James Gunn's Suicide Squad Is Not The Movie You Think It Is

The Suicide Squad may come with a lot of baggage, but the filmmakers and stars are doing their best to leave it behind.


The people making The Suicide Squad want you to know that it's going to be a very different movie. Different how? Well, it certainly won't be anything like the financially successful but overall lambasted 2016 Suicide Squad. Like other recent DC films, including Birds of Prey, Shazam, and Aquaman, it will stand apart from the "DC Extended Universe" of movies, if such a thing even exists at this point. The Suicide Squad isn't even similar to James Gunn's previous big screen superhero movies, Marvel's largely beloved Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. The reasons why are plentiful and compelling, as we learned on a visit to The Suicide Squad's set in Atlanta, Georgia back in 2019, before the global pandemic.

"Basically DC came [to me] and said, 'Hey, what do you want to do?'" recalled Gunn, who took a few minutes out of his busy shooting schedule to chat with the reporters who had flown out to set. After being reactively fired by Disney over a series of uncouth old tweets, Gunn wasn't in the wind for long, and he quickly brought his pitch for The Suicide Squad to DC and Warner Bros. That pitch was apparently quite something.

"He had a complete vision," Production Designer Beth Mickle told us. "From day one, James was able to sit there and go through everything in the movie and knew, exactly, in his head how he wanted to cover each action, how he wanted the dialogue to be delivered. To have that kind of clarity and that sort of vision--we've been doing this for a long time, and Jesus, that is just so rare, to have somebody come in and just be such a true visionary."

"It happens never. It happens zero percent of the time," echoed Peter Safran, one of the movie's producers. "Sometimes you just get that perfect match between filmmaker and property."

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The Suicide Squad centers on a Nazi-era research base called Jotunheim. After freedom fighters overthrow the local dictatorship, Amanda Waller (once again played by Viola Davis) sends in a ragtag team of villains and scoundrels to defeat the rebels and destroy the base before its secrets emerge--a job your average DC superheroes would likely have some issues with.

The filmmakers emphasized that this is "a war movie," with massive practical effects and sets. Indeed, they took journalists on a tour around the island of Corto Maltese, including the dense jungle through which our anti-heroes will approach the Jotunheim compound, as well as the base's partially destroyed entrance, presumably following their arrival. They compared the film's opening scenes to Saving Private Ryan.

"It's a 1970s war movie, war caper, melded with the characters and comedy that James Gunn brings to everything that he does," Safran described.

"It's a much, much, much rougher film than Guardians of the Galaxy. Everything is almost completely practical--the biggest sets I've run in almost any film," said Gunn. "People might be expecting it to be like Guardians. They might be expecting it to be like the first Suicide Squad. They might be expecting it to be like, whatever, but it's not like any of those things."

It's also going to come with a big, exciting R rating. Gunn described his Suicide Squad as "gory."

"[The] movies that it's somewhat based on, those 1970s war movies, those are hardcore movies," Safran explained. "So I think it's a lot of fun for James to be able to flex some of those muscles that he can't do on a PG-13 Guardians movie. He's pretty hardcore with it."

"I don't think most people think that Star-Lord's head is going to explode in the middle of [a Guardians] movie," Gunn said, uttering one of the greatest sentences that the director of said films could possibly say. "But any of these characters, their heads could explode in the middle of the movie."

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That's not to say any character will be shortchanged, a criticism leveled at the 2016 Suicide Squad, in which, for example, a character named Slipknot appeared suddenly with no introduction and was immediately killed in the same scene. Even with such a massive ensemble cast--John Cena as Peacemaker, Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, Joel Kinnaman as Rick Flag, Idris Elba as Bloodsport, and many others--every character supposedly has time to shine.

"There is no wasted space. There's no fat in the script at all," Safran said. "We keep waiting for an easy day where there's some filler, some exposition, and there isn't. James wrote a really, really tight script. Each of these characters, he's got a way of, just with one or two lines, of giving them something really tangible to do and say that becomes incredibly memorable."

When Cena spoke with reporters about Peacemaker, he emphasized that good villains are usually righteous from their own perspectives. "I think the driving force behind any character, anyone you see [on this team], is they have to have some sense of belief in their purpose," the actor and pro wrestler said. "And I think that's what's great about these movies. That's what keeps us all charged up going to these movies. We either know these characters so well, or we want to know about these characters."

David Dastmalchian, who superhero fans might recognize from roles in The Dark Knight, the Ant-Man movies, and even TV shows like The Flash and Gotham, plays Polka-Dot Man--a character so obscure that even the actor, a massive comics collector, barely recognized him. In the movie, PDM is covered in pustule-like growths that have to be regularly discharged. "They could be looked at in two ways, either as an ability or as a disability--as something that can cause excruciating amounts of pain and embarrassment," Dastmalchian told us. "That absolutely helped shape how I was going to move and fight and sit, and do all the things that I'll do in the film. And then again, how a disability or something that you're embarrassed of, or that hurts you, finding a way that you can then suddenly do something with it that's more than just suffer--maybe it even could have a purpose. Then that changes the way you move, the way that you sit, the way you talk."

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Contrast that nuanced character with King Shark, whose motion capture was performed by comedian and actor Steve Agee. "He looks really funny, but also if you really walked into a room at night, you would fully get diarrhea, if you saw that thing," Agee described. In other words, this is not your average ensemble.

Of course, you might have said the same thing about the 2016 Suicide Squad, and despite the fact that it made money, we all know how that turned out. But Gunn, Safran, and the rest of those involved have done their best to set this apart. "The reaction [within Warner Bros.] was, 'We want Suicide Squad from the mind of James Gunn.' That's what it is," said Safran. "So, not a sequel. It's not a reboot. It's just 'James Gunn's The Suicide Squad.'"

This not-sequel, not-reboot, its-own-thing-but-also-somehow-connected-to-the-last-movie may prove initially confusing. Several characters, including Flag, Wallace, Quinn, and even Jai Courtney's Captain Boomerang, return from that movie, yet according to Safran, they will make no references to it whatsoever. But it also might be the film that Suicide Squad fans deserve--regardless of what has come before.

"I just fell in love with this particular story that we're telling right now. and I fell in love with some of the characters and the way we could do it," Gunn said.

The Suicide Squad is due out in theaters and on HBO Max on August 6.

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