The Suicide Squad is a second chance--not just for the franchise, but also for director and writer James Gunn, who found himself in the position to pitch Warner Bros. a DC movie only after being fired from the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise at Disney. The stars had to align just right for this movie to be made at all, and it feels like a gamble in some ways--Warner Bros. bet not just that the controversy over Gunn's old tweets would blow over, but also that moviegoers would give The Suicide Squad another shot after the commercially successful but otherwise dismal 2016 version.
It might come as a relief, then, that The Suicide Squad is completely delightful. It's shocking, bloody, hilarious, and heartfelt, with a winning ensemble who never feel wasted (unless that's the point--we'll get to that).
Gunn's version of The Suicide Squad doesn't waste time laboring over the details of its premise--that a government agency led by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) implants bombs into the heads of supervillains and then sends them on deadly missions, leaving the US with deniability (and most likely ridding the world of some supervillains in the process). The program's official name is Task Force X, but they don't call it the Suicide Squad for nothing, as you'll learn early on in this movie. A lot of characters die very quickly, which explains how Gunn managed to balance the massive ensemble cast that we've seen in all the marketing. The answer: he didn't.
The Suicide Squad really focuses on a handful of characters that the writer and director put a lot of care into molding. There's Idris Elba's Bloodsport, a deadly mercenary and reluctant leader; Margot Robbie's iconic Harley Quinn, who everyone should be familiar with by now; Joel Kinnaman's Rick Flag, who returns from the first film; John Cena's Peacemaker, who believes he's doing bad things for the right reasons; King Shark, a Groot-like hulk voiced by Sylvester Stallone and mo-capped by comedian Steve Agee (who also plays one of Waller's lackeys in the film); and arguably the two standouts, David Dastmalchian's Polka-Dot Man and Daniela Melchior's Ratcatcher II.
In writing about this movie, it's tempting to devote several hundred words to these characters. Cena's Peacemaker provides many of the movie's funniest moments, but he has a sinister side as well. He and Bloodsport engage in an ever-escalating gun-measuring contest, which is hilarious, but also results in lots of unnecessary deaths. Then there's King Shark, a murderous people-eater who is going to chomp his way into your heart as surely as Gunn's past CGI anthropomorphisms have. And that's not even mentioning the wide cast of supporting characters, including those who don't make it very far into the mission; even if they're only around for a short time, each one manages to make an impression.
Regarding Polka-Dot Man, Gunn told press repeatedly in the lead-up to the film's release that he wanted to take the most ridiculous villain he could find and transform him into a complex character. He undoubtedly succeeded. Dastmalchian gives a truly sad sack performance, while his weird but powerful abilities, tragic backstory, and extremely unique psychosis (he hallucinates his mother's face on all his foes) make for a magnetic anti-hero. Melchior, meanwhile, provides the actual heart of this film in a surprise performance as another unknown villain, the second Ratcatcher (the first was her father, a fun cameo we won't spoil).
These villains and anti-heroes invade the South American island nation of Corto Maltese, a location from DC comics, in order to destroy a lab where research was being done on a mysterious weapon that Waller says can't fall into the hands of a new regime that's unfriendly to the US government. Unlike in the last Suicide Squad movie, this is a mission that actually makes sense for Task Force X--dangerous, difficult, and far too dirty for actual superheroes to carry out. This mission takes up most of the film, besides a slightly too-long tangent involving Harley Quinn getting romantic with one of Corto Maltese's new leaders. There's no appearance by or mention of the Joker in this movie, but it's interesting to see Harley's arc playing out and continuing across all these different films, tied together by Robbie's energetic, irresistible portrayal.
Also unlike the 2016 version, this Suicide Squad is rated R, and Gunn takes full advantage. There is some legitimately shocking violence in this movie, plenty of foul language, and even some body horror courtesy of that whole secret lab thing. Gunn also fills the movie with his signature needle drops, folksy rock songs that often accompany slow-mo shots of a bunch of characters walking together in a line. There are maybe one or two too many--you get the sense Gunn was really let loose to indulge himself here--but at least they're much more interesting than the 2016 version's infamously bland and uninspired top 40 dad rock soundtrack.
Of course, superhero movie fans know that Gunn has since been re-hired to continue the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise after all. So it's unclear whether most of the characters or threads in The Suicide Squad will be picked up again (aside from the Peacemaker show). But it's OK if this is all we get; The Suicide Squad is one of the most fun, heartfelt, and surprising modern DC movies we've seen yet. Here's hoping it leads to Warner Bros. taking more chances on talented filmmakers, because the results are something special indeed.