Suicide Squad (Ayer, 2016) hit theaters after more than a year of fanfare, polarizing audiences who loved and hated it for a wide breadth of reasons.
Five years later to the exact weekend, The Suicide Squad (Gunn, 2021), a remake/sequel/reboot meant both for the people who loved and hated the first movie, arrives like a burger you sent back to the kitchen because you asked for no mustard that someone clearly just scraped off with a knife and still has big flecks of mustard all over it. It is the exact same movie with many of the exact same problems.
Corto Maltese- To quell an unfriendly regime coming to power, a very stupid CIA agent called Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) assembles another iteration of Task Force X, a group of dangerous inmates who have bombs injected into their heads and perform dangerous missions in exchange for time off their sentences if they survive. Waller has the American military at her disposal, but she chooses to send a bunch of unwilling, untrained and undisciplined slaves who already hate her personally instead.
Among the team’s number are Brian Durlin (Michael Rooker) – an expert marksman. In his hands, everything is a deadly weapon – Robert DuBois (Idris Elba) – an expert marksman. In his hands, everything is a deadly weapon – Christopher Smith (John Cena) – an expert marksman. In his hands, everything is a deadly weapon – Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) – a media sensation. With her face, anything can be sold to a particular demographic of teenage girl in her early 30s – Digger Harkness (Jai Courtney) – an expert marksman. In his hands, boomerangs are deadly weapons – Nanaue (Sylvester Stallone) – a shark monster, his hands are deadly weapons – and Abner Krill (David Dastmalchian) – the “Polka-Dot Man.” In his hands, polka dots are deadly weapons.
There are plenty of surface-level differences between these Suicide Squads. There’s more blood and gore in The Suicide Squad (Gunn, 2021), and that’s more fun. The music is better, though that’s a horribly low bar to clear. A cotton-candy starfish is a cooler giant monster than whatever Aztec-looking thing was going on at the end of Suicide Squad (Ayer, 2016), I don’t really remember. But the problems in that movie weren’t surface-level.
Warner Bros. knew the problems weren’t surface-level! Part of the media frenzy around Suicide Squad (Ayer, 2016) was that they were unabashedly changing the surface level right up until the moment of release! That movie wasn’t rotten on the surface because the special effects were bad and the pop songs were dumb – well, yes it was, and those were reasons – it was rotten at its core because the characters were redundant and had no agency or personality, its premise was dumb and they didn’t do anything special with it and it was full of horrible exposition and weird side plots. All of those problems apply verbatim to The Suicide Squad (Gunn, 2021).
The Suicide Squad (Gunn, 2021) was made to target the same audience in the same ways as Suicide Squad (Ayer, 2016), and we know that explicitly. Suicide Squad (Ayer, 2016) was infamously re-edited in the runup to its release to be more light-hearted and similar to its trailer to separate it from the dour Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which the studio had released that March. It quickly became obvious the jukebox musical they were trying to imitate was Guardians of the Galaxy, the smash hits James Gunn had helmed for Disney’s rival MCU series. In 2018, Disney reflexively fired Gunn from a third installment after trolls started circulating bad jokes he’d made 10 years ago, and Warner Bros., which had been cycling through directors for two years at this point, hired him almost immediately to more authentically copy his own homework. Disney would sheepishly re-hire him for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 less than a year later, completing a pointless and stupid dance that will delay that movie by two years.
The characters in The Suicide Squad (Gunn, 2021) are all the same as in Suicide Squad (Ayer, 2016). In many cases, they are literally the same characters in the same continuity, most notably Quinn, who spends most of both movies in a private romance story that distracts from the main plot and should have been cut. Robbie’s version of the character has become a tragic figure. They’ve jammed her into these movies on the idea that she sells tickets, but in two tries they haven’t found a plot for her, and the idea that she sells tickets is dubious in the first place – her solo feature, Birds of Prey, easily the best movie in the DCEU, performed like a mid-level buddy comedy just before the pandemic struck in February 2020.
Where the characters aren’t the same, they’re so similar it was initially assumed they were. Elba was initially speculated to be cast as Floyd Lawton – an expert marksman. In his hands, everything is a deadly weapon – because Will Smith, who led Suicide Squad (Ayer, 2016), didn’t want to go through this shit again. Instead, Elba was cast as completely different black marksman character with a troubled relationship with his daughter who becomes the defacto team leader, just so Smith can reprise the Lawton character without any continuity changes on the off-chance he might come back. The shark monster is here in the stead of a crocodile monster from the prior movie. The group’s powerhouse, Krill, hates and refuses to use his polka-powers, just like the prior group’s powerhouse hated and refused to use his fire powers.
But it’s not just about who’s technically the same character or which actors wanted to come back, it’s not just about skill overlap, it’s a foundational issue. The characters bleed into each other as if they’re all the same people. They all have the same goal and motivation – that is, to do whatever the CIA lady wants because she put a bomb in their head. Their backstories are different and they’re widely distinct in appearance and personality, but none of that connects to the narrative in any way. Distinctions in how they got here and how they act strip easily away because they were just window dressing in the first place.
Just like Suicide Squad (Ayer, 2016), The Suicide Squad (Gunn, 2021) is a longform exploration of how stupid its own premise is that constantly undermines itself in unintentional ways. Squad members are portrayed as both dangerously disposable, but also with unique and irreplaceable skillsets that necessitate enslaving them for an international smash-and-grab, but also distinctly lacking any unique or irreplaceable skillsets.
Even the sparce characters who have non-marksman skills don’t get to do non-marksman things. There’s a shark monster on the team, and there’s not any sort of aquatic task that you’d be willing to run all these risks so you could have a shark monster on the team to perform – in fact, they somehow manage to do the opposite, inserting every squadmate by sea, so they all have to do some swimming, and Nanaue doesn’t even appear onscreen until after what should be his time to shine. Cleo Cazo (Daniela Melchior) has a magic wand that can control rats, and instead of changing the group’s entire approach to the mission the way with someone who could do that would, she’s just there, doing the same things everyone else is doing, but with rats.
Suicide Squad (Ayer, 2016) begins with an infamous barrage of character introductions, many of which repeat and overlap, broadcasting how poorly organized the movie would be as a whole. In The Suicide Squad (Gunn, 2021), those character introductions are spread out across the movie – but they’re still there. What feels like 90% of the movie is still backfilling lore that has no bearing on the immediate plot, is still talking and talking and talking about things that happened off-screen and before they got sent to prison. The problem isn’t solved, it’s just smeared around a greater percentage of the runtime instead of frontloaded. Having sat through both, it’s honestly hard to say which way to ham-handedly stuff backstory into a movie is better, because the answer is so clearly that you shouldn’t do it at all.
Is The Suicide Squad (Gunn, 2021) actually less funny than Suicide Squad (Ayer, 2016)? It certainly isn’t more funny. The Suicide Squad (Gunn, 2021) has exactly one joke – undercutting itself with reversals and shifts in tone within a scene. This is the kind of bathos humor Marvel movies are famous/infamous for doing all the time, and I still don’t understand why it was ever considered funny. It used to be that a confused tone was a point of criticism, now these things can “get the formula right” and everyone celebrates. It’s intentionally bad filmmaking reframed as a joke.
This isn’t even the first time James Gunn specifically has made this specific movie. His 2011 cult film Super, just his second time in the director’s chair, deconstructed the superhero genre in all the same ways and with more and more disturbing violence 10 years ago. Kick-Ass, a personal favorite, released that same year and also did a much better job at everything than The Suicide Squad (Gunn, 2021) – it’s more subversive, more violent, both sillier and more genuine without ever feeling like it oscillates between the two, and it’s got a better and better-used soundtrack.
Both movies treat the squad’s disposable nature, ostensibly the defining trait of this team, with the same extended lip service. In Suicide Squad (Ayer, 2016), one character who doesn’t get a backstory and isn’t in any of the promotional material gets Scanners’d to lend credence to the bomb implants, and then no one the audience is meant to care about dies. In The Suicide Squad (Gunn, 2021), Waller sends a primary team to draw fire, and they mostly die horribly, and then no one on the B team that the audience is meant to care about dies. This isn’t the “Game of Thrones” -esque parade into the afterlife it might be, where no one is safe – everybody’s safe. There is nothing suicidal about this squad. They are just as immune from harm as any other set of action heroes.
Then somewhere in this rat king of characters who are narratively indistinguishable and billed as being disposable, who are members of something casually referred to as “The Suicide Squad,” someone says “We don’t leave one of our own behind” as an excuse to get Quinn back into the plot, and I feel a bomb implant going off in my own head.
Then these reluctant anti-heroes become very eager heroes when the [inspirational music] plays, because nothing distinctive can stay. All of these movies must be exactly the same. Any attempt to make a comic book movie stand out in any way must be eroded, the glorious and detailed cliff-face that any movie can and should be can never be any more than a smooth, sexless lump, beaten by a sea of formula into something so indistinguishable that it squirms out of your memory at the first opportunity.
Make a different movie. Make a different movie. No, don’t make the same movie again, make a different one! Make a movie with different characters. Give them different motivations and goals. Give them better ones! Come up with a new idea! Delve deeper into your decades of source material and find something that hasn’t been tried before. Put real thought into what makes these characters unique, and then apply that to the story. No, don’t recruit a director from Marvel, they need to make different movies too!
Make a movie that doesn’t suck! Make a movie with real action, with wirework and choreography. Make a movie with characters who have more interesting skills than being an “expert marksman – in his hands, anything is a deadly weapon.” Make a movie that doesn’t constantly undermine itself as a joke, or at least has other jokes to offer. Make a movie with characters who are more interesting personally than these Spencer’s employees with fewer piercings who have more emotional motives than bombs in their heads, or at least have an emotional relationship to the person who put the bombs in their heads. Write them a climax with personal stakes. Make a movie that is fundamentally different, not one that is fundamentally the same with a different coat of paint.