GamesRadar+ and Total Film are celebrating the biggest new releases as we head back to the cinema! This week: The Suicide Squad. The supervillains have been dispatched on another off-the-books mission, but this time they've brought a "douchey Captain America", a talking shark, and the director of Guardians of the Galaxy. We meet the cast and crew behind the explosive new movie. This article first appeared in print – buy the magazine here.
In hindsight, Amanda Waller should have had James Gunn’s number on speed dial from day one.
After all, any government official responsible for sending groups of supervillains on secret missions is going to appreciate a few pointers from the director of Marvel’s Guardians Of The Galaxy movies – when it comes to moulding groups of comic-book A-holes into unlikely heroes, nobody does it better than Gunn.
Which is why, for the Suicide Squad’s second big-screen outing, DC Comics and Warner Bros gave Gunn a call. The resulting follow-up promises to be very different to David Ayer’s 2016 movie, as the incoming writer/director throws his trademark brand of humour and appreciation for C-list comic-book characters into the mix – along with a walking, talking shark who sounds like Sylvester Stallone.
Once again, the most-wanted inmates of Belle Reve prison will be sent on a one-way, off-the-books mission – in this case to the fictional South American dictatorship of Corto Maltese – but this time it’ll have the feel of a 1970s war movie. And while some members of the new-look Task Force X, such as Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, look rather familiar, many of the newcomers would only be picked from a police line-up by someone who’d chosen DC comics as their specialist subject on Mastermind. In other words, don’t call this follow-up – known simply as The Suicide Squad – a reboot or a sequel. According to the team, it’s very much its own thing.
“This is the Suicide Squad through the vision of James Gunn,” producer Peter Safran tells Total Film. “It’s very much The Dirty Dozen meets Guardians Of The Galaxy. The reason that the studio was so keen to do this with James is to get that great thing he brings to the table – the comedy, the heart, the action, the look... He had a very specific vision for the film, which he pitched from day one as a 1970s war caper movie.”
“I love The Dirty Dozen, I always have,” Gunn adds. “I’ve always loved tales of redemption of bad characters who become good, or find some hint of goodness in themselves. I loved [writer] John Ostrander’s original run on Suicide Squad [comics in the 1980s]. The basic elements of that squad were what excited me, that it was a group of B-rate supervillains who were used as human fodder in black-ops missions by the US government. The idea of putting these sad-sack supervillain soldiers in this huge war film was exciting to me.”
Back in 2017 you’d have been given extremely high odds on James Gunn making a Suicide Squad film. Although Ayer’s movie performed well at the box office, the reviews were decidedly mixed. Gunn, meanwhile, was hot property at Marvel, having turned Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket and Groot into unlikely household names in two Guardians movies.
Then, in July 2018, everything changed, as controversial tweets from Gunn – some of them dating back to 2009 and 2021 – came to light. Disney acted swiftly, removing Gunn from Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3.
Warner Bros, however, sensed an opportunity, and moved to bring one of the biggest talents in comic-book movies into their fold. (Gunn’s since been reinstated on Guardians 3 – in fact, he starts our conversation by revealing he’s just completed his latest draft of the script.)
“Warner came a-calling pretty immediately upon the news,” Gunn recalls. “I think everything kind of went down [with Disney] on like a Friday, and I think by Monday, Warners were trying to get a hold of me to talk to me about Superman and a bunch of other stuff. But it took me a little while to decide what I was going to do – I really just needed to take care of myself from an emotional and spiritual place.
“Before agreeing to anything, I took the three ideas that excited me the most,” he continues. “Two were actually DC projects, and then the other one was an original idea. For about a month, every other day I worked on one of those projects, trying to see where the ideas would go. The Suicide Squad really did seem the thing that excited me the most. That’s when I went and told DC – because they’d offered me basically anything [I wanted to make] – that the one I wanted to do was The Suicide Squad.”
Crucially for Gunn, Warner and DC were prepared to give him the freedom to tell the story he wanted to tell – whether it involved killing off big-name characters, or introducing giant starfish antagonists from outer space.
“They said I could keep [all the characters] or do away with them all,” he recalls. “I could do a completely new squad – which I considered – and they said, ‘You can kill anyone.’ Warner were pretty much on board [with the story] from the beginning – it was pretty much firmly in place from the inception of me taking on the project. They were very trusting of me throughout the entire process, almost to the degree to which I was frightened, because it really is all me, 100 per cent – there’s no one to blame if something goes wrong, except for myself!”
Gunn may be the point man on the movie, but he didn’t see any need to hold back on the scale of the production. Total Film actually visited the The Suicide Squad’s Atlanta set back in 2019, but what we saw is so tightly under wraps that we can’t talk about it – yet. As soon as our files are declassified, we’ll tell you more, but it’s no secret that the sets are big – really big.
“I wanted to have that feeling of those 1960s war caper films, so I wanted these big sets,” Gunn explains. “I always end up spending money on CG sets when I could have built sets and saved money, so I was like, ‘Let’s just build the biggest sets Warner Bros has ever had!’ I just liked the practical feel. There’s always this tendency on modern movies to go, ‘Oh, let’s just do it CG when King Shark rips the man in half.’ I’m like, ‘No, it doesn’t need to be a 100 per cent CG shot, let’s rip a real guy...’” Gunn laughs and corrects himself. “‘Let’s rip a mannequin in half with blood and guts going out of him, and then we’ll put the shark in.’ Which is what we did. It makes for a much more magical experience for an audience member.”
“It’s huge!” adds Peter Capaldi, the former Doctor Who star who’s traded in his Tardis for a trip to Corto Maltese as new recruit Thinker. “I didn’t know Atlanta or Georgia, and everyone said, ‘We’re going to the beach this afternoon.’ I thought, ‘That sounds like a lovely kind of Hollywood-type lifestyle. You work in the morning and you go off to the beach.’ Then I realised there isn’t really a beach in Atlanta, because it doesn’t have a coastal element. The next day they said to me they went to the beach, because they’d built a beach for the film. It was in the studio, a gigantic beach that worked, with waves and stuff!”
Task Force X-tra
Although everyone involved is keen to stress that The Suicide Squad is its own thing, there are some shared threads with its 2016 predecessor. Gunn believes “there’s nothing really in there that contradicts David’s movie,” and he’s brought back several members of the original team.
“I think the original film did some amazing casting on those characters, in particular the ones I used,” he says. “I changed what I wanted to and kind of didn’t fix what wasn’t broken.” That means returns for Jai Courtney as Captain Boomerang, Viola Davis as Amanda Waller, and Joel Kinnaman as Rick Flag, along with Robbie’s Harley Quinn – the breakout star of the first Suicide Squad, who’s since gone on to headline the spectacularly titled Birds Of Prey: And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn.
These days, of course, she’s moved on from her relationship with the Clown Prince of Crime – her famous “property of Joker” tattoo now says “property of no one” – but in most other regards, it’s the Harley you know and love.
“One of the first things I said to James was, I think Harley is a catalyst of chaos,” explains Robbie. “She’s not necessarily your narrative centre, and sometimes it’s great when plot points can rest on other characters’ shoulders, and she can be the thing that erupts a whole sequence of events. That’s something I felt he agreed with, based on what I was reading in the script.”
Different directors bring out different things in Harley, it seems. “[In terms of] how she’s changed, it’s just always interesting to explore what characteristics different directors gravitate towards from the character,” says Robbie, “The common denominator is the source material, which is what I always built the character off anyway. Then she evolves in different ways under different people’s direction.”
But you don’t hire Gunn to make a superhero movie and then expect him to populate it solely with the A-list likes of Harley Quinn. In comic-book terms, he’s the ultimate talent scout, like the A&R guy who spots a band playing at a pub gig, and turns them into superstars.
“We knew James wanted to mix humans who have special characteristics with some aliens and animals,” says Charles Roven, a long-standing producer of DC properties who first worked with Gunn on the two early-’00s Scooby-Doo movies. “It was nice to see that he would pull things from the canon but use them in a different way than one might expect. They weren’t necessarily the most popular ones.”
While hardcore comic-book fans and viewers of TV’s Arrowverse and Batman cartoons might be familiar with names like Polka-Dot Man (yes, he’s a genuine character, played in the movie by Ant-Man’s David Dastmalchian) and Thinker, other names like Blackguard (Pete Davidson), Javelin (Flula Borg), Mongal (Mayling Ng) and Savant (Gunn regular Michael Rooker) could require a quick browse on Wikipedia. And then there’s Peacemaker, whose contradictory MO – fighting for peace, however many people he has to kill to get it – seems set to turn him into a fan favorite.
“At core, this guy is just really, really ignorant to the ways of the world,” explains John Cena, the WWE wrestler-turned-movie-star playing Peacemaker. “He has this set of beliefs, but he doesn’t necessarily know how to operate in the construct of society. James would give me a tip like, ‘Just think of a douchey Captain America,’ and I can understand why he’d say that, because [Peacemaker] doesn’t have any concept of the frailty and importance of human life. I started out with more of an elite army Full Metal Jacket sort of directive, where this dude is just ground to such a jagged edge with military discipline, but James was like, ‘No, we’re looking for something else.’ I found him right after that. It was like, ‘OK, I get this guy.’”
Peacemaker’s primary-colored uniform – complete with a chrome helmet that looks like a toilet seat – is a throwback to the character’s 1960s origins. It’s a big contrast with other members of Task Force X, who feel like they’ve come from a vast range of eras – from the modern stylings of Idris Elba’s Bloodsport (an assassin who tried to kill Superman with a kryptonite bullet), to the more comedic aspects of Polka-Dot Man’s spot-covered get-up. If they look like they’ve been lifted from different movies, well, that’s kind of the point.
“One of the things I said very early on is that when we see the main characters coming up onto the beach at the beginning of the movie, they need to each look as if they were each in a different-genre TV series or movie of their own,” Gunn explains. “We’re seeing them together for the first time, and they each have their individual realities that are very different from each other. Peacemaker is like the 1970s Captain America and Ratcatcher 2 is almost from sort of [a] spooky horror film in the way that she looks. We’re trying to make Bloodsport look like a really awesome superhero who’s a bit more down and dirty. Polka-Dot Man is a ridiculous superhero, but he’s also really pathetic, so [it’s like] he is from an Alan Moore comic book. And Harley is from the DCEU, so she is a little bit more like what we’re used to seeing, I think. It was about taking all those different characters and really giving them their own feel, coming together in this sort of clashing of genres.”
Having a uniform for 20 years in WWE, I understand the importance of the look,” adds Cena. “A lot of times in WWE, you step through that curtain and [the audience’s] first impression is how you look, because you don’t necessarily get to talk. I love Peacekeeper’s uniform. It’s bright, its’s loud, everything from the chrome helmet to the sleeveless nature of his costume, which is a rare thing among superheroes. There’s a lot of personality that shows in a look when it’s done correctly. They gave me a lot to work with.”
One of the more radical style choices in the movie belongs to Capaldi’s Thinker, inspired by a DC villain who first appeared in the 1940s. Shorn of his familiar Whovian bouffant, Capaldi’s enlarged bald cranium is covered in electrical circuits and lights as he plays a character who – Safran teases – may be a little more The Thick Of It’s Malcolm Tucker than the Doctor. Capaldi says it was worth the three hours-plus he spent in the make-up chair.
“You just turn around [on set] and you see all these incredible sights, fantastically rendered,” Capaldi enthuses. “You just want to fit into that world, which Thinker does, because he looks so extraordinary. But the thing is, it just doesn’t work without all that stuff. I mean, it’s not one of those things where there’s some Chekhovian subtext that I can play with. You’ve got to be the crazy bald guy with light bulbs on his head. And if your light bulbs don’t work and it all looks a bit tatty, then it ruins it, doesn’t it? This is the kind of job I like, where the make-up does all the work.”
You know that old showbiz cliché about never working with animals? James Gunn clearly never got the memo.
“This is the guy that made you really care about a tree and a talking raccoon,” laughs Safran, “so he’s going to be able to do the same thing with anything else that he sets his mind to!”
In fact, in The Suicide Squad, Gunn is not just dealing with CG animals, because new character Ratcatcher 2 (the daughter of longstanding rodent- wrangling Bat-villain Ratcatcher) shares the screen with real-life rats. “When she’s not taking naps, Ratcatcher 2 has a favourite rat called Sebastian,” says Daniela Melchior, the Portuguese actor making her Hollywood debut in The Suicide Squad. “I had to be comfortable with rats. I had hamsters when I was younger, but I knew these would be totally different. I thought, ‘I have to forget about the tail and it will be like a tiny cat or a tiny dog!’”
But Sebastian isn’t the only member of the animal world on The Suicide Squad roll call, because Weasel (played on set by Gunn’s brother, Sean, who also doubled for Rocket in the Guardians films) and King Shark could be about to join Rocket in the pantheon of animal superstars. While Gunn says he’s had “really good experiences with walking, talking animals in my career,” he admits creating King Shark – a bipedal great white – brought all-new challenges.
“He was actually harder than both Rocket and Groot to develop,” he explains. “Rocket was hard because it’s difficult taking an animal and turning it into a humanoid shape, but it’s five times more difficult to do that with a shark – it was a very, very painstaking process. And from a character standpoint he’s very different from those guys, because at the end of the day, with the Guardians, we know they’re good. That isn’t true of the Suicide Squad. King Shark is a fish and he eats human beings. He doesn’t have such a mammalian love for people. But he wants to belong and he wants to show that he’s smart. And he’s not.”
But despite the talking fish, the guy who uses polka dots as a weapon, and the presence of Starro (the aforementioned giant sentient starfish from another world) Gunn believes the movie’s more blatantly out-there moments are not The Suicide Squad’s biggest gamble. Instead, he reckons that some of the movie’s structural and character elements may be even bolder – a fact seemingly echoed in Melchior’s revelation that her performance as Ratcatcher 2 was “inspired by the New Wave of French cinema, more about truth and simplicity than action and blood and guns and fights and all of that.”
“I think the bigger risks in the movie are not the giant walking starfish, nor the shark,” Gunn says. “A lot of the movie is first and foremost about the characters in a way I don’t think a superhero movie has ever been, and I think the small moments are much more revolutionary than the big, crazy stuff. And we go in and back and in and out of time, so the way we deal with time is very different for a mainstream spectacle film. Dealing with the softer moments, that’s really what the most dangerous aspect of the film is.”
Breaking out of lockdown
Of the dozens of movies jostling for attention once cinemas around the world re-emerge from Covid-19 lockdowns, The Suicide Squad is an anomaly. While most of Hollywood’s release slate has been a moveable feast, with many blockbuster release dates shifting two or three times, The Suicide Squad has stood firm in its early August 2021 slot.
And for Gunn, something positive came out of lockdown, as being trapped at home was the catalyst for writing a Suicide Squad spin-off TV show for HBO Max, centred on John Cena’s Peacemaker. When it comes to lockdown projects, it beats baking banana bread or learning how to play the recorder... “James and Peter Safran approached me and said, ‘We have this idea. We’d like to do a spin-off series about Peacemaker, would you be interested?’” recalls Cena – who, as fate would have it, is in Vancouver shooting the show when we talk. “I said, ‘You guys had me at, “We had this idea...”’ I normally do a lot more due diligence, but James is the one individual that if he says, ‘Hey, I got this idea, I can’t tell you anything about it, but I need a yes or no right now,’ it would always be a yes.’”
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“I was finished with a draft of Guardians 3 and I’m editing [The] Suicide Squad, but that’s starting to slow down,” Gunn explains. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be trapped in here for another year before we start shooting Guardians! What am I going to do?’ So I talked to the folks at HBO about it, and they were like, ‘Hey, if you could do any character at all from Suicide Squad for a movie, who would you do?’ I said it would be Peacemaker, because he’s a pretty rotten piece of shit, and I thought he had more room to grow than some of the other characters. I wrote eight episodes in two months and [the story] hasn’t changed since then. The truth behind it is that I was just so miserable, I was like like, ‘I’m going to be stuck here with my own thoughts unless I do something to get my mind off of it.’”
Who said nothing good could emerge from the worst of the worst?
The Suicide Squad reaches UK cinemas on July 30 and comes to US theaters and HBO Max on August 6. For more, check out all the upcoming superhero movies.