wrinkle in Time) is Bloodsport’s estranged daughter, who matches his screams epithet for epithet, and whose presence hints that perhaps Will Smith’s Deadshot and his own estranged daughter were planned for this film at first. Old comics fans will smile if they recognize John Ostrander, the writer responsible for the Suicide Squad’s ’80s reinvention on which all of this is based, early in the film as a Belle Reve prison doctor.
In a crowded nightclub scene my son recognized Guardians‘ Pom Klementieff as a partygoer. Not till after the fact did I learn we missed the director’s own mentor and friend Lloyd Kaufman, legendary head of Troma Films. Even more after-the-fact, by which I mean about three minutes ago, I learned one of Starro’s victims was Randy Havens, the awesomely helpful science teacher from Stranger Things who also popped up last week on Stargirl.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there is indeed a scene after The Suicide Squad end credits. For those who tuned out prematurely and really want to know…
[…insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship, though you may have figured it out on your own if you consume too much entertainment news…]
…Peacemaker lives! We’d hoped we were done with him forever after his heel turn, but nope, still breathing. Incredibly, so are Waller’s staffers who betrayed her due to her awfulness. While Peacemaker is laid up in extreme super-ICU, Waller decides death isn’t a fitting punishment for her traitorous crew, even though she once murdered an entire room full of Feds who didn’t do anything to her. No, she’s decided ’tis a far worse fate to have to work closely with Peacemaker. She might not be wrong. Find out on his very own spinoff series coming soon to HBO Max, which our household doesn’t have!