You’d be forgiven for confusing James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad with David Ayer’s 2016 Suicide Squad. They have practically the same name, and both feature Margot Robbie, Jai Courtney, and Joel Kinnaman as members of Task Force X. They’re a black ops team made up of incarcerated DC Comics supervillains lead by Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller. But as The Suicide Squad producer Peter Safran explained to Nerdist and a group of journalists at a 2019 set visit, the two films are completely unrelated to one another.

“We just don’t address [Ayer’s film] in any tangible form,” Safran explained, when asked how Gunn’s movie bridges to the last one. “Yes, they’re the [same] characters [with] the actors that played them in the first movie. But we really wanted to make sure that this stands on its own two feet.” He added that they never say if the events of Ayer’s film even happened, and that Gunn’s version should not be considered “a sequel … and it’s not really a full reboot either.”

Ultimately, “It’s very much a standalone film,” Safran said.

Members of the Suicide Squad look beyond the camera

Warner Bros.

Confusing, yes, but it’s unsurprising if the studio is keen to distance themselves from the last iteration. Ayer’s version made over $700 million worldwide, but it was critically lampooned for its uneven tone and vaguely defined villain. ( Ayer acknowledged in 2017 that the film “has its flaws.”) “[Ayer’s] movie was incredibly successful. [But] it was polarizing, to say the least,” Safran, who didn’t work on Ayer’s film, acknowledged. “I gather that there was a real difference of opinion between the director and the studio that emerged through production and post.”

Still, it’s not like Warner Bros. tried to write out Ayer’s film when they hired Gunn. Rather, the studio was just eager to work with Gunn after Marvel briefly fired him. After giving Gunn carte blanche to the DC Comics roster, he landed on the titular team of criminals. “Basically, DC came and said, ‘Hey, what do you want to do?’” Gunn explained. At first, he played around with a few different properties, but he ultimately fell in love with his Task Force X idea.

Warner Bros.

Safran added Warner Bros. didn’t have plans to do another Suicide Squad movie before Gunn. Though he said other writers worked on various Suicide Squad scripts over the years, those never panned out. But Gunn won Warner Bros. over with his vision to start from scratch and tell an emotional story with “more obscure” but colorful characters. “Gunn was not beholden to anything that existed from the first film,” Safran said. “So everything from dialogue, back story, wardrobe, it’s all just whatever James felt best suited these particular characters.”

While Gunn’s line-up includes familiar faces like Harley Quinn (Robbie), Amanda Waller (Davis), Rick Flag (Kinnaman) and Captain Boomerang (Courtney), it also has some lesser known villains. They include King Shark (performed by Steve Agee and voiced by Sylvester Stallone) and Peacemaker (John Cena). And then there’s a number of truly obscure villains: Blackguard (Pete Davison), Savant (Michael Rooker), Mongal (Mayling Ng), Weasel (Sean Gunn), The Thinker (Peter Capaldi), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), Javelin (Flula Borg), and TDK (Nathan Fillion). Idris Elba rounds out the team as Bloodsport, who takes on the leadership role; he’s really the heart and soul of the film. (Safran said they also considered including Will Smith’s Deadshot, but scheduling didn’t work out.) 

Together, they have to break into Jotunheim, an old Nazi fortress, on the mythical island of Corto Maltese and destroy every trace of Project Starfish. And all while they must figure out how to work together as a team. “You have to remember that all [of them] either have been wrongfully accused or done horrible, morally wrong things,” John Cena explained. ”All of these people have real bad personality problems … I think every one of them is like, ‘How is this person going to stab me in the back?’ That’s the world they come from.”

But ultimately they’re “forced to be together, and do this task, this mission,” Agee said. “So, part of the story is just watching these people adapt to being around each other.”

In this way, the movie is a direct homage to John Ostrander, who debuted the modern iteration of Task Force X in 1987 with Legends #3 with artist John Byrne. “I’m a huge fan of the original John Ostrander run of Suicide Squad, where he created the whole Dirty Dozen-esque supervillains,” Gunn said. “I don’t think of [the film] so much as an interpretation of what he wrote, but as a continuation of what he did.” Ostrander actually cameos in the film, too. Gunn describes the movie as a “noir caper” similar to ‘60s and ‘70s war movies like Kelly’s Heroes and Where Eagles Dare. Just as Guardians of the Galaxy was Gunn’s spin on a space opera, so too is The Suicide Squad his way of surprising viewers by “doing a war film in a completely different way.”

While this means that Gunn now has connections to two major comic book films centered on a team of misfits, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Suicide Squad are two very different projects, both tonally and aesthetically. The Suicide Squad is much gorier, for one, and production designer Beth Mickle said it’s “a very naturalistic film” that leans heavily on practical, rather than computer-generated, effects. The reason for this derives from Gunn’s own experience with Marvel. Mickle explained that several of the MCU actors admitted they didn’t always enjoy acting in those films because “so much of it was against blue screen, and the actors had nothing to react to” nor any “sense in the space of where they were at any given point.”

Warner Bros.

So Gunn’s mandate was simple: build as many “gritty, dirty” and physical things as possible, from a massive indoor beach set to the actual Jotunheim fortress at their Atlanta lot. Even quirky characters like Polka Dot Man—who might have been completely CGI in another film—wears a real suit that’s wired to glow.

Gunn said these fine details allowed him to tell a “more grounded story” than Guardians of the Galaxy, or even Ayer’s Suicide Squad. The members of Task Force X “may have different problems, but at the end of the day, they’re all really good people,” Gunn explained. “This is a much more complicated story. Some of these characters may end up being good; some of them are definitely not good; and some of them—most of them—are somewhere in between different shades of gray.”

The Suicide Squad opens in theaters and on HBO Max on August 6, 2021.