To get the headline out of the way, James Gunn’s “The Suicide Squad” (rated R for violence, nudity, and language) achieves its primary mission — that is, to wipe away every foul memory of its abominable but profitable 2016 predecessor.
An opening, pre-title-card scene in which a decoy squad gets wiped out in minutes acts as a symbolic palate cleanser. We get the message: Gunn has no intention of maintaining continuity with either the tone or storyline of the first film. So get all that intricate Marvelian multiverse-building out of your head immediately. This is a clean slate, which the “Guardians of the Galaxy” writer/director plans to dirty up as quickly as possible.
Once again, government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) assembles a team of high-security supervillains willing to take on missions so impossible they’re deemed suicidal in exchange for knocking a few years off their prison sentences. There’s expert marksman Bloodsport (Idris Elba), demented patriot Peacemaker (John Cena), dreamy pied-piper Ratcatcher (Daniela Melchior), mommy-issues stress case Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), and finally, in the most appropriate casting, monosyllabic humanoid, King Shark (Sylvester Stallone).
Together, they’re tasked with invading the island nation of Corto Maltese to capture a mad scientist and destroy some secret biological weapon of indeterminate origin.
From there, there’s not much plot development beyond team bonding and the obligatory (and thus, supremely unsurprising) reveal that the U.S. government turns out to have a guilty conscience in the matter. (Think hacky lines that would have been more at home in an insufferable Sean Penn poli-drama, like, “I was prepared to die for my country, not lie for it.”)
Thankfully, this bit of moralizing is brief and easy to ignore for those who don’t relish a side of sanctimony with their blood and gore.
As the Squad bulldozes over innocent civilians in hapless but ultimately well-meaning attempts to stop a tin-pot dictator from unleashing aquatic terror on the world, the film builds to an old-fashioned monster movie that could not take itself less seriously. That’s a good thing. Watching a giant, technicolor starfish that looks like it’s made of playdough destroy a city is the stuff Tinsel Town was built on.
And yet, while there’s a reasonable amount of fun to be had from the mayhem, things never get quite as gonzo as the trailers promised. Overall, you get the sense that the once-canceled Gunn has become gun-shy, and has been listening overmuch to his inner critic, censoring lines and scenarios that might really push comedic boundaries.
The requisite carnage is present, accounted for, and played for plenty of laughs. A sequence in which a game of one-upmanship results in a village of dead freedom fighters is particularly funny. But overall, what should be Deadpool-style darkness ends up more as safe gray that only dips a toe in black-humor waters.
It’s hard not to think the director’s very public cowering to get his Disney job back is affecting his work.
After the Mouse House fired Gunn for old tweets in which he joked about rape and pedophilia (the kind of humor, incidentally, that would have been right at home in the “Deadpool” milieu), Gunn immediately showed himself to be a good soldier in the speech suppression movement. Striking a humble, enlightened pose, he insisted then and ever after that his firing was merited and that cancel culture is a generally positive development. In other words, thank-you-may-I-have-another, Mr. Iger.
The gambit worked. Gunn is back in Disney’s good graces and has re-ascended to a place of sterile, servile liberal respectability.
But it seems it’s hard to un-neuter the inner bad boy once he’s been snipped in front of the entire world. Thus, bits that once seemed fresh, like playing an incongruently sunny pop-tune under a scene of slaughter, seem to be the only cards Gunn remembers how to play. They’re still amusing, but not surprising. And they hit the table way too often in this two-hour film.
Every deal with the devil takes a little bit of your artistic soul. And I can’t help wondering what kind of twisted, truly-inspired romp Gunn might have made had he instead faced down the cancellation mob like a man. But I guess that would have been suicidal.
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.
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