In a time when comic-book adaptations are getting churned out in a never-ending flow, often delivering the bare minimum at the cost of franchise fulfillment, the outliers that do rise above the crop are coming at a lesser pace. Comic-book properties are very much of the moment, dominating the cultural zeitgeist for as much time as they’re allowed before the next “big thing” arrives. For as entertaining as 2021 has been for comic fans, it’s hard to not admit how painfully episodic it’s recently felt. Sure, you’re talking about this movie or show one week, but it finds no trouble in leaving your mind the next. More and more adaptations try to stay relevant mainly by the role they serve in a greater universe – not by their own attributes. Enter The Suicide Squad: a glorious, unapologetic wake-up call to the comic-book standard.
The DC franchise, in particular, has seen a drastic pivot with their films, opting for a less connected approach than the competition. It’s in this individualized space where director/writer James Gunn excels. There’s no debate on the fact that Gunn has created some of the most inspired corners of the MCU, so there’s no surprise that he’s found success yet again. However, The Suicide Squad is unlike anything seen from both Marvel and DC thus far, yes even including his beloved Guardians of the Galaxy. The film is occasionally almost unbelievable to take in at first; this might seem silly to say but when creative freedom is often the killing blow with blockbusters, The Suicide Squad is the new quintessential case of “Wow, they actually let this filmmaker do whatever the f*ck they wanted, huh?”
Now, Gunn’s two Marvel films shine the brightest because they absolutely reflect the voice of the artist behind the camera through and through. Still, the man himself has been vocal about the few limitations he has faced in the MCU (moreso with his first film). When taking into context how Gunn even found himself at DC and how The Suicide Squad has been his passion project for the last few years, it really feels like he’s put all of his energy into creating the most unabashed comic-book film to date, in what was a unique time in his life, to say the least. And it was clearly time well spent, for Gunn truly doesn’t hold back on going to places that were previously off-limits, all the while continuing to build his unique directorial stamp. The film is never on autopilot nor is it ever out of his creative grasp.
It’s this kind of controlled chaos that goes hand in hand perfectly with the DC source material. Unlike Guardians where Gunn played more loosely with adapting what were then C-list characters, here he acts more faithful to John Ostrander’s ‘Suicide Squad’ comic run of the late 80s. He honors Ostrander and takes the concept of Task Force X to the fullest, once again showcasing the unlimited potential of visualizing the most bizarre and outlandish comic-book fiends. Amanda Waller, graciously reprised by Viola Davis, has another dirty mission on her desk. A team is to be sent into the exotic island of Corto Maltese to retrieve consequential data on the mysterious project “starfish.” With the island nation in the middle of a civil war, this black ops task requires special talents. What does Waller have to work with though? A lady who can control rats, a dumb walking shark, a few dudes who are really good with guns, and the one and only Harley Quinn among others. Oh, and you can’t leave out the guy who literally throws polka dots!
Thanks to a cast beyond comparison, this group of deviants are your new soon-to-be DC favorites. It’s quite hard to choose standouts, for each person in the main crew nails what’s required of their very precise roles and then some. No one feels like they’re given the short end of the stick; they each come across as wholly realized with their own set of perks and downfalls within this growing world. Although it’s through their piteous flaws where they really start to leave a deeper impression than, “Ha, big shark man funny.” Their shared chemistry may bolster their comedic muscles, but this group is more than just a humorous bunch of oddballs. Gunn stays true in his writing and maintains that these characters are, indeed, “villains” at the end of the day – yet each is stuck in their own quest for purpose, mainly at the hands of Amanda Waller.
It’s honestly hard to choose a standout, but what isn’t is giving everyone the praise they deserve. Margot Robbie has owned the Harley Quinn role from the very beginning, and fans will be very pleased to see that she has way more tricks and shades to the character up her sleeves. Idris Elba is a bonafide movie star, though he is often utilized more for just his sole star power – not here. It’s great to see him commit to the absurdity of it all and still bring rich pathos. Meanwhile, John Cena is quick to prove that he’s more of a dynamic actor than some give him credit for. David Dastmalchian is no stranger to comic-book media, and getting to see him carry the torch next to these heavy hitters is enough to make any fan who’s witnessed his rise to fame get choked up. Same goes for Portuguese actress Daniela Melchior, who makes her Hollywood break. Melchior provides much of the film’s unconventional heart with enough chaotic charm to make you completely in awe of her and her rat sidekicks.
One of Gunn’s more strategic choices, the film only works so well because of its antagonistic force. As hinted earlier, there is a classic DC villain brought to life in all of its glory – and the appearance doesn’t disappoint one bit (Gunn plays with the icon in ways shockingly reminiscent of 2006’s Slither). Even with the inclusion of this DC superstar, the root of all wickedness always goes back to Amanda Waller. This allows Davis to rightfully command the screen as the cold-blooded mastermind Waller is meant to be, rectifying how she was used in the first film. Her devilish role also adds genuine suspense to the main narrative, going as far as to make way for some unexpected, but definitely earned political commentary. Far from shallow, The Suicide Squad reaches the high stakes of a political action-thriller earnestly, just as reflected in Ostrander’s original comics.
If there’s anything holding this back, it could be the argument that it’s perhaps a little too self-indulgent. The R-rated humor can reach certain levels of immaturity, often accompanied by extravagant levels of gore. The plot may seem like it gets sidetracked here and there, making the runtime feel slightly longer than what it really is, also taking into consideration that sh*t gets going right from the opening credits. Gunn goes balls to the wall with his creative liberties, even implementing traditional 2D animation at one point. When taking it all in, and it sure is a lot, you can’t help but to be forgiving for any faint shortcomings. You wish more blockbusters, let alone comic-book ones, would be as daring and freewheeling. When it feels like an actual comic-book splashed on the screen, not ever once obnoxiously thanks to cinematographer Henry Braham, you won’t think twice about getting lost in all the colorful insanity.
James Gunn’s miracle of a blockbuster, The Suicide Squad is an undeniable milestone, not just for DC films but for big-budget entertainment in its current state. As far as the DC franchise goes, you could say that it already surpassed an achievement this year with the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League. That’s correct, except that here it didn’t take a once in a lifetime fan campaign to fight for the filmmaker’s raw take – the studio is delivering that on all fronts from the get-go. And if it’s any indicator of what’s to come, then DC just might be on the verge of edging out the competition by putting as much support behind such bold, unafraid visions. The Suicide Squad is a much-needed reminder that comic-book adaptations can and will go above and beyond the norm, never ashamed of what it is and never settling for less. Packed to the brim with heart and gusto, this won’t be leaving your conscious any time soon as it sets a new bar for what should be expected from these types of projects. The rare kind of moviegoing experience that will make you fully captivated by a talking shark and army of rats.
★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2