THE SUICIDE SQUAD is written and directed by James Gunn and, in my opinion, is the point where James Gunn reconciled the two halves of his writer/directorial personality. It is his best and most consistently exciting, multi-layered, and brilliantly constructed films that help to raise the bar on superhero films in general, and this statement includes Gunn’s own previous Marvel films, but this is especially for the DCEU. Please put down your rifle, though. I’m not saying that the other films are bad (remember, I include Gunn’s previous films which I really like), but just that this movie is a new high mark. Read further for my explanation as to why.
THE SUICIDE SQUAD stars Margot Robbie (reprising her role once more as Harley Quinn), Idris Elba (Bloodsport), Joel Kinnaman (returning cast member as Colonel Rick Flag), John Cena and his underpants (Peacemaker), Daniela Melchior (Ratcatcher 2), Viola Davis (returning cast member as Amanda Walker) Michael Rooker (Savant), Sean Gunn (Weasel/Calendar Man), David Dastmalchian (Polka Dot Man), Sylvester Stallone (Voice of King Shark), Alice Braga (Sol Soria), Tinashe Kajese (Flo Crawley), Steve Agee (John Economos, On-Set King Shark), Nathan Fillion (T.D.K.), Jai Courtney (Captain Boomerang) and Julio Cesar Ruiz (Milton) to name a few.
Generally, superhero films are looked at as a lesser genre because most of them are about looking cool. As Tony Bourdain observed, “Looking cool is about not really giving a fuck.” Occasionally, you will find raw emotions and vibrant performances in superhero movies, but mostly, it’s about the costumes, the superhuman strength, the fight scenes, the toned bodies, jingoistic Americana, and the toys. THE SUICIDE SQUAD is remarkable because it gives you all of that, but subverts the ideas behind it. While making you laugh, it pokes fun at the idea that costumes and appearances mean that people are good. By murdering a whole lot of people, it shows how stupid the idea of the protagonists rushing in on their superior’s orders to slaughter people that they don’t know and never even tried to understand. It shows the characters as people first, not demi-human supervillains (or anti-heroes).
One of the biggest mistakes that superhero films make is ratcheting up the characters to what is basically an inhuman level. In trying to look as hip as possible, they forget that these are human beings, except for the occasional weasel. They ramp up the shouting and the appearance of only the strongest emotions without letting the small moments of human thought and emotion play out naturally. It lets the characters breathe and occasionally be bored. They don’t trust the audience, so they turn everything up to 11 to make sure that you get it. They aren’t interested in the characters’ humanity, which is what matters most. Even with a character like Superman, who isn’t human but was raised by highly moral human beings, they forget that while he is extraterrestrial in origin, because of his upbringing – aside from the differences in his biological makeup, he is, for all intents and purposes, as human as you or I. His DNA is alien, but his heart is human.
When I say that Gunn has reconciled both halves of his directorial personality, this is what I mean. THE SUICIDE SQUAD is an incredibly entertaining celebration of life and the human spirit that has some of the darkest humor, and the most frightening horror elements that I’ve ever seen in any superhero film. The film is both uplifting, kind, and dark as fuck. Even the choice of the Boss (Starro) in the Final Boss battle is extremely funny because it’s as cute as Hell. But even in its adorable shape and pastel coloring, it’s also terrifying because of what it actually does. The hilarious irony of something that Sanrio would probably love to grab for its stable of loveable characters is deployed in scenes of sickening dread and depersonalization. Gunn’s talent and oeuvre as a writer/director has always been fractured between the two halves. There’s a part of him that believes in the warmest parts of the human condition, loyalty, love, honor, and another part that has a truly transgressive and cynical sense of humor where nothing and no one is safe. That tension between the two halves has brought some really interesting, scary, and funny films to motion pictures. But there was always a piece that wasn’t quite in place. With THE SUICIDE SQUAD, he’s brought a willingness to show the deepest of emotional truths and allow himself to be vulnerable in a way, as an artist, that few are willing to risk in mainstream cinema, especially in superhero films.
One of Gunn’s greatest achievements in THE SUICIDE SQUAD is showing himself to be an actor’s director, who has taken the time to hire the best actors for the roles and that he has a real understanding of the gifts and the craft of each of the actors that he hired. One of the most affecting shots, from one of the many beautiful performances in the film, is of the side of Idris Elba’s face. You’re pretty much just looking at his profile and his beard. His voice never rises above a normal tone, but it says everything. Gunn, as a director and writer, understands the deep well of sorrow within Elba and in the shot, has constructed a moment of poignancy that is breathtaking. Many times people speak of actors who hold back as being more powerful. Most of the time, the actors they refer to aren’t feeling anything, so in reality, they aren’t really holding back. They’re bluffing. Elba at this moment, who is the whole shot, emanates the determination and pain of a man and a father who has been a failure and a villain, but has finally turned a corner.
But there, as I have said, there are many of these performances in the film. A large portion of the main cast has that sadness, but it’s natural and fitting and doesn’t interfere with the action and the humor of the film because it is real and woven so skillfully into the fabric of the story. Daniela Melchior, Margot Robbie, David Daltsmachian, Viola Davis, and yes, even John Cena, obviously have a trust in Gunn that allows them to show this vulnerability to the camera and it only makes us more invested in both the characters and the story. Sean Gunn’s motion-capture performance as The Weasel makes The Weasel a character and not a caricature, and so does Sylvester Stallone/Steve Agee as King Shark. There’s a moment with Polka Dot Man that is hilarious as well as being very moving and surreal that is related to his character arc. It’s just sheer farcical brilliance about parental issues. Even Harley Quinn as played by Margot Robbie is allowed to be softer and more reflective. Rather than being a walking fetish object, she is given time to stretch and give Harley the realization of why history keeps repeating itself in her life. There’s less emphasis on surface cool and more on Harley as an emotionally vulnerable woman who really wants to be loved. That’s really who Harley Quinn is. She’s a stand-in for all the women who get thought of as crazy because they are emotionally available and unwilling to be used. She’s a woman who is touchingly grateful that someone cared enough to try and save her and the exposure of that tenderness isn’t made the butt of a joke and isn’t treated as a character flaw.
I should mention that Gunn has definitely not abandoned his roots in horror, if anything, he’s made a very conventional type of film that has intense scenes of horror and is very much a horror movie at its core. There’s even a reference to the seminal British horror film The Quatermass XPeriment in it. Gunn has also brought together the established ideas of the immensely popular superhero subgenre with the chaotic principles and storytelling of his work in the horror genre. He’s fused them together in a very real way. This is a movie that horror fans and superhero fans will both love. It’s a lot like the leap that Sam Raimi had in the hospital scene with Doc Ock in Spiderman 2. The fact is that he is able to balance all the tones throughout the entire film flawlessly and with gusto which is truly admirable. Superhero movies haven’t been specifically based in horror since Spiderman 2 and The Blade Trilogy.
All film stories are about us. They can be the most fantastical tales in other dimensions or outer space, but what they are really about is the human condition. In THE SUICIDE SQUAD, the themes of the film are ones that everyone can relate to as human beings. That’s what makes it so engrossing and so special. This is another film filled with ideas and observations about humankind. Here are a few:
That it is imperative that children have warm and loving parenting to allow them to grow into adults who can trust and be trusted. That monstrous parents make monstrous children who grow into living time bombs. That the ability to trust is crucial to the ability to love others in all ways. That being around someone who you can trust and who is willing to be vulnerable can make you a better person.
That human beings are stronger when they work together and that we all have something to contribute. Even those who are derided as weaklings or as “damaged goods” have power and worth. Every life is important and every death matters. And that you never know when someone you have contempt for will be the only one who can save you. How important it is to fight for what you feel is right, even if that comes at a great cost to you. This is a particularly important and poignant lesson for the now.
There’s a moment where a heart is literally pierced and figuratively broken. THE SUICIDE SQUAD is all the more powerful for daring to make a metaphor that is so bold. It’s a big risk. I haven’t seen a heart used as such an overt, but powerful metaphor since Hannibal’s Heart in “Primavera” from the third season of Hannibal. But that’s what makes this film as great as it is – taking the dare and the risk.
On its face, THE SUICIDE SQUAD is about a ragtag group of felons, in the tradition of films like The Dirty Dozen and Kelly’s Heroes – and it’s no wonder that Gunn has said that war films were part of the template for this film. The team is used by the government to complete a dangerous and seemingly suicidal mission, mainly because they don’t want to send people that they care about to do it. But what it’s really about is coming to terms with the damage in your life and finding a way to be a better person. It’s also about how the foreign policy of the United States is selfish and utterly corrupt in general, but specifically has been most cruel and unjust to the peoples of the Caribbean, Central, and South America. Filmmakers, mostly from Central and South America have been using their art to make this point and it is very gratifying to see that even mainstream American film has attempted to reckon with the legacy of the United States’ inhuman policies towards any country on the continent that isn’t Canada.
It’s the legacy of films like Pixote, The Official Story, El Norte, La Llorona, and similar to New Order, but even more accessible to the people who need to see it. It is using the fantasy construct to make similar points. It makes the point that our government will use anyone, including our own people, to solve its problems that are usually the consequences of its own previous actions. It’s that the cycle of sacrifice that never ends for those who are the outcasts and considered unimportant to those in power. The supervillains of THE SUICIDE SQUAD reckon with that legacy and come to understand how they are considered as disposable as the brown people of Corto Maltese and realize that that means we are all disposable to our leaders and their minions. All it takes is the right circumstances. It is a painful and necessary lesson for us all.
I have only seen the film once, so I am not as able to discuss the technical work in-depth, but Henry Braham (The Golden Compass, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) is the cinematographer, and there’s a warmth to all of the scenes, inside or outside, day time or night time, except for the indoor prison scenes, that speaks the warmth of the humanity of the film. John Papsidera (Memento, The Dark Knight) and Yiniva Cardenas did the casting and did a fine job. All of the actors are believable and doing good and, in many cases, exceptional work. I wish I had had more time with John Murphy’s soundtrack, but I do notice that many of the songs from the score are actually guitar-led, which is very refreshing and interesting.
I have to discuss the use of the song All The People Who Died by Jim Carroll. I may be off base here, but I believe the use of the song is proper because the song is an angry elegy for the people who perished in Carroll’s life, but it’s also a demand for empathy for the people that society has othered. THE SUICIDE SQUAD is also a demand for empathy for a similar reason. It’s becoming increasingly and horrifyingly clear that our government and many of our people can justify the deaths of innocent and unarmed people overseas with the thought of, “Well, they’re terrorists who want to harm us”, much like the people of the fictional island of Corto Maltese.
But that same othering technique has been used within our borders to justify the extrajudicial murders of ordinary citizens by the police and police brutality against protesters. We all watched the video of George Floyd’s death, and so many others, and the violence perpetrated upon the protesters who were justifiably angry about it. Now, it’s easy for a segment of our population to justify that violence and murder by saying that people are communists, socialists, Antifa, or BLM. It’s easy for them to shrug their shoulders at the Covid death toll because the economy is more important. There’s more than one thread in the film about the real villains and the real horror, who is really responsible and how we have to really understand that as easily as someone else can be othered and killed for the common good. It could also be you next time. Every life has value. Every life is precious. We are all human. It’s similar to the question posed in the finale of The Cabin In The Woods. Namely, is a society that is willing to sacrifice the innocent to appease a blood god really worthy of survival?
At its core, THE SUICIDE SQUAD is a film about people, and a humanoid weasel, a humanoid shark, and a giant Kaiju starfish that is totally not a space butthole. Imperfect, fallible, and sometimes scared people, and weasels, sharks, and parasitic space buttholes, doing the best that they can with the limited toolset that life has given them. Sometimes they’re successful and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they live and sometimes they die. It’s not a glossy film about physically perfect, emotionally untouchable, and ultimately empty gods. Like the most artistically successful films, it’s about humanity and all the beauty and horror that it entails.
It’s a hyper-violent, horny, gore spurting, roller coaster ride built around a warmly beating, but battered heart. I saw the title of a review of THE SUICIDE SQUAD that opined that it is the movie that killed the superhero film. I disagree. THE SUICIDE SQUAD is the superhero film’s evolution.
THE SUICIDE SQUAD is now available nationwide in theaters and IMAX, and will be available on HBO Max for 31 days from theatrical release.