This is a spoiler-free review of The Suicide Squad.
The Suicide Squad might be the kindest superhero film ever made. Sure, it’s about criminals forced into life-threatening missions at the promise of freedom and the threat of death. But under all that very well-shot ultra violence lies something far sweeter and deeper.
While it shares a name and a few cast members with the previous Suicide Squad film, this is a standalone movie. It feels far closer to Birds of Prey than it does any other previous DC film. Both films share a subversive B-movie sensibility and, of course, dynamite performances by Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. Here she delivers yet another unforgettable action sequence which will surely go down in DC movie history. Harley is one of four returning cast members alongside Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller; Jai Courtney’s Boomerang; and Joel Kinnaman’s Rick Flag. But other than that, we’re starting fresh. This is a new Task Force X led by Idris Elba in a career best performance as Bloodshot, a brutal mercenary and ultimate deadbeat dad.
It’s hard to say more about The Suicide Squad’s plot without veering into heavy spoiler territory. Luckily, the film gives us plenty to praise without ruining its surprises. It’s hard to put across just how great Elba is in this film. Bloodshot is an unexpectedly brilliant lead with a journey we rarely ever get in Hollywood, let alone in superhero movies. Elba’s gruff anger hides a broken heart and a vulnerability that’s heartbreaking to watch. It’s a stunning performance that has no right being as powerful as it is for a character who regularly pulls infinite imaginary guns off his chest.
To this reviewer, The Suicide Squad feels like something of a justified indictment of the superhero movie complex. It’s a far more real and gruesome take on what happens when governments send superpowered folks into foreign territories. That exploration is one of the film’s most powerful tools. Gunn is obviously taking from ’70s and ’80s political thrillers and war movies, not only in tone but in message. This is a far more scathing superhero movie than we’ve seen before, but only in terms of the oppressive powers who wield them. When it comes to the heroes, we find a surprising and refreshing amount of empathy.
In one moment early on in The Suicide Squad someone makes a joke about millennials. It seemed like a hint that we’d quickly head towards the kind of snarky, lazy, conflict-based humor upon which much of Hollywood relies. But that’s not the case. In fact, it’s a good joke. And that millennial—Daniela Melchior’s incredible Ratcatcher 2—is actually the heart of the film. Melchior’s performance is hilarious, heartfelt, and utterly breathtaking. Her backstory offers up a new take on the tragedy we expect, featuring a cameo that will be unlikely to leave a dry eye in the house. In the midst of the cynical killers of the Suicide Squad, Ratcatcher 2 is a rare pure soul. A pure soul who also happens to control thousands of rats.
In a film of standout performances, David Dastmalchian’s morbidly depressed Polka-Dot Man deserves a mention. Taking a character who most comics fans have never heard of and making him a truly tragic hero isn’t easy. Yet here Gunn and Dastmalchian achieve it. From his origin to his practical powerset, Polka-Dot Man is truly an unforgettable hero. If there were any justice in this world, Elba, Melichor, and Dastmalchian would all be in big awards contention.
Kinnaman also stands out; Gunn gives Flag a great arc befitting the greater narrative and messaging of the film. Even with all of those amazing human performances, though, it’s likely everyone’s favorite will be Nanaue. King Shark is a total joy here. Steve Agee’s motion performance brings him humanity, Sly Stallone’s voice acting heaps on the humor, and Gunn’s script gives him heart by the bucket load.
Robbie once again cements herself as one of the best actors of her generation as well as a wicked action star. It helps that Gunn seems to understand Harley on an intrinsic level. She gets some of the movie’s best moments, including a hinted-at-in-the-trailer partially-animated sequence which is breathtaking in its ambition and awesomeness. Interestingly, Gunn shoots Harley with almost zero obvious sexualization. It’s the opposite of her treatment in the Suicide Squad. But don’t mistake the lack of sexualization for lack of sexiness. Harley in a ballgown choking someone out with her thighs might be one of the hottest DC moments yet. Intriguingly, there’s a lot about The Suicide Squad that feels like in leans into the female gaze. So basically go into this expecting some tight pants and tighter shirts on some hunky men.
If The Suicide Squad has one glaring issue, it’s the same that so many American action movies have. Its setting—the fictional South American nation of Corto Maltese—means that we see a lot of people of color being murdered. However, the film also seems to have something to say about that. At times it makes the audience complicit in the brutality we’ve come to expect for entertainment before swiftly turning it on its head. It also does something those films don’t. There are brief moments where we get to see the people of Corto Maltese just living, dancing, and existing. With the bar for such things so low, The Suicide Squad does seem to be a little more thoughtful than the exploitation-inspired films it sits alongside. There’s even a way to read the film as a radical anti-imperialist tale. But that is in the eye of the beholder.
With all of that said, this is undoubtedly Gunn’s best film. It’s a bombastic blockbuster with heart—a given after Guardians of the Galaxy—but his horror chops add a brutal depth. The film’s script hints at a search for redemption for the characters… and for Gunn. It’s a story about bad people who still deserve love and hope, and maybe even happiness. The black and white morals of the MCU are nowhere to be seen here. Instead, we get a true found-family story, shot with style, scripted with substance, and told with an impressive lack of judgement. Plus, it’s got what is likely the best ensemble cast from any superhero movie yet.
The Suicide Squad hits theaters and HBO Max on Aug 5 at 7PM ET.
Featured Image: Warner Bros.