It’s pleasant to see a movie somehow defy the foundation laid before it. The Suicide Squad, for example, emerges from the grim DC Extended Universe, providing a lesson of sorts. It makes you wonder how you can follow up one of the worst movies of its kind, jettison most of the key players from that previous film, jack up the violence to R-rated levels, add a definite article to the title, throw in a giant extraterrestrial starfish and wind up with something that, while certainly not a masterpiece, definitely feels more like one in comparison. After 2016’s disastrous Suicide Squad, it’s tough to really imagine wanting another one. Yet I’m rather delighted to be proven wrong. And it’s definitely more delight than surprised, as this more do-over than sequel is written and directed by James Gunn, crossing over to the DC side of the superhero landscape after delivering two Guardians of the Galaxy movies for Marvel. Those movies, with their big colors, surreal misadventures and goofy intergalactic misfits, turned out to be a useful warm-up for a story about a much more unruly and murderous band of outsiders. Or perhaps I should say insiders, since most of them — like the ironically named Peacemaker (John Cena), the less ironically named Bloodsport (Idris Elba) and the cheerfully deranged Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) — are behind bars when they’re coerced into joining a top-secret U.S. government operation so dangerous that only the worst of humanity need apply.
The fight-evil-with-evil strategy is a holdover from the earlier movie, though the final makeup of this movie’s Task Force X is a bit of a mystery at first, thanks to a gleefully overstuffed red herring of a prologue. Without giving away too much, I’ll just note that Gunn’s use of misdirection is the kind of sly joke that cuts to the heart of this movie’s flippant charm. In a film about a bunch of ultra-violent super-baddies, it’s only right that some of them should be treated as genuinely expendable. And such expendability seems fitting since we have Sylvester Stallone grunting as the voice of King Shark, an enormous human-shark hybrid who proves a crucial addition to the task force. The likelihood that he’ll chomp down on his teammates is one of those pesky logistical hurdles the movie kicks aside as it rounds up its dirty not-quite dozen, starting with a level-headed leader Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman). There’s also a soulful rodent whisperer named Ratcatcher 2 (a luminous Daniela Melchior) and a bizarrely memorable walking Twister board named Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), who kills people by pelting them with tiny, bright-colored explosives.
Polka-Dot Man’s particular gifts are the result of a medical experiment gone horribly wrong, which makes him a fitting choice for this particular mission. The team’s destination is the South American island nation of Corto Maltese, where they must take down The Thinker (Peter Capaldi) who’s carrying out some hideous, potentially world-threatening human experiments involving the aforementioned alien starfish. They’ll also have to join forces with a brave rebel insurgency (led by Alice Braga) in order to take down the island’s staunchly anti-American government. Mostly, they’ll have to grapple with their own team dynamics, which — thanks to a terrific ensemble — turn out to be rather involving than expected. Psychotic and devoid of compassion as they may be, these merry professional killers aren’t entirely dead inside. By the same token, Gunn’s nonchalant swagger isn’t entirely devoid of warmth or sentimentality, and the bonds of kinship that emerge between friends can’t help by sneak their way into your own affections.
So do the characters who mostly stand alone, like Elba’s unassailably cool Bloodshot and, of course, Robbie’s irrepressible Harley Quinn. Here she spearheads some of the movie’s strongest action set pieces, cracking necks in a scarlet flamenco dress and at point unleashing geysers of cartoon flowers from her victims’ fatal wounds. And wounds loom large over The Suicide Squad, which is, among other things, a riot of exploding heads, hacked-off heads and heads with multicolored lumps. It also has bulging biceps, swinging genitalia, magically detachable limbs, inventively designed title cards, daddy-daughter issues galore and one psychedelic interlude set inside a giant eyeball. At a certain point, not unlike Amanda Waller, the ruthless U.S. government taskmaster played again by a cold-blooded Viola Davis, you might want to push a button that would force everyone and everything to fall in line, to bring this proudly unwieldy undertaking under control.
Mostly, though, I was lightly thinking about a different kind of control; about the second-chance narratives the movie industry likes to spin for itself, whether it’s a lousy franchise concept or a gifted filmmaker in need of redemption after some twisty situations. But Gunn, to his credit, doesn’t seem terribly interested in redemption for himself or for his characters, who turn out not to be the worst people on screen by a long shot. Tellingly, one of the targets that The Suicide Squad consistently jabs at is an idea of America itself, a nation with a long history of inciting violence in other nations and refusing to acknowledge its complicity in human suffering. Maybe that’s an obvious, tired point, an attempt to bring some seriousness to a movie featuring a really, really big alien starfish. Or maybe there’s still another lesson here, namely that a sincere effort to fight evil with evil would, for more than a few people, begin with an honest look in the mirror. A rampage of bizarre ridiculousness that leans nicely into all the joyful absurdities, The Suicide Squad is riotously crass and sardonic while still tapping into plenty of compassion.
The Suicide Squad is available to stream on HBO Max and is currently playing in Theaters nationwide, as of August 6