There are so many things wrong with David Ayer’s original 2016 Suicide Squad movie that it’s hard to know where to start. It’s like a superhero flick from the bad old days, before Marvel and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. A movie made by hired guns rather than comic book fans. The suspicion is that nobody involved cared enough about this team of badass criminals turned government-backed problem solvers to imbue them with personalities.
It’s well documented that Ayer lost control of the final edit to the team that put together Suicide Squad’s hugely popular trailers, resulting in a movie apparently made for filmgoers with the attention span of toddlers. As for Cara Delevingne’s excruciatingly over-the-top turn as June Moone/Enchantress … it’s remarkable that the former model escaped with her acting career intact.
The story of how director James Gunn came to cross the Marvel/DC divide and sign on for forthcoming The Suicide Squad (AKA Suicide Squad 2) is a strange one. Gunn, the director of both Guardians of the Galaxy films, had been fired from part three after ill-advised tweets from more than a decade ago were dug up by the Daily Caller website. Eventually, Marvel owner Disney reinstated Gunn after several stars spoke up, and the film-maker now finds himself looking after movies for both comic book studios (Guardians of the Galaxy 3 is due in 2023, The Suicide Squad in August). He follows in the footsteps of Avengers director Joss Whedon, whose work on Justice League left a lot to be desired.
Like Whedon, Gunn is accepting what at first glance looks like a DC take on the Marvel superhero flicks that helped make his name. Just like the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Suicide Squad are a motley gang of miscreants who find themselves in the position of unlikely heroes. And yet, without the protective blanket of Marvel, it remains to be seen whether Gunn will be able to repeat his previous success.
A new synopsis for The Suicide Squad, released this week, gives us a hint at how the sequel will pan out.
“Welcome to hell – AKA Belle Reve, the prison with the highest mortality rate in the US of A. Where the worst supervillains are kept and where they will do anything to get out – even join the super-secret, super-shady Task Force X. Today’s do-or-die assignment? Assemble a collection of cons, including Bloodsport, Peacemaker, Captain Boomerang, Ratcatcher 2, Savant, King Shark, Blackguard, Javelin, and everyone’s favourite psycho, Harley Quinn. Then arm them heavily and drop them (literally) on the remote, enemy-infused island of Corto Maltese.”
“Trekking through a jungle teeming with militant adversaries and guerrilla forces at every turn, the Squad is on a search-and-destroy mission with only Colonel Rick Flag on the ground to make them behave and Amanda Waller’s government techies in their ears, tracking their every movement. As always, one wrong move and they’re dead.”
Corto Maltese is a fictional island off the coast of South America that has appeared intermittently in DC Comics and related movies. It was the centre of a Cuban missile crisis-style standoff in Frank Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel, and appeared briefly in Tim Burton’s Batman as the war-torn subject of Vicki Vale’s photojournalism.
The plotline sounds like a Fortnite-style video game. But if it’s going to be elevated into something we want to spend two hours watching, Gunn is going to have to really knock it out of the park. It’s easy to imagine a film-maker such as Quentin Tarantino taking this grubby Dirty Dozen-esque template and transforming it into a film that transcends its cheesy roots via snappy dialogue and narrative sleight of hand. Gunn? Well, he has a strong cast, including DC newcomers Peter Capaldi as The Thinker, Idris Elba as Bloodsport and Michael Rooker as Savant (the latter pair also hopping over from Marvel). Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman and Viola Davis will all return as Harley Quinn, Rick Flag and Amanda Waller, while there’s even an unspecified role for Sylvester Stallone.
Let’s hope we get a detailed backstory for all of them and that Rick and Amanda receive more subtle treatments. Last time out, it felt like Kinnaman’s lines had all been left on the cutting-room floor, while Amanda came across as little more than a blunt-nosed sociopath. While the comics paint her as a bully with few redeeming features, it still felt like a waste of Davis’s talents.
Gunn certainly has the chops to alchemise trashy comic book silliness into precious metal. And yet, as many of Tarantino’s imitators have found to their cost, the problem with recycling pulp is that you can easily find the end result falling apart in your hands.