I heard this joke the other day. It went:
They couldn’t get away with making Blazing Saddles today.
As soon as anyone looked at the script they’d say ‘This is Blazing Saddles, this is already a movie’.
That made me laugh. What is also amusing is that, right now, if Blazing Saddles had underperformed and they thought they could do a better job, they’d probably make it again anyway.
2016’s Suicide Squad, from then celebrated action drama director David Ayer, starred Will Smith and Margot Robbie as two among a team of criminals recruited by the US government to go on a covert mission. It famously featured Jared Leto as The Joker and had a cameo from Ben Affleck’s Batman. There were some enjoyable moments in the film but despite its promise it was confused, frustrating, derivative, sexist, underwritten and generally poorly constructed. (There are rumours of an Ayer cut of the movie which I need about as much as the Snyder cut of Justice League but I recognise that there must be a better edit of the film possible.)
So five years later, like with Hulk, Spider-Man and the Ninja Turtles, they’ve tried again. You could consider this film a sequel, there are four returning cast members (which is not many for an ensemble cast) but it is demonstrably a redo. This doesn’t have the same title but with a 2 after it, it pretty much just has the same title. The addition of the definitive article is all that sets it apart. The use of ‘the’ before a noun normally indicates the author’s belief that their audience is familiar with the subject (which works when they’ve already made this film once) but it also signifies that the item being discussed is the genuine article. ‘No,’ they are saying, ‘that movie was something else – this is THE Suicide Squad.’
All of this being the case it is good to see that this time they’ve got it right. The Suicide Squad is everything that Suicide Squad could and should have been. It is coherent, it is efficient, it is surprising, it is cool, it is grisly, it knows how to use its characters and most importantly it is a lot of fun.
Warner Brothers tried and failed to copy Marvel with their extended handling of the DC comics characters; Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman etc so it is interesting that this latest film in this loose series borrows heavily from the MCU. I don’t mean tonally, this doesn’t feel a bit like an Avengers movie, I mean literally. The Suicide Squad has Idris Elba, Michael Rooker, Nathan Fillion, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone, David Dastmalchian, Taika Waititi and Pom Klementieff who are all MCU alumni to some extent or other. The reason for this is largely because it also has Guardians of the Galaxy Vols 1 & 2 director James Gunn. Many of the MCU crew have come with him from those films.
Gunn was momentarily fired by Disney/Marvel in 2018 following the unearthing of a series of shock joke tweets from seven to ten years earlier. Having been booted off his series about a ragtag bunch of antiheroes who are reluctantly brought together to save the world Warner Brothers obviously approached him and said ‘Hey James, we’ve got something like that. Come and make ours instead’. Gunn has subsequently been taken back by his former employers but this side project does suit his sensibilities, possibly more than Guardians and definitely more than Guardians 2. (The second 12A Guardians film had a really misjudged scene where a group of mercenaries are brutally killed, but the same idea works better in this more gleefully amoral and openly violent 15 film.)
Idris Elba is the other person better served by this film than he ever was by Marvel. His character is so similar to Will Smith’s in Suicide Squad, in skills, attitude and motivation, that I can only assume they thought Smith was coming back until quite late in the day. Elba totally owns it though and as the ostensible lead he gives the movie a clear focus that the first one lacked. His presence also goes a long way to defining some of the other players too. Joel Kinnaman’s Rick Flag is better bouncing off Elba than he was floundering around in Suicide Squad and John Cena, as the ironically named Peacemaker, finds a company that suits him better than the one he joined in Fast 9.
Of course the most important returner is Robbie. She was the only great thing to come out of the first movie and the continuing desire to give her Harley Quinn a vehicle is probably a lot of the reason this new film exists. The Suicide Squad would be much less without her (which is a step up as Suicide Squad would have been nothing without her). Margot Robbie is brilliant in this role and you can see subtle development in the character from this movie’s predecessor and the stand-alone(ish) film she got last year. Every scene Harley is in is a twisted delight as she boldly takes what she wants, how she wants with her own skewed but endearing individual sense of morality. I don’t know if there will be another Suicide Squad film but, one way or another, there will be another Harley Quinn film.
The main aspect that this Suicide Squad film gets right though is the tone. The movie knows it is ridiculous and knows what to do with that. Gunn has assembled a large group of weird but already established DC comics characters and knows exactly what to do with every single of of them. Any accusations of jumping the shark, which it perhaps deserves for its bonkers ending, are moot once we’ve met the squad member that is actually an anthropomorphic shark. We’ve come a long way from Nolan’s Batman but actually we’ve quickly come a long way from Affleck’s Batman too. Unlike the rapid transition from Keaton to Clooney though, this is what the material needed. It won’t stop Robert Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne taking himself seriously anymore than it undermines Phoenix’s Joker (sadly) but right now we can all have a good time with this rebooted squad.
The Ripley Factor
Suicide Squad’s greatest crimes were against women. Both Robbbie’s Harley and Cara Delevingne’s Enchantress were unnecessarily objectified and it was the final nail in the coffin of a film that was already struggling to breathe. Viola Davis’ cold mission controller Amanda Waller was, and still is, a brilliantly strong female character but the tiny shiny hot pants and dusty bra and knickers on her two female main recruits eclipsed this.
The Suicide Squad fixes this too. Harley Quinn is even more covered up than he was in Birds of Prey (to give it its short title) without so much as a midriff on display. She is also joined by Ratcatcher, who is actually the daughter of the existing DC bad guy, and the two of them drive the plot and give the movie a lot of its heart. There is one moment when Harley needs rescuing but they handle this brilliantly and it is these two more than anyone else that save the day.
There is some nice feminist action going on in Waller’s mission control centre too. The women are definitely the ones taking affirmative action in this film and they manage to wear the trousers while largely wearing trousers (Robbie does get a red dress to rival the one in Pretty Women but she’s not the one having her protuberances snapped at.)