Typographically speaking, only three additional letters separate James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad from the David Ayer-directed Suicide Squad that limped out five years ago. You’d want the whole alphabet, though, to explain how different the new film is from the previous one, not to mention how much more satisfying. But when you boil things down, the biggest departure can be summed up in a sentence, and a pretty simple one at that. Whichever way you slice it, this Squad (aka Task Force X) is fun to hang out with.
You don’t need a brain as big as the one Peter Capaldi’s Thinker has beneath his electrode-implanted chrome dome to spot the secret sauce in Gunn’s recipe. It’s the same one he used in Guardians of the Galaxy to endear us to the likes of Star-Lord, Groot and Gamora, and before that to Rainn Wilson’s Crimson Bolt and Elliot Page’s Libby in 2010’s Super. Strip away the special abilities from his films’ characters and you have mismatched, sparring co-workers, doing the best they can and just trying to get along. It’s a trick the original Squad mystifyingly missed out on, Ayer’s film being hamstrung from the off by the difficulty of reconciling its group dynamics with Will Smith’s star persona.
It’s not a problem Gunn’s has to face, even with Margot Robbie reprising the scene-stealing Harley Quinn role she originated in Suicide Squad and returned to subsequently in 2020’s Birds of Prey. As distinct as Idris Elba’s sharp-shooter Bloodsport may be from John Cena’s patriotic blowhard Peacemaker, and as outlandishly other as Sylvester Stallone might be as the voice of walking CG shark Nanaue, this team of imprisoned outcasts – reassembled by Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller to take down a former Nazi stronghold – is always greater than the sum of its eye-catching parts.
The flipside to this is that no individual character is integral to the film or the mission’s success, however much the audience may take them to its heart. There are times in fact when The Suicide Squad shares common ground with The Expendables, most notably in a hilarious opening salvo in which an alternative unit of super-criminals on day release from Louisiana’s Belle Reve prison, headed by Gunn regular Michael Rooker as the bird-hating Savant, discover precisely how subordinate they are to the director’s grand design.
Stylistically, too, The Suicide Squad is worlds apart from its The-less predecessor. While Ayer’s pic unfolded at night against an anonymous urban backdrop, Gunn’s unfurls in broad daylight amid lushly verdant greenery: an advantageous by-product to choosing a fictional island nation (Corto Maltese) off the coast of South America as your primary port of call.
The 2016 Squad also suffered from being beholden to the bleakly sepulchral aesthetics of Zack Snyder’s DC offerings. Its 2021 counterpart has no such obligations, opting instead to turn its spectacular action beats into orgiastic riots of color. (Witness the scene in which Robbie’s red-gowned Quinn makes her escape from Corto Maltese’s presidential palace, her every kill instigating an eruption of psychedelic blossoms.)
From a deadly raid on an unsuspecting camp of soldiers to the climactic all-out assault, there’s rarely a shortage of blood-drenched carnage. Yet the moments when The Suicide Squad truly shines are the ones where they and we can enjoy each other’s company: the scene where Elba explains his antipathy towards rodents to Daniela Melchior’s Pied Piper-like Ratcatcher II, for example, or another in which the crew take some R&R in a Corto Maltesian tavern. (“Here’s to being alive in three hours!”)
It’s interludes like this where we learn what makes Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) tick; there’s even a chance for Cena’s silver-helmeted ass-hat to let off some steam. As for ‘King Shark’ Nanaue, there’s no scene more delightful than the one where he stumbles upon an aquarium inhabited by motion-replicating sea creatures. (With friends like these, you can sense him ponder, who needs anemones?)
If there’s a cavil to be raised, it’s the way the story’s endgame invests in a frankly needless contretemps between one character wanting to broadcast the villains’ nefarious deeds to the world and another insisting they remain hush-hush. (We could really do without these petty ideological squabblings, especially given how better such matters were handled in Captain America: Civil War.)
Fortunately, though, the arrival of (we’re still not saying) knocks all that nonsense into touch, delivering a finale of city-levelling proportions that also manages to pay affectionate homage to Alien’s face-hugging xenomorphs. Before the credits scroll, meanwhile, we get a couple of late-breaking surprises – as clear a signal as any that this won’t be Gunn’s only contribution to a DCEU that’s fast becoming a fun place to hang out in as well.
The Suicide Squad is out in UK cinemas from July 30, and in US theaters and on HBO Max from August 5. For more, check out how to watch the DC movies in order.