Maybe it’s just the source material?
That’s one plausible conclusion to reach on the back end of The Suicide Squad, James Gunn’s quasi-sequel, quasi-reboot (rebooquel?) to the unmitigated disaster that was David Ayer’s 2016 Suicide Squad, since the new film falls prey to the same minefield that blew up the original. Mercifully, Gunn’s film at least occasionally delivers on the promise of rollicking, anarchic fun that was the hallmark of the 2016 film’s (fraudulent) advertising – but frankly, “rollicking, anarchic fun” is the baseline expectation of a James Gunn movie. Particularly for film whose purpose is to right the course of a franchise abandoned in a quagmire of bloated incoherence, The Suicide Squad sure is a bloated and incoherent mess on its own. The saving grace in this instance is there seems to be an actual point-of-view behind this mess that contextualizes the mayhem attitudinally, if not narratively. But it nevertheless lays bare the inherent challenges of adapting the DC Comics entity to the big screen.
Obviously there is a fresh adventure for these rogue supervillains to tackle this time around, and it may actually be even more convoluted than the original, though notably less tortuous to sit through. A disparate cacophony of rogue criminals is plucked from prison and dropped onto an island in Corto Maltese, DC’s go-to fictional South American country, with a mission to infiltrate a top-secret research facility and foil a diabolical plan. That’s about as high-level as I can go with this plot that involves a military coup organized by an anti-American General and a dormant experiment dubbed Project Starfish that involves – you guessed it – affixing genetically engineered starfish onto human heads to take over their brains and turn them into evil soldiers.
Of course, none of that necessarily matters in a film where the focus is – and should be – the push and pull between the out-sized personalities of the eponymous Squad. But what if that focus is unfocused? It’s not as bad as the 2016 film, which didn’t even introduce some of its characters and certainly couldn’t keep track of where they were. Here, Gunn writes himself into a corner by separating the team to start the movie, setting up parallel story tracks with newcomer Bloodsport (Idris Elba) joining first film holdover Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) to lead the motley group of superhuman convicts while Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn stars in her own mini-movie before joining the crew in the final act. This unnecessary separation mires the characters in cumbersome side plots and delays the chemistry on which this comic book super team hinges.
To Gunn’s credit, the team is populated with the suitably zany likes of Peacemaker (John Cena), whose very literal interpretation of “keeping the peace” means he will kill anything to maintain order; Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), who can harness rats at her whim; and Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), who can, ya know, weaponize colorful polka dots. There’s also King Shark, a CG creation voiced by Sylvester Stallone, who basically serves as this movie’s Groot. For that matter, Peacemaker is this movie’s Drax. Gunn, either intentionally or out of pure habit, seems to have applied his successful Guardians of the Galaxy template of superhero teambuilding at every turn, but that obvious resemblance is more acceptable than the 2016 film’s strategy of assigning characters based purely on ethnic stereotypes.
Once the team is fully assembled, Gunn unleashes his weirdest, most inspired takes on comic book mayhem, replete with goofy ultraviolence and impressively ungainly CG creatures. The finale presents the clearest picture of what The Suicide Squad could’ve been for its full running time, if only it didn’t get bogged down with, quite frankly, many of the same issues that plagued the original film. Struggling to establish characters, losing sight of them amid mass hysteria, and pinning the conflict on an amorphous big bad that’s difficult to actualize. This film is spirited enough to set itself apart, but similar enough to make me wonder if there is some issue within the source material that prevents a fully successful screen adaptation. Maybe the Suicide Squad is more of a comics-only entity that can’t fully transcend as a film franchise. But we live in the franchise era, so even if we most certainly don’t need another Suicide Squad movie, we are almost surely going to get one. If anything, The Suicide Squad ensures the inevitable next chapter will at least be able to play within a workable template.