The Suicide Squad Shows James Gunn's Twisted Genius

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The Suicide Squad opens in the US in theatres and on HBO Max on 8/5/2021.

St. Louis native James Gunn makes superhero movies the way you wished they would have when you were a kid.

Presumably raised on the traditional diet of St. Louis—too-thin pizza topped with cheese that tastes like it’s still wrapped in plastic (In My Opinion, see?), toasted ravioli, frozen custard, “Old Vienna Red Hot Riplets” potato chips and Vess soda—and stacks of comic books to read while hiding indoors from the miserable summer humidity, Gunn's body of work includes the very offbeat Super (2010) and the zany Guardians of the Galaxy films for Marvel. As brilliant as the Marvel Cinematic Universe is, the creators all know that they're free to make their film the way they want provided it meets with the overarching blueprint of visionary MCU maestro Kevin Feige.

Working for DC/Warner Bros offers Gunn less constraints. The Suicide Squad sequel/remake brings the fun once again in his trademark quirky manner, turning it up a notch with the violence and language thanks to the film’s R rating, whereas the Guardians films were PG-13. You don't absolutely have to have seen David Ayer's Suicide Squad (2016)—hold the "the"— or Cathy Yan's Birds of Prey, both featuring Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, and the latter which was released theatrically about a month before everything shut down, to understand what's going on here. Certain voices on the Internet would probably tell you not to waste your time regardless. I just watched them both last weekend and they're actually not as bad as the proverbial "everyone" says they are...okay, Joker is awful, but the rest are at worst decent. Any references to Ayer's film are very short, mostly just former teammates greeting each other at the start of the film. Speaking of the team, it's time for the tried and true Comic Book Role Call!

Returning from Suicide Squad:

Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie)

Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman)

Amanda Waller (Viola Davis)

Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney)

New to The Suicide Squad:

Bloodsport (Idris Elba)

Peacemaker (John Cena)

King Shark (Sylvester Stallone)

Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian)

Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior)

T.D.K. (Nathan Fillion)

Savant (Michael Rooker)

Weasel (Sean Gunn)

Javelin (Flula Borg)

Blackguard (Pete Davidson)

The Thinker (Peter Capaldi)

Ratcatcher/Starro (Taika Waititi)

Sol Soria (Alice Braga)

Mongal (Mayling Ng)

Corto Maltese dictator Silvio Luna (Juan Diego Botto)

Corto Maltese Major General Mateo Suárez (Joaquin Cosio)

Dr. Fitzgibbon (John Ostrander—the esteemed comic book writer who launched the modern version of the Suicide Squad comic with artist Luke McDonnell in 1987. Thank you, John!)

Gunn's genius is in laying out a seemingly basic plot ripe with underlying subtext. Here our government is sending a group of D-list (D for Disposable) supervillains to a fictional South American country to overthrow a regime that might exposed out involvement in some things America would rather not have to answer for... wait, this is fiction, right?

Hiding underneath the super-sized explosions and bravado are subtle notes about where one draws their line on morality, family responsibility, patriotism, and humankind taking science too far. You may not realize it in the face of such visceral violence, but once your brain catches up with your eyes and ears it will start to click. James Gunn is a sneaky son of a, well, gun!

It was fun to see John Cena rise to the occasion opposite heavyweights like Idris Elba and Viola Davis, who are both excellent, of course. Cena is a natural ham, so he's superbly cast as Peacemaker, an older but not terribly well known character with some tonal similarity to Marvel's Punisher. Peacemaker will spin-off as an HBO Max series featuring Cena in the leading role and Gunn as the showrunner.

Sylvester Stallone is an absolute blast as King Shark, a ravenous great white shark-man. He's exactly what he should be—hilariously loveable until he goes full-on Jaws and starts chomping heads and tearing people in half with all of the gore that mental image surely conjures. You're officially forgiven for 1995's Judge Dredd, Sly!

The heart and soul of the movie are Daniela Melchior and David Dastmalchian as Ratcatcher 2 and Polka-Dot Man, and no, I didn't see that coming either. My money was on that being Robbie, who is still as perfect as ever as Harley. Playing two of the most seemingly useless characters Gunn could find in the DC Comics world, he brings them to the front of the action in interesting ways. Saying more would be a disservice, but it's always a treat to see someone unexpected (or perhaps even unheard of) soar alongside globally recognized stars. The same holds true for Juan Diego Batto, who impressed me as part of ruling military junta of Corto Maltese and surprising paramour for Harley. The legendary Third Doctor of Doctor Who fame, Peter Capaldi, serves as the dapper dictator's chief scientist, who has been secretly experimenting on an alien life form called Starro since the Cold War. Trust me, you need to see Starro for yourself—as "big bads" go, he's among the very biggest.

Naturally, as with any James Gunn project the soundtrack is an integral part of the experience. From the very start, opening with Michael Rooker’s Savant sitting alone in the Belle Reve Prison for Metahumans while the unmistakable baritone drawl of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” plays out of a nearby radio, you’re already hooked. John Williams’s scores have their rightful place, but grounding superheroes with classic radio hits that non-super powered audiences can instantly relate to is Gunn’s trademark. Other songs you’ll be involuntarily tapping your feet to include “The Point of No Return” by Kansas, and “I Ain’t Got Nobody” by Louis Prima, not David Lee Roth’s cover, sadly.  

Warner Bros seems to have finally learned their lesson with regards to trying to emulate the MCU system, and while one should never say never, it's unlikely something that will never be duplicated to the same scale, success and cultural significance as the MCU has achieved. That is perfectly fine. Let Kevin Feige be Kevin Feige. The DC Extended Universe (DCEU) let James Gunn be James Gunn, and they'll reap the benefits even though Warner Bros is releasing the film both theatrically and on HBO Max simultaneously on Thursday, August 5th, 2021. The DCEU leadership let their films get too grim. In giving Gunn total freedom to use the dregs of the DC Comics supervillain set as he saw fit, they have opened the DCEU to the possiblity of actually being fun again. Gunn will return to Marvel to complete the Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy, but hopefully he'll return to the DCEU as well. The possibilites are almost endless but off the top of my head I think the Keith Giffen, J. M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire era Justice League International would be a perfect higher-profile but not Batman/Superman level set of characters for Gunn to work his twisted genius on.

Hey, a kid for from St. Louis with a St. Paul sandwich and a slice of gooey butter cake can always dream, right?

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5.0 / 5.0