MIKE AT THE MOVIES: The Suicide Squad

If at First You Don’t Succeed …

by MIKE ORLOCK

Warner Bros. has been trying to craft a comic superhero universe to rival Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe since Tim Burton launched the Batman franchise in 1989. That film, and Burton’s follow-up Batman Returns, had a loopy, gothic charm that contrasted nicely with the studio’s sunnier Superman franchise from the previous decade, and they gave Warner Bros. an early advantage in the comic-books sweepstakes.

The lackluster third and fourth installments of each of those tent-poles soured the studio from pouring insane amounts of money into making more, which left the cineplexes to Marvel and its big screen extravaganzas starring Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the X-Men, and The Avengers. 

When Warner Bros. finally rebooted Batman as a dark, violent, adult melodrama (in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy) in 2005, the battle lines between DC and Marvel were established: Marvel went for crowd-pleasing, special-effects-driven spectacles with charismatic, A-list movie stars (Robert Downey Jr., Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Helmsworth); DC went dark, noirish and arty, turning to “visionary” directors (Zack Snyder, David Ayer, Todd Phillips) to make brooding (and frequently R-rated) personal ruminations on the superhero ethos.

Guess which approach has raked in the most money?

Although David Ayer’s 2016 film Suicide Squad, starring Will Smith and Margot Robbie, wasn’t exactly a box-office dud, grossing nearly $750 million, it cost about half that to make and market; and when you contrast it to the $1.2 billion that Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War raked in against a similar budget that same year, you can understand why Warner execs were eager to let their latest redo, The Suicide Squad, get made by one of Marvel’s wunderkind money makers, James Gunn – the guy responsible for turning a minor Marvel property, Guardians of the Galaxy, into a $2 billion franchise.

More than just the word “The” and five years separate these two productions. The difference in tone is considerably lighter and more fun, despite the R rating that the film sometimes goes overboard to justify through excessively foul language and gratuitous gore. 

Several of the first film’s squad of miscreants return (some only to be summarily dispatched along with a few clever cameos by Gunn in a gloriously gory opening), but a few hang around for the duration. Margot Robbie’s nutso Harley Quinn, a demented diva of destruction, makes the cut. So does Joel Kinnaman’s Col. Flag, who is given the thankless task of wrangling psychos into an efficient fighting unit. Both work for, and are used by, Viola Davis’ conniving bureaucrat Amanda Waller, who will do anything to anyone to cover her own backside and further her career.

They’re joined by a rogues’ gallery of oddballs and mutants who look like they wandered in from the set of Guardians 3 (which Gunn is busy with now): Idris Elba’s Bloodsport, a deadly assassin with a gun like something from Men in Black; John Cena’s Peacemaker, an uber-patriot psychopath with major irony issues (“I will gladly kill any man, woman or child to keep the peace”); Daniela Melchior’s Ratcatcher II, a girl whose superpower is summoning and controlling big, brown nasty rats; David Dastmalchion’s Polka Dot Man, a mama’s boy who blisters and sheds polka dots that blow things up; and King Shark, a mutant half-man/half-shark in surfer shorts (I kid you not) who’s voiced by Sylvester Stallone: this film’s answer to Guardians’ Groot.

The squad’s suicide mission involves destroying an intergalactic alien life form called the Starro, a giant starfish kept in a secret laboratory on the Caribbean island of Corto Maltese, whose American-puppet government has just fallen to a military coup, and, well, you can pretty much fill in the blanks of the plot – it’s that predictable. 

What isn’t, though, is how entertaining the mayhem is once it’s been unleashed. Gunn likes to present scenes of carnage set to a playlist of pop favorites: a technique he used extensively in his Guardians movies, and the approach works here just as well. (Example: The Louis Prima standard “I Ain’t Got Nobody” is the background to Harley spearing, slicing, dicing and decapitating a platoon of hapless enemy soldiers. Louis never sounded so – primal.)

Gunn’s actors seem to be having a lot more fun, too, than Ayer’s did back in 2016, but that’s the difference between riffing and ruminating in the comic-book universe. Some stars shine; some fall into black holes. This time Warner Bros. got it right.

The Suicide Squad is in theaters and streaming on HBO Max until Sept. 5.

In another lifetime, Mike Orlock wrote film reviews for The Reporter/Progress newspapers in the western suburbs of Chicago. He has also taught high school English, coached basketball and authored three books of poetry. He currently serves as Door County’s poet laureate. 

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