Review by Tim Robins
Our only hope to save the world is a bunch of supervillains – what could go wrong?
AS EVER WITH REVIEWS – THERE MAY BE SPOILERS AHEAD…
In Britain, The Sucide Squad is rated 15. This has to be the perfect age for the film’s audience; not a year more and not a year less. Only 15-year-olds possess the kind of amoral outlook on the world that will allow them to enjoy a film that revels in people being shot in the face or being pulled apart limb from limb, or sees most of an encampment horribly wiped out just to set up an “oopsie, wrong-target” gag.
The Suicide Squad is a sequel to Suicide Squad (2016), a film that set critics against fan audiences (I walked out twenty minutes before the end and still don’t regret it) and did well enough to warrant this sequel. The premise of the new outing remains the same: Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), head of ‘Project X’, assembles a team from a prison population of super villains to take part in some or other “suicide” mission. This time, the various ne’er-do-wells include: Peacemaker, Bloodshot, Ratcatcher II (sic) and. inevitably, Harley Quinn. Their mission is to infiltrate Jotunheim, a prison on the island of Corto Maltese that houses an angry, mind controlling, alien starfish.
Director James Gunn’s decision to treat ‘Starro’ with all due seriousness is one of the film’s successes. The Suicide Squad exemplifies the way any old comic book nonsense can now be finessed into credibility by CGI, and intelligent direction. The long-delayed scenes in which Starro goes full-on Kaiju made me wish that the DCU had followed the comic books and made the creature the ‘Big Bad’ in the first JLA movie. Starro’s mind controlling, mini duplicates that attach themselves to faces allowed artist Brian Bolland to treat us to one of the most striking and wonderful covers in the history of comics.
(Incidentally, starfish are classified as asteroidea, another reason space might seem a more appropriate home than the sea).
Warner Brothers have been spinning The Suicide Squad as crazy-bonkers, but this madness hides a multitude of issues. The narrative is fragmented in a way that isn’t lunacy but is tedious, as the mission stops and starts and gets so diverted that I greeted the are-we-there-yet climax with the weariness that accompanied my viewing of the first Suicide Squad – at least the final push, fuelled by a latte and packet of Minstrels, paid off. The film is also punctuated by flashbacks to set up gags and characters’ “origins”, about which I cared absolutely nothing. Rat Catcher II (Daniela Melchoir) unexpectedly takes centre stage with her rat controlling wand but, while the actress gives her role plausibility, it is hard to care.
While much of the film is beautifully shot, in my view, it is a triumph of cinematography over substance, with gimmicky but clever scenes in which a flashback is splayed out on a window, and action is reflected in a metal helmet. There is an arresting use of colour, particularly when Harley Quinn, dressed in a bright red wedding dress, flounces around the deep blue offices of an army general. But my main impression of the film was of a sequence of very pretty pictures. I almost applauded at a scene with The Thinker (Peter Capaldi) being suspended eye to gigantic eye with Starro, which was (almost) worth the price of admission.
The cast does its best to sell what passes as the film’s plot: Sylvester Stallone as the voice of Nanaue, a humanoid Great White shark, is an OK piece of stunt casting; John Cena as Peacemaker is a distracting Schwarzenegger look-alike; Margot Robbie is pitch perfect, reprising her role as Harley Quinn. But Idris Elba as Bloodsport acts everyone else off the screen, and gives the film an unwarranted touch of class. For Doctor Who fans, Peter Capaldi’s The Thinker is visually entertaining, but isn’t given enough screen time to match his status as a ‘mini boss’.
Then there are the cast members that serve as comic relief. The Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), for example, plucked from the comic archives by director James Gunn, because he’s thought of as “the dumbest DC character of all time”; whose powers involve firing destructive other dimensional tiddly-winks at people, each act of violence a blow against his mother. Cue: people transformed by The Polka Dot Man’s warped perspective into representations of his hated parent.
CGI also carries a lot of the more comedic moments, particularly Ratcather II’s rodent partner, Sebastian, which spends the movie trying to endear itself to the rat-phobic Bloodsport. Gunn based the look of The Weasel on Bloom County’s repugnant Bill the Cat – and the character duly comes with rasping breath and popping eyes.
For me, The Suicide Squad’s tone is as all-over-the-place as the narrative. However, James Gunn has a lot of clout in the industry, and I enjoyed the way he plays with the intellectual properties in the DECU toy box. His work on first The Guardians of the Galaxy struck a good balance of adventure and humour. But those characters had redemptive story arcs. In contrast, the Suicide Squad have arcs such as becoming a leader or overcoming a fear of rats, but none are morally redeemed. At heart, the Suicide Squad are just unpleasant characters, who revel in doing unpleasant things.
Some of my reticence about this movie may well come from the fact that, with the Delta variant of Covid-19 spreading like wildfire, going to the cinema feels like a suicide mission. And I struggled with the film’s tonal shifts. Were scenes in which King Shark chows down on the head of a general as if it were a snack from KFC supposed to be funny?
Frankly, after four years of Donald Trump and in the wake of the storming of the American Capitol, it may be that I have lost patience with the kind of anger, cynicism and fetishized gun-play that The Suicide Squad represents. Superhero movies should take a good hard look at themselves. I am sure they are capable of greater sophistication, without committing suicide at the box office.
• The Suicide Squad is on general release in the UK and worldwide
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“there was a scene where I kind of sort of “Hannibal Lecter” David Dastmalchian’s Polka-Dot Man character, and take him to pieces which we shot, but we lost from the movie. David is such a brilliant actor. I love Polka-Dot Man. I think that’s a brilliant character. He’s so lame. He’s just this awful superhero.”
A freelance journalist and Doctor Who fanzine editor since 1978, Tim Robins has written on comics, films, books and TV programmes for a wide range of publications including Starburst, Interzone, Primetime and TV Guide.
His brief flirtation with comics includes ghost inking a 2000AD strip and co-writing a Doctor Who strip with Mike Collins. Since 1990 he worked at the University of Glamorgan where he was a Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Media Studies and the social sciences. Academically, he has published on the animation industry in Wales and approaches to social memory. He claims to be a card carrying member of the Politically Correct, a secret cadre bent on ruling the entire world and all human thought.