Once upon a time, there was a director who got royally screwed. His name was (and continues to be) David Ayer, and his upbringing in South Central Los Angeles informed him well. There are likely two reasons you’re familiar with Ayer. The first is his work as the talented screenwriter of Training Day and the director of very good films such as End of Watch and Fury. The second reason is that he’s the guy who made 2016’s Suicide Squad.
Despite making nearly $750 million and winning the Academy Award for Best Makeup and Hairstyle, Suicide Squad was critically reviled. I read over my review* and was reminded of the incessant needledrops, poor editing, and the severely annoying performance by Jared Leto as The Joker. At the time, I had a feeling that panicky executives took Ayer’s movie away from him, and that they desperately re-edited the movie to capitalize on the success of Deadpool.
Not to toot my own horn, but for once I was right! Recently, Ayer revealed that Warner Brothers freaked out over a) the pile of money Deadpool made and b) the negative reception that Batman v. Superman received. Can you imagine what that must feel like? To have the moody action movie you made be taken away and made into a goofball comedy?**
Once upon a time, there was another director who got royally screwed. His name was (and continues to be) James Gunn, and he made Marvel Studios a trainload of money with two Guardians of the Galaxy movies. In 2018, Gunn was fired by Disney.*** Unlike Ayer, Gunn was thrown a lifeline by Warner Brothers. That lifeline led to a re-evaluation of the property that Ayer worked on, and Gunn’s creation of the not quite a sequel or reboot The Suicide Squad.
What do you do with The Joker after Batman has kicked him in the head, or Lex Luthor after Superman has threatened to heat vision his face? You lock them away in the deepest, darkest hole you can find. But what about the other villains? The killers, thieves, and clearly mentally ill people who create problems rather than catastrophes? Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has an idea, and it’s been working fairly well so far.
You see, Waller is a career operative in America’s shadowy intelligence service, and she knows certain missions require metahuman individuals, ones who won’t let pesky morality get in the way of completing the job. So she picks candidates from the notorious Belle Reve prison, criminals with specific skill or power sets, and gives them the option to “volunteer.” If they succeed, they get ten years knocked off their sentence. To prevent them from going AWOL, a tiny bomb is implanted in the base of the skull, so if somebody feels the urge to split, their head turns into a fine pink mist. This is Task Force X.
Now, Waller has a new problem. The island nation of Corto Maltese is going through political instability, and the likely new regime is decidedly anti-American. There are also rumors of a Project Starfish, some kind of strange technology that could shift the balance of power. To deal with that problem, Waller has put together a new team. They are:
- Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), the team’s field leader.
- Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), a professional lunatic and amateur life coach
- Bloodsport (Idris Elba), a sharpshooter who put Superman in the hospital with a kryptonite bullet.
- Peacemaker (John Cena), a man willing to kill hundreds in the name of peace.
- Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), a thief with the ability to mobilize legions of rats.
- The Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), a crook with an unsettling skin condition.
- King Shark (Sylvester Stallone), a shark-man. Or man-shark.
- Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), a boomerang-flinging ne’er do well.
- TDK (Nathan Fillion), a guy with a fairly useless superpower.
- Mongal (Mayling Ng), an alien killer.
- Weasel (Sean Gunn), a weasel-man. Or man-weasel.
- Javelin (Flula Borg), a German criminal who lugs around a javelin.
- Savant (Michael Rooker), a weapons expert.
- Blackguard (Pete Davidson), an armed idiot.
Most of these people won’t be coming home. Hell, that’s why they call Task Force X the Suicide Squad.
Two things can be true at the same time. The first is that David Ayer, a talented and intelligent filmmaker, was essentially set up to fail. The second is that James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is a massive improvement in every way from the original film. He’s made a film that feels like a spiritual sibling to RoboCop, a movie that’s relentlessly profane and spectacularly violent. The action sequences are dynamic and creative. They feature all manner of explosions, destruction, stabbings, and cranial mayhem. This film is why the R rating exists. Gunn’s pacing is also excellent, and there’s never a moment where things get too frantic or too boring. The time flies by, yet Gunn makes sure to tap the brakes and give us moments for character development.
To my mind, Gunn’s script is where things really shine. First, he understands the appeal of the original DC series, that of a group of B- and C-level villains sent on suicide missions. You knew that DC would never kill The Penguin, but they would think nothing of demolishing a lesser character. Gunn understands that the Squad is a group of misfits and he uses their reduced status to make them effective underdogs. More importantly, his screenplay has a beating heart underneath the gore. Just look at the tragedy of the ridiculous Polka-Dot Man, or the legacy that hangs over the head of Ratcatcher 2. If we care about these characters, and we do, it gives the danger they face far more of an impact.
Speaking of impact, you might remember an aspect of the 2016 film in which Harley Quinn was obnoxiously sexualized. James Gunn not only sidesteps that but also creates a sweet father/daughter relationship in the midst of all the carnage. Gunn has always had a knack for weaving in real emotion throughout scenes of frankly insane violence.
For a cast that’s playing goofballs in large part, there are no weak links. This is one of those films where you’ll likely have favorite characters that you’re rooting for. While I liked everyone, a few stood out to me. Margot Robbie continues to stretch out the manic Harley Quinn, giving her more drive and agency than just a Joker Girl Friday. At first glance, Bloodsport feels like a carbon copy of Will Smith’s Deadshot. Both are shooters who have daughters in and out of their lives. Idris Elba makes Bloodsport more fatalistic, more reluctant to be a team player, and more amusing. Daniela Melchior as Ratcatcher 2 and David Dastmalchian as the Polka-Dot Man are the hearts of the film. Both provide moments of real pathos in the lives of characters usually considered to be a joke.
Sometimes good things come out of Hollywood. While I think David Ayer unfairly received the brunt of the backlash toward Suicide Squad, he’s good at what he does, and I’m confident he’ll do more good work. In a weird way, I’m thankful for the bad faith attacks by a right-wing dingus. Had Mike Cernovich not tried to destroy James Gunn’s career for the sin of disliking Trump, we might not have arguably the best movie to come out of the DCEU. While The Suicide Squad might not be the best film of 2021, I think it might be the most fun.
*Which you can read here.
**With the quasi-success of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, there’s been rumbling online demanding the release of the Ayer cut of Suicide Squad. I might be wrong, but I feel like it’s not likely to happen. That film never had the passionate defenders that B v. S had.
***Like many of us, Gunn made a number of off-color jokes when he was younger. But in retaliation for Gunn’s criticism of Donald Trump, conservative nitwit Mike Cernovich dug up Gunn’s prior jokes and used them to torpedo Gunn’s career. After the backlash subsided, Disney quietly rehired Gunn and he’s working on the screenplay for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.