Well damn. James Gunn is off Marvel’s leash, and he brings his most depraved genre skills to the not-quite-reboot-kinda-sorta-sequel “The Suicide Squad.”
Hell, Gunn might actually be Sam Raimi for millennials, just as adept at bringing on the sweetness in the as he is bonkers genre delights. Sure, Gunn has become renowned for the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies, but he also dissected heroics to a far more depraved effect long before that in “Super.”
“The Suicide Squad” is a delightfully off kilter mix of both. Plenty of filmmakers pride themselves in subverting expectations, but Gunn knows how to keep audiences entertained while keeping them off balance. He certainly knows who we’re here for, not even bothering to introduce Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) when she joins the team on another mission that doubles as a demonstration for just how disposable our gang of anti-heroes really is. You know the drill. Bad guys are used as fodder for dangerous missions, kept in line by the ruthless Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), who is ready and willing to dispose of them if they step out of line.
It’s basically Harley Quinn and friends, and Gunn manages to work around that by ingeniously separating her from the rest of the crew for a good portion of the events so her teammates can get some of the spotlight. It’s not a bad idea considering Harley’s insanely iconic status and Robbie’s unstoppable charisma, given that quickly outshines her co-stars once they’re reunited.
The true question is just how much “The Suicide Squad” will owe to Marvel. DC films have attempted to distinguish themselves in a superhero saturated market mostly by going dark, but audiences have come to expect a kind of Deadpool-esque humor from a superpowered team with this kind of body count. While there is a refreshingly upbeat tone this time around that can’t help but bring the competition to mind, the MCU never goes as dark as killing off cute animals or threatening to do the same to a main character’s daughter.
They also never include characters like Peacemaker (John Cena), who is a deranged combination of Captain America and The Comedian. Cena has mostly played variations of the lovable goof, and “The Suicide Squad” gives him a chance to show he’s capable of much more, so chillingly good is he as the uber patriot who always believes he’s in the right.
Criticism of unthinking patriotism is nothing new, but it isn’t often taken to the places Gunn goes while extending so much sympathy to the underdogs and the collateral caught in the middle. There’s the blood the MCU refuses to show, and most importantly, the deaths that people aren’t coming back from. Deaths are seldom permanent nowadays, so the permanence of so many characters biting the dust, from leads, extras, and supporting alike, hits hard.
It’s an abrupt about face from the first “Suicide Squad,” which relished its violence white seducing us with the ultimate lie, that we could indulge our worst predilections for bloodshed without discomfort – that women, children, and our loved ones could remain safe. Gunn not only brutally exposes that lie with dark humor and creative flourishes, he makes a surprising case for empathy, love, and our better natures ultimately winning out. It’s a shocking message for a film that often shows us the worst of what we’re capable of while giving us many of the same genre requirements. Or maybe I just want enough of the damn millennial jokes already.