The Suicide Squad has a lot in common with its predecessor, Suicide Squad. There’s the name, of course, carryover characters like Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), and new characters who fill essentially the same roles as old ones—like assassins Deadshot and replacement Bloodsport (Idris Elba) and half-man/half-animals Killer Croc and replacement Nanue (Sylvester Stallone). Unlike Suicide Squad—which can be described generously as “a trainwreck of a movie that should have never been released”—The Suicide Squad is actually kind of good. (Emphasis on “kind of.”)
Some spoilers ahead.
Helmed by director James Gunn of Guardians of the Galaxy fame—whose (temporary) firing from the Marvel Cinematic Universe after old tweets featuring jokes about pedophilia and rape were unearthed allowed him to be picked up by the DC Extended Universe—The Suicide Squad is the most MCU of the notoriously moody DC films. With a lot more one-liners than previous entries in the DCEU and a hard R rating, it comes across as Deadpool without the fourth-wall breaking or a gory Avengers but with explicit (and awkwardly shoehorned in) sex jokes. It’s fine, if you’re into that sort of thing, an entertaining if slightly forced violent action movie.
However derivative it might be, The Suicide Squad manages to do something no other superhero movie has yet: create a real sense of stakes. The film kicks off by introducing us to Savant (Michael Rooker), a badass, high-accuracy combat expert who, like the other members of the titular Suicide Squad, is offered a reduction in his prison sentence in exchange for going on a dangerous mission to Corto Maltese, a South American nation that has just seen a violent coup take out its ruling family. The mission: destroy a secret Nazi lab before the new anti-American regime can get its hands on the dangerous projects hidden inside. In addition to Rooker, this new Squad is fairly star-studded: Jai Courtney returns as Captain Boomerang, Pete Davison joins as Blackguard, and Nathan Fillon appears as T.D.K.
Without saying too much, this opening scene sets the tone for what’s to come. Anyone can die in The Suicide Squad. The film creates the sense that nobody—well, except the wildly popular Harley Quinn—is truly safe. Unlike in Batman v Superman or Avengers: Infinity War, these deaths are very much definite, and unlike Suicide Squad, which killed nobodies without even really introducing them in an attempt to seem edgy, The Suicide Squad actually gives us fleshed out backstories and, in some cases, even makes us feel sorry for the villains who meet their demise. Even the big final villain—who I won’t reveal here—is given enough background to make us pity him as he dies.
A great deal of the success in bringing these characters can be attributed to the casting. Idris Elba steals the show as Bloodsport, a cynical mercenary who plays the exasperated straight man in a group of insane criminals. John Cena’s Peacemaker is a perfectly played deluded jingoist, Daniela Melchior provides a surprisingly moving performance as Ratcatcher 2, and David Dastmalchian plays Polka-Dot Man like Norman Bates with superpowers.
DC has long shown more willingness to experiment with the superhero genre than Marvel. The DCEU, for all its criticisms, asked thought-provoking questions about what a world in which superheroes exist would look like. The standalone Joker may not have been very good (in my opinion) but it was an interesting character study. These experiments don’t always land, and they are, at the end of the day, yet another superhero movie in an oversaturated market. But they are, at least, different from what Marvel has dominated the box office with over the last decade and a half. The Suicide Squad tries to ape Marvel in style but still managed to break from the MCU with the introduction of death as a real (and final) threat to its characters. That alone makes it worth some admiration.