Home MoreComics What More Comic-Book Movies Can Learn From James Gunn & ‘The Suicide Squad’

What More Comic-Book Movies Can Learn From James Gunn & ‘The Suicide Squad’

by Andrew J. Salazar
An original graphic of director James Gunn with the main cast of THE SUICIDE SQUAD including Harley Quinn, Ratcatcher II, Bloodsport, King Shark, and Polka-Dot Man.
Spoilers for The Suicide Squad follow!

The Suicide Squad has already received some of the most widespread praise for a DC film, the first overwhelmingly positive response in what feels like a long time. This kind of acceptance and acclaim felt across the board, from casual to dedicated fans alike, signals something even more special. Not to be extreme, but this feels like a real modern classic, not the kind that dominates the cultural sphere for a few weeks only to be forgotten when the next “big thing” arrives – The Suicide Squad feels like it’s earned its righteous place in the pantheon of comic-book all-timers. This shouldn’t be all too surprising as writer-director James Gunn has already earned his place among the greats and continues to prove why he’s there.

So with the arrival of yet another Gunn masterwork, it’s time for a much-needed assertation. James Gunn has used a fine-tuned style as the driving force behind his storytelling for years, but he obviously isn’t the only great filmmaker to prove this with comic-book properties. That said, Gunn’s films just hit differently. Practically everything about Gunn’s methods has already been dissected, from his perfectly messy family dynamics to the way he incorporates needle drops. Though above all, there is one specific trait seen in his two Guardians of the Galaxy films, and now The Suicide Squad, that more of these projects can learn from. Despite whatever unique vision is behind the film, I think we can all agree that more comic-book films should fully commit to their unique, absurd premises and never look back. 

What does this mean exactly? In the case of The Suicide Squad, many have described it as an actual comic-book come to life on-screen in the purest form. Yes, bright colors and flashy title sequences contribute to this feel, but it’s deeper than that. James Gunn fully commits to the concept behind the titular team, relishing in the cartoon-like chaos of it all while always treating his main leads like honest-to-God human beings. The film isn’t embarrassed to feature a character named Polka-Dot Man, no less building a pitiful tragedy out of him. It’s in the same way that Ratcatcher II, a role adapted from a low-tier, somewhat laughable Batman villain, has won the hearts of fans everywhere by strengthening the film’s emotional core. 

Daniela Melchior as Ratcatcher II recalls her memories of being trained to control rats by her father as seen in THE SUICIDE SQUAD directed by James Gunn.
Daniela Melchior as Ratcatcher II in ‘The Suicide Squad’

Besides never taking any of his absurd misfits for granted, Gunn fulfills the promise of a Suicide Squad adaptation by killing off more than half of the cast, starting less than 10 minutes in and continuing up until the very end. His vision is admittedly a bit unhinged, but when we’re currently getting close to a dozen comic-book projects a year – unhinged can be good. By fulfilling the film’s title and core concept from the get-go, Gunn is allowed to travel much further, and so he does by including DC Comics heavy-hitter Starro the Conqueror. No one could have ever guessed that we would get Starro in a live-action Suicide Squad film rather than a Justice League one, but Gunn gives himself that leeway by, once again, fully committing to the core premise at hand early on and never looking back. Gunn takes risks and they never come off as regrets, thus making his form confident and bold. Regardless if it doesn’t all work for you, it’s hard not to admit that it’s all totally in his rhythm.

So how does this apply to the rest of the current comic-book movie landscape? The truth is that this trait can’t apply to every single project in the works, as directorial visions of course vary. Although, now more than ever, we’re seeing studios take a chance on more obscure and fantastical titles. Partially because the more popular and safer choices (your Batmans and Spider-Mans) already got their turn, it’s no question that these studios are also starting to see more profit within the unknown. James Gunn making household names out of Rocket Raccoon and Groot is a prime example. The Suicide Squad were in a similar position prior, and it wasn’t a smooth ride getting here (more on this soon) but the instant popularity of Polka-Dot Man and Ratcatcher II speaks for itself. 

This same kind of fame has reached characters like Ant-Man and Shazam in recent years, thanks to their respective films. However, these exact examples are where we can start to see our crucial lesson from The Suicide Squad applied. Similar to the guy who literally throws polka-dots or the woman who controls rats, the ideas behind characters like Ant-Man or Shazam initially seem beyond silly. Fans, on the other hand, know of their true on-screen capabilities. The Ant-Man films and Shazam! may give their title characters some justice by taking them seriously, giving actors like Paul Rudd enough room to form relatable and likable leads, yet this only gets halfway to peak success. Many fans will agree, it feels like these movies barely reach the full potential behind their core premises. 

A better way to say it: Ant-Man and Wasp share their first-ever film together and the lead up to the climactic finale is another downtown SUV car chase? The epic showdown between Shazam and one of his arch-foes is just another dimly lit, Dragon Ball-like fight across some skyscrapers? You can probably make a few counterarguments, but the point is: you finally bring these characters to life on the big screen and decided to settle for something we’ve already seen before. Both of the movies mentioned here are good, but they could have been better. When you think about these films, the moments that instantly come to mind are those that do utilize their unique perks. Such as whenever Ant-Man gets to actually interact with ants or when Shazam gets to explore magic (those Crocodile-Men playing poker are unforgettable).

David Dastmalchian as Polka-Dot Man unleashes lethal and colorful polka-dots from his wrist as seen in THE SUICIDE SQUAD directed by James Gunn.
David Dastmalchian as Polka-Dot Man in ‘The Suicide Squad’

And this lack of conceptual commitment extends to far more examples. 2016’s Doctor Strange was lacking in the well, strange department; some of the film’s trippy set pieces aren’t enough to make up for the lack of varied magic. What was just touted as a grounded, Bourne-esque spy-thriller, Black Widow was the third time a Marvel film ended with something huge falling from the sky. To make this not just about Marvel and to counter the potential “The Suicide Squad is a far more radical concept than anything you’ve mentioned,” 2016’s Suicide Squad ends with another end-of-the-world blue beam to the sky while the team fights an army of faceless CG drones. Regardless of whether the idea is big or small, studios have a knack for resorting to what’s already familiar.

It’s quite ironic since many of these title characters are anything but familiar. Maybe it’s because these studios want to play it a bit safer with these projects, resorting to some kind of creative interference. Using Ant-Man as an example is no coincidence here, given Edgar Wright’s original departure. In a drastic change of pace, Warner Brothers let James Gunn do whatever the hell he wanted with The Suicide Squad. And on his agenda was going for broke with commitment to the source material, specifically, Jon Ostrander’s original comic run from the late 80s. Aside from featuring key characters, Gunn’s script borrows notable locations and themes from Ostrander’s run. You could say that Gunn had some of his work already cut out, but so does almost everyone else adapting from comic-books. No matter the title, comic-book pages boast endless possibilities and somehow we’re still regulated to the same cinematic standards, holding back fantastical characters from their own far-out nature.

As seen with most prolific outliers, the utmost creative freedom will naturally lead to some division – which is perfectly fine since one precise direction is bound not to click with everyone. But as we’re now seeing with The Suicide Squad, the positive response is as strong as it can be. Even in the case where the film does have minor repetition from the genre, ending in another CG-heavy fight in the middle of city rubble, it’s easily forgiven due to it still being unlike anything previously conceived. I mean, where else have you seen thousands of rats eating a giant starfish’s eye from the inside out?

Starro the Conqueror takes control over an army of dead soldiers with miniature starro clones on their faces as seen in THE SUICIDE SQUAD directed by James Gunn.
Starro’s Army Rises in ‘The Suicide Squad’

Make no mistake, the lesson isn’t to replicate James Gunn. That was arguably what Warner Bros. tried to do when butchering the first Suicide Squad. The key is to commit all the way to whatever idea you’re trying to visualize. We’re lucky enough that characters like Ant-Man and Shazam are getting treated seriously by the masses, though you still can’t help but feel like we actually haven’t gotten the most out of a cinematic experience with them – despite some already having sequels. Yet we feel the exact opposite with just one feature with Gunn’s oddballs in Task Force X.

There’s frankly way too much gold waiting to be adapted from the comic page for us to be getting more generic SUV car chases or highway shootouts (an SUV funny enough just made it onto the Shang-Chi poster). The majority of modern comic-book films are already translating bizarre premises with enough respect to the screen, they just need to take those extra steps and completely delve themselves into everything taboo about them. They shouldn’t be embarrassed to go weirder or possibly even alienate audiences – more range can never be a bad thing, especially now. Only then will you got movie magic on the level of the “Suicide Squad vs. Starro the Conqueror.”

The Suicide Squad is now in theaters and on HBO Max

Read our exclusive interview with King Shark actor Steve Agee!

Follow Managing Editor Andrew J. Salazar on Twitter: @AndrewJ626

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