4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“All the cruelty tears you apart after a while”— The Suicide Squad

From August 2017 – January 2020, Keith R.A. DeCandido took a weekly look at every live-action movie based on a superhero comic that had been made to date in The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch. He has been revisiting the feature every six months or so to look back at the new releases in the previous half-year. We looked at Black Widow last week, and in subsequent weeks we’ll cover Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, and Eternals.

While the word of mouth on 2016’s Suicide Squad was less than favorable, the movie was still a financial success, and Warner Bros. green-lit a sequel pretty much immediately. David Ayer was originally set to return to the director’s chair, but he decided to do Gotham City Sirens instead (a project that is still in limbo thanks to the weak box office of Birds of Prey and the apocalypse of 2020). After talking to a whole mess of directors, they finally settled on James Gunn.

Freshly fired by Disney when some old tweets of his resurfaced, Gunn was immediately snapped up by Warner Bros., hoping that he would bring his Guardians of the Galaxy magic to the DC Extended Universe. Gunn specifically requested the Squad, as he’s a big fan of the 1980s Suicide Squad comic by John Ostrander and Luke McDonnell. (When Disney reinstated Gunn at the insistence of Kevin Feige, Gunn met with Feige to say that he’d taken the Squad gig. Feige told him to make the best movie he could, and they’d hold Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 for him.)

Warner went back and forth as to whether or not the next Squad movie would be a sequel, a reboot, or a standalone movie. The only actors who were said to be coming back initially were Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn and Will Smith as Deadshot. Later on, Viola Davis as Amanda Waller and Jai Courtney as Captain Boomerang were also said to be returning, and then Smith had to pull out due to scheduling conflicts. Idris Elba (previously seen in this rewatch in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Thor, Thor: The Dark World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Thor: Ragnarok, and Avengers: Infinity War) was announced as replacing Smith in the role of Deadshot, but he was later said to be playing a Superman villain called Bloodsport.

Besides Robbie—who also starred in Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) in the interim—Davis, and Courtney, also returning from Suicide Squad is Joel Kinnaman as Colonel Rick Flag. Other Task Force X recruits in this movie are John Cena as Peacemaker, Sylvester Stallone (last seen in this rewatch in Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2) as the voice of King Shark, David Dastmalchian (previously seen in this rewatch in Ant-Man and Ant-Man & The Wasp) as Polka-Dot Man, Daniela Melchior as Ratcatcher 2, Pete Davidson as Blackguard, Sean Gunn as Weasel, Flula Borg as Javelin, Marilyn Ng as Mongal, and the inevitable Michael Rooker as Savant and Nathan Fillion as T.D.K. (I honestly think that Gunn has it written into his contracts that Rooker and Fillion must appear in all of his films. Rooker previously appeared in this rewatch in both of Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films, and Fillion also had voice and picture cameos in them.)

We’ve also got Peter Capaldi as the Thinker, Alice Braga as a Corto Maltese freedom fighter, Juan Diego Botto and Joaquín Cosío as the new fascist rulers of Corto Maltese, Taika Waititi (previously seen in this rewatch in Green Lantern, Thor: Ragnarok, and Avengers: Endgame) as the original Ratcatcher, and Steve Agee, Jennifer Holland, and Tinashe Kajese as Waller’s support staff at Belle Reve.

The movie was as successful as any movie can be in a post-COVID age, and Gunn also developed a Peacemaker TV series starring Cena, Agee, and Holland that will debut early next year on HBO Max. No other followup projects have been announced yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a third Squad film on the horizon…

 

“I’ve been around Flag when he’s got a rag in his mouth—best not to tug it”

The Suicide Squad
Written and directed by James Gunn
Produced by Charles Roven and Peter Safran
Original release date: August 5, 2021

Screenshot: Warner Bros.

Amanda Waller gathers a group of super-villains imprisoned in the Belle Reve Penitentiary in Louisiana for a Task Force X mission, under the leadership of Colonel Rick Flag: Savant, Weasel, T.D.K., Blackguard, Mongal, Javelin, Captain Boomerang, and Harley Quinn. They fly to the Caribbean nation of Corto Maltese. Upon landing on the beach, Blackguard reveals himself to be a traitor, having warned the Corto Maltese Army of their arrival. Blackguard has his face blown off as a reward. Most of the rest of the team is massacred, the exceptions being Savant (who runs away and gets his head blown off by Waller), Flag, and Quinn. With his dying breath, Javelin bequeaths his eponymous weapon to Quinn but dies before he can say why, which annoys Quinn. Both Quinn and Flag are taken prisoner.

It turns out that that team was just a decoy to distract the Corto Maltese Army. A second team is deployed to the other side of the island and are able to infiltrate the jungle without incident. We flash back to seeing that team recruited by Waller, starting with Bloodsport. His sixteen-year-old daughter has been arrested on burglary charges, and Waller threatens to have her tried as an adult and sent to Belle Reve unless Bloodsport agrees to lead the team. He’s joined by Peacemaker, Ratcatcher 2, King Shark, and Polka-Dot Man.

Waller gives them their mission brief: Corto Maltese for years has been run by the Herrera family, who were friendly to the United States. There was a military coup recently, however, and Presidente Silvio Luna and his right hand General Mateo Suárez had the entire Herrera family killed. Luna and Suárez are very much not friendly to the U.S., and Task Force X’s assignment is to go in and destroy Jotunheim: a giant base where a science project called Project: Starfish is going on. Waller says that Luna and Suárez can’t get their hands on Starfish.

Bloodsport’s team camps out for the night in the jungle, but before they can embark on their mission the following morning, Waller’s team discovers that Flag is still alive, and so Waller diverts Bloodsport to rescue him from the people who’ve taken him prisoner. However, after the squad has killed dozens of people, they discover that Flag is a guest, not a prisoner, and that his “kidnappers” are freedom fighters who are trying to overthrow Luna and Suárez. Oops.

Despite the fact that half her people have been massacred by Task Force X, the rebel leader Sol Soria accepts Flag’s offer of assistance in getting into the capital city. A super-smart villain known as the Thinker is in charge of Project: Starfish, and they know what club he frequents. Flag points out to Soria that, once they infiltrate Jotunheim, the entire Army will be sent to stop them—which means the palace should be relatively unguarded…

The Thinker shows Jotunheim to Luna and Suárez, who had no idea what was happening there, only that it was where the Herreras sent their political prisoners. (Luna and Suárez also killed the Thinker’s entire staff, which makes him slightly cranky, but he gets over it.) Thirty years ago, an American space shuttle encountered a giant starfish-shaped alien that then ejected little tiny starfish from its body which covered the astronauts’ faces and became extensions of the alien. The Thinker has been experimenting on the alien for three decades, and would like to continue, please. The new fascists in charge are smitten with this alien, and keep the Thinker on to continue his work.

Screenshot: Warner Bros.

Luna has Quinn brought to the palace, as it turns out he’s admired her from afar for years. Her thumbing her nose at authority has made her a national hero to the anti-U.S. contingent in Corto Maltese. Also the people of Corto Maltese are very old-fashioned and want the presidente to have a wife. They have a whirlwind courtship, seen in a strangely romantic montage, culminating in some particularly rowdy sex. Afterward, Luna goes on about all the murdering of families he’ll be doing as a dictator, and Quinn shoots him. Her terrible taste in men has led her to promising herself that, if she gets involved with anyone and red flags show up, she’d murder him, and she considers discussing the murder of children to be a big red flag.

Suárez’s soldiers hear the gunshot and imprison Quinn. Suárez has her tortured for information, but all she does is sing “Just a Gigolo.” Meantime, he sends his soldiers out to find any more Americans who might be there on behalf of their government to topple their regime.

Task Force X head to the club that the Thinker frequents. Unfortunately, within the capital city there are jammers that keep them out of radio contact with Waller. Also, the Thinker’s arrival at the club coincides with that of Suárez’s soldiers on their search for evil Americans. Ratcatcher 2, Polka-Dot Man, and King Shark sneak off with the Thinker while Flag, Bloodsport, and Peacemaker surrender. The trio break out of the truck they’re being transported in, which crashes because Peacemaker inexplicably shoots both the people in the front, thus leaving no one in control of the vehicle. However, they survive, and—having learned that Quinn is still alive—head to the palace to spring their teammate.

Quinn, however, springs herself, using her legs to break her torturer’s neck, then taking out a couple of soldiers and using their guns to wipe out more soldiers, then finding Javelin’s javelin and using it.

She gets out onto the street just as Flag and the others are about to enact their rescue. She offers to go back inside so they can finish the rescue, but instead, they head to Jotunheim. The Thinker gets them inside, and security calls the Army in. The squad plant charges all over the tower, while Flag and Ratcatcher 2 take the Thinker down to the subbasement where Project: Starfish is housed.

The other shoe drops here: they weren’t sent to destroy Jotunheim to end a horrible experiment, but to keep it out of Luna and Suárez’s hands. Project: Starfish is a U.S. government program, housed in Corto Maltese to keep it off the radar, thanks to the good graces of the Herrera family. The Thinker has been experimenting on the prisoners, torturing them and also the alien, whom the Thinker has derisively nicknamed Starro the Conqueror.

Flag is appalled, and pulls a computer disk with all the information about Project: Starfish, intending to release it to the press. But then Peacemaker shows up in the sub-basement with orders from Waller to make sure the project stays secret.

And then Jotunheim blows up, the charges set off prematurely by Polka-Dot Man when he, Quinn, and Bloodsport are fighting the Corto Maltese military.

Screenshot: Warner Bros.

Starro is let loose by the explosions, and he immediately rips the Thinker to pieces. Flag and Peacemaker fight while the building collapses around them, with Peacemaker finally killing the colonel—but Ratcatcher 2 gets away with the disk. When Peacemaker catches up to her, she offers to let him keep the disk, but he’s going to kill her anyhow, because he’s thorough.

However, Bloodsport arrives, having ridden several pieces of debris down from on high, and shoots Peacemaker in the neck.

Jotunheim’s destruction also wiped out the radio jammer, so Waller is back in touch with the team. They’ve achieved their mission objective, so Waller orders them to exfiltrate. But they refuse to just leave Corto Maltese to be destroyed by Starro, so they go off-book and attack—aided by Waller’s staff, who thwack her on the head before she can activate the bombs in their heads.

Polka-Dot Man is able to wound Starro, but is squished right afterward (after proudly declaring, “I’m a motherfucking superhero!”). Ratcatcher 2 summons millions of rats to overwhelm Starro, and Quinn leaps into the alien’s eye with the javelin.

Corto Maltese is saved. Bloodsport has uploaded the info on the disk to a secure server, and it will stay secret as long as the surviving Squad are left alone—and free. Suárez died during the battle against Starro, and Soria killed the rest of the high-ranking members of the Luna-Suárez government, so they will now finally have free elections in Corto Maltese.

Meanwhile, on the beach, Weasel—who, it turns out, is not dead—wakes up and wanders off.

Peacemaker survived, somehow, and two of Waller’s staff are sent to keep an eye on him while he recovers, thus setting up his TV show…

 

“I love the rain—it’s like angels splooging all over us!”

The Suicide Squad, Peacemaker taking notes

Screenshot: Warner Bros.

Now this is a Suicide Squad movie!

My biggest issue with the 2016 film is that the plot wasn’t a Suicide Squad plot, it was a Justice League plot. The Squad is the Dirty Dozen, performing covert missions for the government. Stories that have them fighting big CGI monsters in Chicago are misreading the material.

But the 2021 film is an actual mission you’d expect from Task Force X, involving them in a black-ops mission to a foreign nation, one that is easily deniable by the government, and also one that’s related to a dirty-secret project. And they still manage to fight a big CGI monster in the end, but it works.

The story is also batshit crazy. While the ads for this all reminded us that James Gunn did the two Guardians of the Galaxy movies, watching the movie reminded me that he also did Slither. The movie is chock-full of blood and gore and guts and death, and a lot of it is played for laughs. This mostly works, because it’s so over-the-top, and also because nobody in this movie is a nice person by any stretch of the imagination.

As with the last movie, the performances are superb. Margot Robbie is perfection itself as Quinn, and her every scene is gold. The high point of the film is her post-coital murder of Presidente Luna, especially with her lengthy monologue on the subject of her complicated love life while Luna is bleeding out on the floor. Just an epic moment, the perfect Harley Quinn scene. Her escape from captivity, complete with explosions of rose petals behind her, is a close second.

Viola Davis remains great casting as Waller, even though she’s once again written as a psychopath and an incompetent, neither of which she should be portrayed as. This is a woman who got one over on Batman, for crying out loud (in Suicide Squad #10, one of my favorite Batman moments). One of the few women of color in comics, and one of the most complex and interesting characters as originally conceived and written by John Ostrander in the 1980s is reduced to a cardboard villain once again. It’s more misreading of the source material, as is killing off Captain Boomerang. While Jai Courtney is pretty nowhere in the role (Nick Taraby was so much better as Digger Harkness in Arrow), Boomerbutt has been one of the mainstays of this version of the Squad snice 1987, and to kill him off in the first fifteen minutes of the film is like doing an X-Men movie and killing off Wolverine, or a Fantastic Four movie and killing off the Thing.

The rest of the cast is excellent. Despite having comparatively little screen time, Peter Capaldi utterly steals the movie with his acid turn as the Thinker (narrowing down my favorite bit with him is difficult, as there are so many to choose from, including his reply of, “You might be surprised by my response” to Ratcatcher 2’s query as to whether or not he wants rats crawling up his ass, not to mention “Yankee fucking Doodle Dandies!” when informing Flag of the truth behind Project: Starfish). David Dastmalchian manages to make Polka-Dot Man into a heartbreakingly tragicomic figure (though I could’ve lived without the notion that he sees his overweight middle-aged mother everywhere, which gives him something to focus his ire against, which is funny if you’re a fourteen-year-old boy, I guess?). John Cena is magnificently straight as the psychotic patriotic Peacemaker (the scene where he stands confidently in his tighty-whities is a classic). Daniela Melchior gives an unexpectedly soulful performance as Ratcatcher 2 (and Taika Waititi is delightful in a couple of flashbacks as her father, the original Ratcatcher). Sylvester Stallone gives arguably the greatest performance of his career as the voice of King Shark. The various dead-meat heroes who get massacred as a distraction are all superb, from Michael Rooker as Savant (who is portrayed as a super-competent professional right up until the shooting starts, at which point he runs away screaming), to Nathan Fillion playing it perfectly straight as T.D.K., to Sean Gunn’s goofball Bill-the-Cat-esque performance as Weasel, to Flula Borg’s hilarious Eurotrash performance as Javelin, to Pete Davidson pretty much playing Blackguard as Pete Davidson, which works because even if you find Pete Davidson super-annoying, he’s playing a shitheel bad guy who gets his face shot off early in the movie, so there’s something for everyone.

And then, more problematically, we have Idris Elba. I mean, yeah, he’s great, because, well, he’s Idris fucking Elba. But when they brought him in after Will Smith was unable to reprise the role of Deadshot, it would’ve been nice if they did more than just search-and-replace “Floyd Lawton” with “Robert DuBois” and “Deadshot” with “Bloodsport” in the script. Seriously, Elba’s character is the exact same one Smith played in the 2016 movie, down to the daughter whose fate Waller uses as leverage against him.

The movie is a delight, brilliantly scripted, with tons of little touches, from Waller’s staff taking bets on who’ll survive the mission to scene captions that are integrated into the scenery to “smaller bullets.” It’s not perfect, but it’s so much better than the last attempt, and significantly closer to the source material.

 

Next week, we’ll take a look at Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

Keith R.A. DeCandido‘s latest work of fiction is the short story “Unguarded” in the anthology Devilish and Divine, edited by John L. French & Danielle Ackley-McPhail, which just recently went on sale from eSpec Books. The anthology has stories of angels and demons; Keith’s story is an urban fantasy set in New York City about guardian angels of both the Muslim and Christian faiths. Find out more here.

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