2016’s “Suicide Squad” was a mess. Warner Bros lost faith in director Davis Ayer’s initial assembly and hired a trailer company to recut the film with more pop music needle drops and reshoots that added more comedic one-liners to fit the bubbling trend toward snarky superhero fare like “Deadpool” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Later, Warner Brothers hires “Guardians” writer/director James Gunn to reboot “The Suicide Squad” with his successful brand of intentionally placed snark and pop music needle drops.
Following the DC Comics premise, this movie chronicles another team of villains coerced by government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) to work together as a black ops task force to complete risky and possibly illegal international missions. The only one returning from the first movie is Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. New to the team, we have Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Peacemaker (John Cena), Ratcatcher (Daniela Melchior), Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) and King Shark (Sylvester Stallone). Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) leads the team to help village rebels destroy a secret weapon called project starfish in the Corto Maltese, where the region recovers from a recent military coup.
From the jump, we gather that the hard-R vibe Gunn manufactures here is meant to be irreverent, sardonic and gleefully violent. We watch another team of lesser-known villains die horrific deaths on the beaches of the Corto Maltese before a flashback introduces us to the team we ultimately follow for the rest of the picture. The bloody carnage is set to the punk rock bop of Jim Carroll’s song, “People Who Died.” This bratty tone is reinforced by a masculine rivalry between Elba’s prison scarred Bloodsport and Cena’s misguided patriot, Peacemaker, along with rats that wave hello, talking sharks and giant starfish battles.
Gunn — who got his start writing low-budget schlock for the direct-to-VHS exploitation house Troma Entertainment —constantly reminds the audience that everything on screen should be accepted with a healthy dose of irony. For stretches of the movie, that can be a lot of fun, such as a wonderful sequence involving Harley Quinn and the military dictator who tries to make her his wife. But there’s also a point in which the inconsequential humor, combined with the non-stop splatter, hits critical mass and the story crushes under the weight of its apparent banality.
The effects and the set pieces are well executed, but who cares when the characters only serve the punchlines? The violence becomes so trivialized that when buildings full of innocents are demolished for a sight gag, it compromises the entire premise of villains as heroes. Elba probably has the most compelling arc, but one emotional component isn’t enough to ground a large cast of throwaway battle fodder.
“The Suicide Squad” is more tonally balanced and intentionally plotted than Warners’ previous stab at this material, but the style overwhelms the story. The dialogue is occasionally funny, and the action is well staged, but the problem is Gunn uses his characters to reassure us that everything is a joke and everybody is expendable. Marvel’s “Guardians” balanced comedic flippancy with warmth and heart, while this project feels more like watching sadistic Sid from “Toy Story” torturing his plastic figures for pleasure.
Cassidy Robinson is a former Idaho State University student with a master’s degree in film studies from Orange County’s Chapman University. He is currently working as a media journalist in Los Angeles, California.