In preparing my review for The Suicide Squad, a word came into my head that I had to verify was an actual word spoken by actual people. Requel, which when a sequel is actually a reboot. Turns out, it’s a word. I mean, it has a Wiktionary entry, and that’s good enough for me. Because that’s the best way to describe this film, which is perhaps the most effective requel I’ve seen in a very long time.
Like it’s predecessor, 2016’s Suicide Squad, we have a team of mostly second-rate (if not third- or fourth-rate) villains from DC Comics put together into a task force for handling deadly and covert missions. Organized by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) on behalf of the United States government, team loyalty is ensured with a bomb implanted in each task force member’s neck that Waller will detonate at the first sign of desertion. Their mission is to destroy the remnants of something called Project Starfish, which is hidden in a secret lab on the island nation of Corto Maltese. Success gets a member 10 years off their prison sentence. Failure means a cell opens up in Belle Reve penitentiary.
Can we be honest for a minute? 2016’s Squad film was a mess almost from start to finish. While it had a good cast, and there was a hint of what the movie was trying to be, it was a kind of lumbering Frankenstein’s monster made of studio edits, test audience nonsense, and a crippling PG-13 rating. Whatever vision director David Ayer had for it was lost, resulting in a movie with no identity and no thesis. Its eccentric characters and surprisingly decent performances couldn’t make up for its generic story or lack of motivation.
Enter James Gunn, writer/director of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Guardians of the Galaxy films, whom Warner Bros snapped up immediately once he was fired from the third Guardians movie. (Although Marvel did re-hire him months later.) Unlike with Ayer, who had 10 weeks of studio-mandated re-shoots forced upon him, Gunn was given almost total creative freedom to make the Squad film he wanted to. And did he ever make a Squad film.
The Suicide Squad is all the things its predecessor was trying to be but couldn’t. Its violence is over-the-top, brutal, and bloody. Its humor is wickedly black, at times almost bleak. The color palette pops and shines, and we’re not just talking about Harley Quinn’s hair this time. Most of all, this film is FUN. Yes, with all capital letters, because I really need to get that point across. And we’re not talking about artificial, equation-derived fun. These endorphins are all-natural, baby.
Best of all, there is a tremendously deeper focus on the characters in almost every respect. Who they are, why they’re here, and what they want. Whereas the first film tended to start each character at “they’re a bad person who did bad things” and maybe wander vaguely from there, there’s a greater diversity in the motivations and origins of each squad member. These are villains you genuinely become invested in and root for on an emotional level, not just based in the thrill of seeing people misbehave on a comic book level. There are heroes in the DCEU who aren’t written with this level of complexity.
If I had to credit what makes the difference here, it would be to be a combination of James Gunn’s attention to characters, especially how those characters relate to each other and their mission. Gunn managed to make obscure Marvel characters into household names by intensely focusing on what makes them who they are, not just on what they can do. On making them relatable and vulnerable but without sacrificing their core identity. He does exactly the same thing here, elevating joke-level DC characters into tragicomic antiheroes that you genuinely want to see succeed on a very personal level. In some ways, it’s actually more impressive given how intensely minor these characters are in the comics.
That being said, this is also an R-rated movie by a man who got his start with Troma Studios and gave us the grotesque horror/comedy Slither. And when I say R, I mean a very hard R dripping in viscera and delivered with a smile. If you thought Birds of Prey was intense, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Gunn is smart enough to never let the violence overtake the film or come off as episodic set pieces. He weaves it into the narrative in a way that supports the specific vibe he’s going for. It’s danger, excitement, and chaos; the thrill of not knowing how each fight will turn out. There’s a reason that the character posters for this film use the tag line “Don’t get too attached.”
But it’s really hard not to get attached to these characters. By the time it got to the third act, I was actively shouting encouragement at the screen as if the Squad could hear me. My favorites beyond Margot Robbie’s always-perfect Harley Quinn would have to go to Daniela Melchior’s Ratcatcher 2 and David Dastmalchain’s Polka-Dot Man. Melchior is undoubtedly the heart of the film, a genuinely empathetic and warm character who wants nothing more than to carry on her father’s work (that would be Ratcatcher 1). Plus, her pet rat Sebastian is adorable. Dastmalchain might give the most sympathetic performance, though, as the team’s resident metahuman energy projector whose powers are more of a curse than a blessing. Starting the film with a kind of death wish, he grows more confident as the film goes on, and seeing him come into himself is heartening.
That’s not to discount the rest of the cast, because there are so many fun performances here from John Cena’s Peacemaker (whom Cena describes as a “douchebag Captain America”) to Sylvester Stallone’s too-perfect voice over work as King Shark, the team’s designated dumb muscle. And of course, Viola Davis’ stunning work as Amanda Waller, who’s even more terrifying here than she was in the first film. There isn’t a miscast actor in the entire film.
If the film has anything working against it, it would be a mildly rough first act that stumbles slightly in trying to get its momentum and theme established. But once you hit the first big action scene — which had my jaw on the floor when I wasn’t laughing out a “WTF?” — that all kind of evaporates, and you end up getting swept up into the Squad’s misadventures. Trust me when I say you need to avoid all the spoilers for the plot here; don’t even look it up on Wikipedia. Not knowing where the story is going to go next is part of the film’s charm.
The Suicide Squad is definitely the most outrageous film the DCEU has seen so far. It’s not just a hyper-violent, comedic thrill ride with a fantastic cast. It’s also genuine, unadulterated fun on every level. I said in my review of Birds of Prey that that was the film the original Suicide Squad was trying to be. I’ll have to amend that; THIS is the film the original Suicide Squad was trying to be. And I’m here for it.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+
The Suicide Squad can be streamed exclusively on HBO Max.