James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad takes off like a bat out of hell, sprinting through its set-up with an air of surefooted arrogance. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ Gunn seems to say, as he vaguely acknowledges the events of David Ayer’s 2016 Suicide Squad—perhaps thinking that it’s best to keep away from rubbish as not to end up stinking like it. ‘What are you doing back in prison, Harls?’ Captain Boomerang asks Quinn as the new members of Task Force X get acquainted. She brushes off the question with a cheeky response about her having road rage: it’s clear from the get-go that the events leading up to The Suicide Squad are of little importance. A sequel, a remake, its own stand-alone thing? Sure, call it whatever you want.
We already know how it works: the US government assembles a special black-ops team made up of incarcerated bad guys, manipulating them into doing their dirty work in exchange for time off their sentences. This time around, the mission is relatively simple: infiltrate Jotunheim on the island of Corto Maltese and destroy their secret weapon. Gunn side steps the decision to waste time on long introductory sequences, snappily introducing a whole host of crazy characters in only a few minutes via Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), whose two purposes in the film are to make threats and deliver exposition.
We start off relatively strong. Gunn boldly annihilates any expectations his audience might have had about his film with a surprising opening gambit. The song accompanying his title credits works as a sarcastic smile, reminding us exactly who’s in charge when it comes to this rag-tag bunch of baddies. Gunn’s moves feel clever and calculated as we get started, but eventually, this tongue in cheek humour starts to wear thin. The main issue is the film’s skewed sense of jeopardy. Although it’s understandable for Gunn to want to avoid Ayer’s past mistakes, his refusal to introduce his characters makes each of them instantly forgettable. During a terse visit with his daughter, we see Gunn attempt to set up some kind of motivational backstory for Bloodsport (Idris Elba), but their exchange feels circumstantial and manipulative, with her immediately becoming the reason he’s roped into the suicide squad in the first place.
Even between themselves, the many characters have no objective justification for caring about each other. Their back and forth bickering works to a certain extent, but their failure to form a proper dynamic means that each of them become isolated and unreadable. For example, in a lengthy bus scene, Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) launches into a melancholy confessional, sharing a story about her father with the rest of her team members. Yet, it feels like a reach to suggest that a gang of selfish, unfeeling, foul-mouthed killers should care about Ratcatcher’s tragic history – let alone vow to protect her – when they were openly discussing their willingness to kill children only a few scenes before her heartfelt monologue.
In fact, giving a damn about any character feels utterly pointless, as they are likely to be shot, squished, stamped on, or dropped out of the plot at any moment. Gunn knocks off most of his characters before they get the chance to become anyone or do anything aside from traipse through a jungle or fire guns at nameless, inconsequential henchmen. Waller argues that she’s selected the team based on their unique abilities, but we seldom get to see just how she envisioned their powers being helpful to the mission. The Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) and The Thinker (Peter Capaldi) especially seem pushed to one side; Gunn finds a few minor occasions for them to get involved in things but moves onto some other big idea before we actually get to see the extent of their supposedly weird and wonderful powers.
In terms of story, The Suicide Squad is choppy and disjointed. Before we get to sink our teeth into anything juicy, Gunn switches lanes, introducing distracting side characters and filler plot. Most despairingly of all, he palms off our beloved Harley Quinn into a ridiculous B-plot that does its best to unravel all of the work Birds of Prey put into freeing her from the male gaze. We go all the way back to square one with Quinn. She slips back into her pretty little psycho routine, becoming overly affectionate with men while making bizarre sexualised comments about rain feeling like ‘angels’ splooge’. She spends most of the film bound in ropes while dressed in a sultry red dress that becomes more and more revealing with each scene. Her disappointing sex scene with evil dictator Silvio Luna (Juan Diego Botto) feels forced and pointless, and a fight scene in which she crushes a henchmen’s head between her lily-white thighs feels lifted straight from a teenager’s wet dream. Gunn gives her the fairytale treatment, turning her into a fetishised version of Snow White: make-up artists paint her face as white as snow, little cartoon birds and flowers appear as she attempts to escape, she chomps down on a shiny red apple as she walks into battle. Her presence in the film feels messy, and it’s maddening to watch her character arch take such a downward turn.
Gunn does his best to hoodwink his audience into believing that The Suicide Squad is of the same calibre as his Marvel hit Guardians of The Galaxy, employing the same sarcastic humour and unusual, cutesy characters—instead of a big dumb tree, we get a big dumb shark. He ramps up the volume a bit, choosing blood, gore and f-bombs over catchy eighties tunes and dance battles, but eventually, his loud and brash direction begins to feel like style over substance. The film turns into a tedious series of bit comedy, with vapid jokes shoehorned into the proceedings at every turn: a stunted exchange about a fallen friend named Milton sticks out like a sore thumb.
Then, oh geez, the wheels well and truly come off during the film’s second half when the plot goes full-throttle ‘Rick and Morty’ as Task Force X comes up against Starro (the giant starfish-shaped alien who wants to take over the world via mind control). Once we meet the giant pink monster, it becomes impossible to think of The Suicide Squad as anything other than a vapid, incoherent mess.
Somebody call Cathy Yan; Harley Quinn needs emancipating again.
The Suicide Squad is available in cinemas now.