In James Gunn’s latest superhero ensemble effort, The Suicide Squad, one of the most prominent of its many DC Comics D-listers is the Polka-Dot Man (as played by Ant-Man’s always-great David Dastmalchian in his third superhero turn). His thing is that he’s engorged with a rainbow pox of bingo chips, and he can and must haphazardly spew them out at regular intervals. It feels a lot like Gunn at this point in his career.
His comic book tales of often-literally colorful miscreants (and an illiterate but enjoyable CGI baritone voiced by an action hero, here Sylvester Stallone’s King Shark) becoming friends as they save the world are coming out like clockwork—and just as reliable in the final product. They’re completely hit and miss but undeniably lurid superhero disruptors that end up a vivid, eye-catching blast. The fireworks-filled close of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 wasn’t a fluke; it was an anthem.
Like the original, article-free Suicide Squad, the film sees a team of lifeterm, superpowered prisoners recruited on a sure-death mission that, if they somehow survive, will knock some years off their sentence. Also like the first, they’re recruited by Task Force X director Amanda Waller, with Viola Davis reprising the role in one of the scant crossovers in this soft reboot. It’s a smart move, because she is the DCEU’s closest thing to a J.K. Simmons—so perfectly cast as hard-nosed asshole top-brass that she should freely drift among however many iterations of this franchise we get.
This time, the mission is to stop “Project Starfish,” which, as we already know from the trailers, involves a kaiju-level starfish with an eyeball stomping around a city. Two teams are deployed, and as could also be gleaned from the trailers, clearly one team has vastly fewer losses than the other.
In both broad and incredibly specific terms, the mission plays out like nearly every Metal Slug arcade sequel. Some heavily-armed mercs are sent into a vaguely-defined, semi-tropical military dictatorship, both sides get ripped apart (again, often literally) in imaginatively bloody fashion, and in the end, it turns out there are alien-infected people in test tubes and some giant freak as a final boss with an obvious weak spot. And, again like Metal Slug, all Gunn’s predictable, rehashed bullshit is completely worth pouring quarters into HBO Max to get to the end. It’s a lot of fun! And once it’s over, a sequel would be completely welcome.
Loosely, that sequel will come soon enough with Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3—and comes with some irony given what a nearly sneering response this feels like toward his being briefly fired from that film. Gunn himself is a member of the Suicide Squad in more than having a surrogate Polka-Dot Man; he has been freed from Marvel’s PG-13 prison and, like the rest of his team, is free to go with every stupid, violent instinct he has. He totally gets the job done, but there’s a lot left dead on the battlefield.
Already Guardians frequently bordered on easy sitcom humor, and Suicide Squad is no different—but now added to that is Gunn’s juvenile crassness that forced him to delete and apologize for numerous tweets.
Sometimes it works for him. The legendary Peter Capaldi—so long, akin to Gunn, tangled in Doctor Who’s family-friendly scarf—finally gets back to his The Thick of It cussing. Capaldi tearing into an angry, curse-filled monologue is a thing of art, and it is a delight to see it again. But then Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn drops a “69” reference and some other crap and, as it’s handled, it’s unclear whether we’re meant to think that’s funny or if it’s funny she thinks it’s funny. Like with the Deadpool franchise, it sort of feels like the answer is, “It’s just funny! And she’s funny!” When neither are really true.
Ironically, arguably the best laugh of the film comes from Polka-Dot Man dropping a hilariously-dated not-quite-expletive. In retrospect, it feels like a reflective meta moment of Gunn asking himself to dial it back. He unfortunately squashes that.
Also typical of Gunn, he finishes his dish with a copious amount of confectioners’ sugar. In spite of all The Suicide Squad’s bickering and bloodshed, of course it gets a last-minute finish of saccharine poignancy and emotion. But the chef indeed knows best; paired with pleadingly-emotional soundtrack, it adds enough to the meal to recommend it. Pity the chef that, after Gunn threw out most of the ingredients when returning to his old restaurant, will have to try and recreate this sweet, savory, but uneven dish in the inevitable sequel.
But between this and The Green Knight, hurrah for stylish chapter breaks! At least for the Groot-adjacent.
The Suicide Squad
Director: James Gunn
Studio: Warner Bros.
Runtime: 132 minutes
Cast: Idris Elba, Margot Robbie, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Daniela Melchior, David Dastmalchian, Viola Davis, Sylvester Stallone