Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn's shift from Marvel results in one of DC's most enjoyable and distinctive movies yet
DC’s 2016 Suicide Squad was a blatantly obvious and utterly fruitless attempt to capture the same magic that made Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy such a beloved hit. Recognising their failure in this endeavour, the studio brought in a not-so-secret weapon to succeed on their second attempt – James Gunn himself, switching comic-book houses to work his Troma-honed magic on this team of scrappy antiheroes and the peppy licensed soundtrack they fight to. To entice Gunn in, Warner Bros. clearly allowed him way more freedom than Disney: his The Suicide Squad is a sweary, gory gamble that pays off massively, making for one of the most purely thrilling superhero movies of the last decade.
Both sequel and reboot, Gunn’s Squad has a few familiar faces – most notably Margot Robbie’s iconic Harley Quinn and Viola Davis’s unflappable commander Amanda Waller – but immediately settles into a rhythm all its own. The central premise of a team of imprisoned supervillains being let out to conduct deniable ops on behalf of the US government is dealt with in a brisk and often hilarious five minutes, Gunn not indulging in any of the excruciating time-wasting of the original, before the team is dropped into the fictional island of Corto Maltese.
Nestled off the coast of South America, Corto Maltese is home to a laboratory that has conducted experiments for both the Nazis and the Americans, but has recently been seized by a military coup, so the new-look Task Force X, led by high-tech assassin Bloodsport (Idris Elba) is sent in to retrieve whatever valuable information might be found within.
Befitting the title, this crew really is expendable, Gunn being perfectly happy to whittle the initial team of 14 down to much smaller numbers both quickly and gruesomely. He’s clearly revelling in being allowed a far less restrictive age rating, and the first gunfight – all gore and chaos and panic – is the most viscerally intense superhero showdown since perhaps the very first Blade movie all the way back in 1998. Though this first set-piece is probably the best, the action throughout the rest of the movie is no slouch, full of incredibly violent fights where it feels that absolutely anyone (except probably Harley) could die.
This blood-soaked intensity is a hell of a lot of fun, but also serves to ground The Suicide Squad in some very real stakes, allowing Gunn to land emotional beats that could easily feel absurd in the context of a Dirty Dozen riff starring John Cena as a psychotic oaf called “Peacemaker” and a bipedal shark voiced by Sylvester Stallone. Even tiny cameos get some grace notes, and Gunn ports over the theme of parental failure and redemption that made Guardians of the Galaxy 2 so affecting.
That’s not to say that The Suicide Squad isn’t also very funny. There are plenty of laugh out loud moments that, very impressively, don’t often feel like the humour-by-committee that generally defines the moments of levity in a superhero movie. Gunn knows how to play to his actors’ strengths better than anyone else currently working in the blockbuster system, and everyone from Elba to Robbie to Davis to David Dastmalchian as the brilliantly bizarre “Polka-Dot Man” gets a moment that will live long in the memory.
While it can’t fully escape the “Third Act Problem” that so afflicts its genre, The Suicide Squad is a wildly entertaining ride that, in letting James Gunn truly off the leash, becomes one of the most distinctive superhero movies of the modern era. After the feeble Wonder Woman 1984 and bland Black Widow, it couldn’t be more welcome, laying down a gauntlet for all the DC/Marvel output to come as to just how much fun you can have when you let a filmmaker embrace their instincts and pull your universe in an explosive new direction.
The Suicide Squad is now in cinemas.Where to watch