The Suicide Squad’s Worst of the Worst Are The Best of DCEU (Movie Review)

Forget about believing a man can fly; the true miracle of DC’s extended universe is how James Gunn’s sequel/soft reboot of 2016’s dismal Suicide Squad could be the best superhero film since Christopher’s Nolan’s The Dark Knight. A safer bet is that it’s easily the best of the DC films since Heath Ledger’s iconic role as the Clown Prince of Gotham in 2008. So I should probably stick with that, right? After all, the MCU has certainly had incredible highs like Avengers: Infinity War and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. However, as someone who appreciates when a film can feel like a singular vision, Gunn’s latest is hard to top among the many caped adventures from the past decade. The Suicide Squad will be in theaters and HBO Max starting this weekend. If it’s not already clear, I loved this film.

Think about this: it’s been a minute since “A Film by” truly felt like a statement of fact and not just marketing. After many years of Warner Bros. attempting to stick to its guns as a studio for artists, an unlikely tale of career criminals with enhanced abilities is the last place I would think to find a personal touch. Zack Snyder has certainly given the DCEU atmosphere, a color template, and plenty of slo-mo to support the vision of his own entries, such as Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. The same goes for Patty Jenkins’ two Wonder Woman installments.

The problem with the lineup of the DCEU is the opposite of what the Mouse House has with Marvel Studios. Todd Phillips’ Joker might be the work of an auteur, but the tenuous balance between filmmaker’s intent and engaging comic book adventure often alluded these attempts. Make no mistake, I’ve liked plenty of them, and I’ve loved many MCU entries, yet the so-called magic of movies (at least to me, personally) has often been absent. So here we are, finally, in 2021 with a tenth official DCEU installment (Joker doesn’t count) that actually feels made by someone with specific tastes, aesthetics, and most importantly, a yearning to deliver 100% entertainment.

Before we dive into what makes The Suicide Squad great, let’s take a moment to acknowledge how weird it is that such a course correction from awful to amazing occurred as a follow-up to David Ayer’s Suicide Squad. I might not love Ayer’s films, but as most have heard by now, the theatrical release was a mishmash of Ayers’s cut and a trailer house taking over the editing. The result was an experience that replaced heart with attitude. It lacked any kind of point of view Ayer may have been going for (Although Netflix’s Bright makes a case that Ayer’s POV was pretty shallow regardless of studio interference). The last time I can recall a sequel making such a leap in quality was from Annabelle to Annabelle: Creation. Still, the first Annabelle was, honestly, just kind of dull. It’s not the mess DC fans had to deal with, accompanied by Jared Leto somehow overacting as The Joker (allegedly on and off-screen). Above all else, the news that Gunn was helming the sequel filled me with hope, but I had no idea just how good his film would be.

Following the events of the 2016 film, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has bullied her “worst of the worst” into yet another assignment. This time, Task Force X is sent to destroy an old German base (read: nazis) on the island of Corto Maltese. The team is led once again by Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), with Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) also returning for another ride. After an incredibly violent nighttime skirmish on a beach that goes all kinds of wrong, Waller shifts gears to focus on the secondary squad. This team includes Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Peacemaker (John Cena), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), and King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone).

Just looking at the above names gives insight into the kinds of D-list characters Gunn (who also wrote the script) is interested in. Their names pretty much tell you who they are from the get-go. This other team featuring not the first but apparently only the second Ratcatcher has a hilarious “also-ran” spirit.

As in his work with the two Guardians of the Galaxy volumes, Gunn is unparalleled when it comes to assembling a terrific cast to play (at least as a starting-off point) one-note characters. Gunn clearly learned a lot from his Troma days with Z-level budgets. Most filmmakers look to give characters as much backstory or other forms of needless exposition to legitimize them. To be fair, some of these supervillains are a given backstory (most notably Ratcatcher 2 and Polka-Dot Man), but Gunn often splits the difference between earned warmth and bonkers absurdity. Polka-Dot Man, in particular, has a fear/hatred of his mother for legitimate reasons and quite literally sees her in other people. That sounds really dumb, but it’s absolutely memorable. Also memorable is a brief look at Ratcatcher 2’s pop pop played by another notable figure in the comic book movie world. Where other directors might lean exclusively into gore or sentiment, Gunn somehow baked two cakes that he’s simultaneously eating.

So the gore… this film is R-rated for a reason. The character of King Shark can be pretty gluttonous when it comes to his human-sized appetite, like on the animated series Harley Quinn (Which rules btw). On the big screen, Stallone’s voice imbues a different kind of character than the loud, but lovable King Shark played by Ron Funches. Sly leans into a kind of “clueless, just learned to speak” creature that is funny and alarming when he takes a bite out of someone. With that character and the required thousands of bullets and big explosions for a summer blockbuster, the result is a comic book flick with numerous body parts splattered across the screen. All of it accentuates the gleeful tone of this picture.

While John Cena is also funny as a satirical an All-American sociopath hero, Idris Elba and Margot Robbie are exceptional. With Elba, whom I’ve always liked, especially on The Wire, I was shocked how invested I became with his take on Bloodsport. A pre-ops moment between him and his daughter (Storm Reid) is loud, brash, and unbelievably real for a film about bad people saving the world. The following scene has Bloodsport going toe-to-toe with Waller, allowing a chance to witness two great actors verbally sparring. Davis, it should be noted, also seems way more invested with her character’s ruthlessness.

Meanwhile, this is the third time Robbie has played Ms. Harleen Quinzelle. The actress has always been game, but frustratingly, the first outing gave her little to do but pantomime the cartoon version of the same character from Batman: The Animated Series. In Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey, Harley got the chance to lead an extremely entertaining film. To my surprise, with The Suicide Squad, Robbie still has more layers to peel. She’s still a lovable psycho but her moments of empowerment are surprisingly heartfelt. Plus, Harley’s “kill everybody in a hallway with guns and a big staff” scene totally slaps.

Speaking of slaps. Wow, this is how you do needle drops. I listened to Galaxy’s Vol 1 and 2 over and over, so I shouldn’t be surprised at Gunn’s ear for inspired track selection. Still, when recent films like Cruella or Netflix’s gateway teen slasher Fear Street: 1994 always go for the most obvious tracks, The Suicide Squad’s playlist is way more thought-out and memorable. Even when the song is well known, such as Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” my toes were a-tappin’. The Pixies’ “Hey” finds a place in another scene, set amongst slo-mo carnage, and is note-perfect.

Finally, I’m not one for spoilers, but I wanted to give a shoutout to the amazing final act. Too often, superhero movies (and blockbusters in general) mindlessly amp up the special effects and place our heroes in an all-out war of spectacle over character. That spectacle is certainly on display in The Suicide Squad, but Gunn wisely gives his team a choice that fits the series’ theme. Plus, the big baddie is as far away from cool or realistic as I’ve seen in a film of this scale. Gunn knows weirdness should win out. By that extension, we all win. Big time.


1 Response to “The Suicide Squad’s Worst of the Worst Are The Best of DCEU (Movie Review)”

  1. Malcolm Taylor

    Amazing review Peter! So many great points!! I absolutely loved it. I thought Elba absolutely crushed it as well. He’s won over my vote for an older Bond. Watching him in the final act was phenomenal. Had one the best times in recent memory at the cinema.