James Gunn takes minor D.C. characters on gleefully deranged ‘Suicide’ mission

click to enlarge James Gunn has fun with some of DC’s lesser-known characters. - Warner Bros. Entertainment
Warner Bros. Entertainment
James Gunn has fun with some of DC’s lesser-known characters.

Netting acclaim for "voice" or "character" in Hollywood today is more something one buys than grows now: a transactional process that proves far easier than cultivating a more deeply rooted style over time. With character being measurable for viewers and producers as a line item in the number of old hit songs licensed for needle drops, audiences have come to take knowing the same song as a given director as both a summit of artistic communication and an affirmation of shared good tastes. And why not? People have married over less.

For James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy 1 and 2), who previously made a show of this with a Walkman meant to gratify both himself and his upper Gen-X peers (he's 55) while mystifying their kids and many in between, these dadcore musical insertions comprise the core of his directing style — and might have once been ridiculed for their naked striving for a sense of "cool." Owing a silent, ingracious debt to filmmakers ranging from Davids Fincher and Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, and — above all — Martin Scorsese, Gunn shares a crucial commercial role with Marvel screen godfather Jon Favreau and Disney favorite Taika Waititi (who cameos here); all purveyors of large-scale superhero stuff, these men specialize in making blockbusters that trick audiences into finding them subversive for how they signal themselves as self-aware.

With The Suicide Squad, this approach fits better than it might elsewhere. Gunn engages in a self-conscious sort of salvage job, picking up some cast members of David Ayer's butchered and widely derided 2016 effort only to annihilate most in a kind of hostile cremation — but salvaging a select, more popular few. Playing into Squad's Bay of Pigs-style premise (inherited from an '80s DC Comics run), which sees a cast of second- and third-string villains catapulted into high-risk missions by the U.S. government in hopes of securing reduced sentences, Gunn weaponizes the premise to set the table for a work he plainly sees as personally his own, populated with action figures marginal enough for him to play with in a space of relative freedom.

The key comeback characters here are both women: Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), a domineering, knit-pant-suited figurehead who manages her black-ops mercenaries with an absence of mercy from afar, plus the Joker's show-stealing ex-lover Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). Here, the Joker goes unmentioned as Robbie heightens the character's penchant for erratic violence without straying from her well-trodden ain't-I-cute comic register or self-justifying moral air. (She carries these off with a kind of practiced panache.) Quinn's joined by Bloodsport (Idris Elba), a high-tech sniper, Peacemaker (John Cena), a jingoistic, unstable, and self-interested blowhard with whom he often butts heads, the Polka-Dot Man, a powerful character whose Norman Bates-style queer coding accompanies a depiction of him as deeply repressed and unwell. The large cast includes a humanoid shark, a U.S. military agent, and a rat whisperer, too.

As in Game of Thrones, these characters are not immune from execution even as most casualties prove predictable. The film's R-rating and the cast's overall lack of importance to existing franchises (connections to say, Justice League, are hard to find) let Gunn script for them a bantering, potty-mouthed dialogic style not absent of charm, and it's one Cena and Elba make the most of. Within their forced, mission-driven marriage, they engage in a rowdy pissing context that spans the film — a dynamic the pair manage to sell as Squad's best pleasure.

While about as free as a project like this can really be, Gunn's fits of expressions and of humor are yoked to a plot that isn't just familiar, it's retrograde — a display of dominant neoliberalism at its shirking core. As has become common with most winking franchise work, the coy suggestion that the characters are in on the proceedings, that they and the director don't take things too seriously, that it's "just a comic-book movie," provides a screen not only for a drably centrist political schema but for a lack of imagination, consideration, or thought. As usual, it's a gesture toward — rather than a credible emblem of — control of meaning or of tone.

In dropping the film's U.S.-backed band of mercenaries in the Caribbean (and largely Latinx) nation of Corto Maltese, Squad ladles its uneven displays of wit and attempts at political satire over a narrative spine that foregrounds, revels in, and then just barely critiques U.S. interventionism. While the titular band (surprise!) finds ways to assert themselves, straying from their stated mission to secure contraband from a secret weapons post, they do so largely by traipsing through a country on the detonated, splattered guts of its brown inhabitants. When they come across a group of revolutionaries (led, inevitably, by an underserved Alice Braga) fighting against a starched and gilded, palace-based military regime, they forge an alliance that wears underdog patches on its sleeve while in practice serving as the dominating arm of a U.S.-backed coup. Over the squad's progression through beaches and jungles to the capital city's base and castle, Corto's residents are framed as anonymous people with odd customs, a procession of bodies with little more agency than dog food — and left often in similar form.

While Gunn attempts to turn the film's implicit rhetoric to the purposes of critique, reframing the film's nominal villain leads — eventually, in classic neoliberal fashion — as well-meaning but irreverent liberators waging a necessary, bloody fight for both human rights and public accountability, the sauce by Squad's end has already been long prepared, simmered, and served. After choreographing scene after scene of his leads slaughtering anonymized hordes of soldiers on foreign soil — at the whims of an office that operates basically like the CIA, no less — it's impossible for Gunn to have and keep the cake he's spent two hours gleefully scarfing down. With violence that is — while at times satisfying — as pointedly, bawdily comedic as it is overscored, Squad seemingly by accident (though not by coincidence) becomes an effects-enhanced celebration of the received narratives that make it up. Like an amorous kid compiling a mixtape, Gunn's assembled a bundle of messages here through the songs and stories his handiwork contains. In doing so, he's painted an illuminating portrait of who its maker is — but he hasn't crafted the kind of picture he should want to.

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