Back in 2016 the DC Extended Universe was still very much a work in progress with “Man of Steel” and “Batman V. Superman” setting the tone and standard. Then came “Suicide Squad”. David Ayer’s villain team-up movie was divisive at the very least (despite winning an Oscar for makeup and hairstyling) with many still considering it one of the worst movies in DC’s modern era of film. With a new director in James Gunn and a mostly new cast, Warner Bros. decided to give this villain team another go with “The Suicide Squad” in 2021. Much louder, more colorful, and insane than its predecessor, “The Suicide Squad” is certainly a huge improvement over the first movie feeling more in tune with its identity and certainly a much more complete experience. However, while it does ups the ante and serves as a superior “Suicide Squad” film, this reboot-sequel also makes a lot of the same mistakes as its predecessor making it a complicated film that both subverts and gives in to expectations. In the end we get an imperfect, but much upgraded, film that finally lives up to the potential this property had going for it.
“The Suicide Squad” focuses on a ragtag group of DC villains who are sent on a mission by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) to destroy a secretive Nazi era weapon in an enemy island nation recently overrun by an even more dangerous military force. Her crew consists of Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Peacemaker (John Cena), King Shark (Sylvester Stallone), Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), and Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) along with several other villains like Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang and Peter Capaldi’s The Thinker also making appearances in the film. “The Suicide Squad” is designed to be a stand-alone continuation to the franchise practically ignoring most of the previous movie save for a few winks to the audience and charting its own path using the same general idea. It smartly avoids completely rehashing the rules of the Squad only briefly reminding us of how things work before it gets right into the action and, on the surface, this really is a much different movie. It’s brighter, it’s funnier, it’s faster, and it attempts to subvert as many expectations as possible and establish real stakes where the previous movie was rushed, formulaic, and predictable. It’s everything a reboot should be…so why do I feel slightly underwhelmed?
Well, that has a lot to do with the fact that while “The Suicide Squad” is a vastly superior effort and James Gunn does try to put his own spin on things, it also rips a lot of its basic elements directly from the original film’s format. That I guess should be expected to an extent because it is within the same franchise, but I mean there are a LOT of blatant copycat elements that are hard to ignore. Look at the characters for example. Idris Elba’s Bloodsport is basically Deadshot. His personality, his specialty, his costume, his motivations…this was clearly meant to be a recasted Deadshot and James Gunn admitted as much deciding instead to make him his own character in case Will Smith wanted to return to the series but keeping everything they wrote for Deadshot. King Shark, while much more enjoyable, is this movie’s Killer Croc, Polka-Dot Man is this movie’s El Diablo each coming with tragic but sympathetic backstories concerning their powers, and Rick Flagg and Harley return from the previous film. The only really unique additions to the main team are Peacemaker and Ratcatcher 2 and I genuinely enjoyed them both. Peacemaker, who will be getting his own spin off TV series, is meant to be a rival to Bloodsport as a cocky nationalistic wanna-be hero who sees no problem compromising his convictions to preserve his idea of peace. Ratcatcher 2 is the heart of this story and my favorite new character in the film. Her powers allow her to influence rats and she is often the most calm and peaceful of the crew. So its credit “The Suicide Squad” does bring a few new players to the game and the copycat characters are all much better than their counterparts, but even in the hands of an inspired James Gunn a retread is still a retread and that goes for the rest of the movie too.
One major issue I had with the film is that is feels way too focused on righting the “Suicide Squad” ship and despite some original touches feels awfully familiar overall. A lot of reviews I read called it an improvement on the first movie and I think the fact that so many people hated that first film has maybe put a certain bias on the rating for this one. The characters are not the only repeated elements. It still all adds up to a bunch of villains fighting a powerful being that gets out of control and there’s a big twist that shows that things aren’t as they seem and that there’s more going on behind the curtain. It’s the same basic idea, it’s just done in a much more fun manner and the use of a secret group of villains to get the job done does make much more sense once to experience the big twist. Again, this movie does a lot right but what it does right most of time is simply correct the mistakes made in the first movie by doing the same things only better. That makes for a good movie, but not a great one in my opinion. Everything this movie tries to say beyond being a better version of “Suicide Squad” was said in the first movie too or is so downplayed by the insanity there’s little time to appreciate it. The most interesting idea I can find in the movie is that it makes some underlying commentary on the United States’ and other superpowers’ tendency to invade smaller countries and do damage at the natives’ expense. It’s interesting that a group of villains are tasked with cleaning up the mess showing that there can always be a bigger, badder entity to take down but the film does little with this idea beyond using it to set the scene. Otherwise much of the “meaning” in this movie is in the characters and, like the first movie, there are so many for us to learn about that none of them feel fully fleshed out. They’re developed enough where I actually liked them and wanted them to survive, so again point to the reboot, but I can’t ignore that it’s the same mistakes as the first movie just much less egregious.
With that said though there’s a lot I enjoyed. The performances from both the new and returning actors and actresses are much more engaging and charming than the first film although Harley Quinn is still the best part of these movies. On that note the action, especially a standout sequence featuring Harley, is much more entertaining with a completely bonkers final villain and some well executed sequences that fully take advantage of the R-rating. The script is fun and while swearing is abundant its not abused but still gives the film a needed edge. I also give Gunn credit for being willing to take some chances with this movie to try to subvert expectations. That might seem strange seeing as I’ve criticized how familiar the movie feels but while Gunn does stick to a lot of the standards set by the first film there are some nice personal touches he throws in that do add to the experience. These special additions aren’t as numerous as I would have liked but do help flesh out the stakes and redefine what a “Suicide Squad” movie should be. I wish we had more of that originality at play here, but what we get does add enough to help support “The Suicide Squad’s” clear mission to right the wrongs of the first movie. Characters really do die, although I had the survivors pegged from the very beginning, and the opening sequence completely subverts your expectations in the best way introducing you to the bonkers ride you signed up for before finding its comfort zone in more familiar territory. When it comes to personality and execution this is, in fact, an improvement. Gunn clearly had a ball writing and directing this flick and it shows. While it’s not “Guardians of the Galaxy”, as much as it wants to be, it is certainly a high point for the DCEU continuing the universes upward trajectory.
Still “The Suicide Squad” is, more or less, a newer, more polished take on the property that succeeds in its apparent singular mission, to improve on the original. Simply put, it works and for a lot of fans that’s all they really wanted, something redeeming from the DCEU after the travesty that was the 2016 original. It’s fun popcorn entertainment that kept me engaged and proved again that embracing the R-rating in a comic book film isn’t as risky as studios might think. Also, it’s worth noting that if you count “Birds of Prey” as a female-centric follow-up to “Suicide Squad” this is the best movie of the three in my opinion. My criticisms lie in how familiar it all feels most of the time despite taking some noteworthy risks making it both daring and formulaic at the same time. While some might write my criticism off as taking it too seriously, a worthy critique of my opinion if I do say so myself, can you blame me for wanting something just a little more different and meaningful beyond the humor, action and repeated character arcs that we get here? Even then, I still found a lot I enjoyed with some new characters and a more enjoyable aesthetic helping liven up the overall experience. For me “The Suicide Squad” is a perfectly enjoyable mixed bag that I think many fans will love but some might find themselves still wanting more. While I might be in the latter category, I still find it a film worth experiencing even if it could have been just a little more daring to fully define itself apart from its predecessor.