The Suicide Squad lives up to its name
DC's do-over breaks the comic-book mold with some refreshing mercilessness
It took two tries for Suicide Squad to really live up to its potential — and to its name.
The Suicide Squad, a half-sequel-half-reboot of 2016's Suicide Squad, is in every way a dramatic improvement on its predecessor, though given what a dud David Ayer's original film was, that almost goes without saying. James Gunn takes what was a frantically paced mess and turns it into an off-the-wall good time that leans into hilariously brutal violence but with a surprisingly moving emotional center. Beyond just having coherent character arcs this time, there's one other tool the sequel mines to great effect that its predecessor didn't: making the story actually feel like a suicide mission by liberally killing off protagonists and establishing that no one is safe — at least, up to a point.
Warning: Some vague spoilers for The Suicide Squad will follow.
Like its terrible 2016 predecessor, The Suicide Squad sees intelligence officer Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) gather a team of villains for a highly dangerous undercover mission. Returning for the journey are Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), and Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), though the rest of the team consists largely of new additions like Bloodsport (Idris Elba) and Peacemaker (John Cena). This time, they're tasked with heading to a South American island and destroying a facility housing an extraterrestrial project, and as usual, should they disobey orders, Waller stands ready to execute them at any time.
The very idea of the Suicide Squad is that it's made up of convicts seen by Waller as expendable, who are sent on missions that will most likely get them killed. The original film set that concept up, but didn't really deliver on the stakes in the end. Rarely did it feel like this so-called Suicide Squad was at serious risk of death, and only one member of any major significance ended up biting the dust in a fairly unmemorable fashion. It didn't help that the PG-13 film was a relatively bloodless affair.
In keeping with the "let's try that again" approach to this endeavor, The Suicide Squad goes completely the other way, fully embracing an R rating with a stunning amount of violence and brutality throughout. In one savage early sequence, the film quickly dispenses with a number of characters one after the other — characters who were on the cover of magazines, have a comics counterpart, are played by famous actors, and could have continued in this franchise for years to come. In fact, one squad member seemed like an ideal candidate to serve as a future villain in another DC franchise, but here, their death goes by in an instant.
In a genre that's all about establishing familiar characters and setting them up for further adventures, seeing so many get offed is a darkly hilarious shock that also puts the audience on edge for the rest of the film. Not since Game of Thrones has a property so clearly planted its flag to promise that, yes, anyone can die.
For some time after, it seems like this opening sequence might be little more than a gimmick in the vein of a gag that saw Brad Pitt and others brutally die in Deadpool 2, and that the film perhaps has no intention of following through on this promise by putting any of the real protagonists in danger. But that's mostly because Gunn is taking the time to flesh them out before culminating with a few significant, unexpectedly emotional deaths. And that's on top of all of the blood-soaked killings of nameless goons throughout, some of which could come right out of a Friday the 13th film.
All of this violence could have easily come across as just a cynical exercise in getting big reactions out of the audience for the sake of it. But the reason it works is because of the way Gunn ultimately reveals a beating heart at the center of a film that appears quite pessimistic on paper. If the movie is telling the story of a group of broken, terrible people finding some redemption by putting their lives on the line, convincing us that their lives truly are on the line makes their decision to do so mean a lot more.
Well, this is all true with one exception. After a chaotic third act, it's disappointing when Gunn walks one particular killing back, revealing a certain character somehow survived despite their death seeming cut and dried. It's an unfortunate instance of the film pulling its punches in order to further a broader franchise plan. Still, the overall body count remains impressively high for a tentpole summer comic book movie.
Notably, The Suicide Squad follows shortly on the heels of the Marvel Cinematic Universe making a big deal out of killing off a series of characters in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, only for two of them, Vision and Loki, to get their own Disney+ shows immediately afterward. That's more or less the norm in comic books, where fans have just come to accept that dead characters will always return in some way. In that context, it's quite satisfying to see a film that maintains the fun while being fairly merciless in tossing aside characters who could have been mined for plenty more stories. If DC is looking for ways to differentiate itself from Marvel, giving us movies as gleefully unsparing as The Suicide Squad is certainly a good start.