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The Silver Age of DC Comics – TASCHEN 396 Pages

Review: The Suicide Squad – 2021

Big budget Hollywood visuals, straight-ahead action combined with a patina of intelligence and wholesomeness peaking out from under the well-deserved R-rating.

This isn't exactly a "family friendly" movie like DC's recent Wonder Woman 84. Loaded up with the F-word (and from time to time Samuel Jackson's trademark word), with The Suicide Squad we also get some genitalia jokes, a spot of nudity, enough violence (and resultant Hollywood gore) to depict a war (which, in effect, is the story line), plus depictions of torture, mental illness and a heavy hand of anarchic cynicism.

Also on screen are superhero heroics and the battered but still functioning superhero morality of action as an instrument of service to humanity, though this comes about through pressure. To whit: little bombs are implanted into the back of the heads of the Suicide Squad (like the small explosive charge put into Snake Plissken's neck to help him focus on rescuing the kidnapped president in Escape from New York, 1981) so that the Squad members don't try to back out of the mission or simply go AWOL. With both movies (and the older Suicide Squad film from director David Ayer) the tiny bombs are linked to a button so that if Amanda Waller, the program head honcho, is displeased or alarmed, she can "cancel" the offending Squad member with just a little finger push.

The Suicide Squad R-rating isn't so much the "adult" version of DC superheroes, but the decadent view of superheroes as (mostly unknowing) arbitrators of injustice and justice in equal measures, and in this film in particular superheroes are essentially stand-ins for soldiers (or super-soldiers if you prefer) and how they are misused by corrupt governments. Our story tells of a secret lab and the involvement of Starro the Conqueror, an alien creature with a long history in DC Comics, which is simultaneously as goofy as it sounds and through the CGI work, an exceedingly impressive kaiju on screen.

In the story, secret governmental financing for research built on top of Nazi experiments can be taken as a metaphor for past (real) governmental secret projects that went haywire, or even present-tense paranoia over issues like the pandemic and viral research funding, but whichever way you go, The Suicide Squad is the same flavor of dread about wayward authority that has haunted American cinema for six decades.

Characterizations are distinct and retain the comic book flavoring from many eras, a mix of contemporary superhero culture, 80s comic books, and stuff back to the 1960s (Polka Dot Man is a creation of writer Bill Finger, for example). The end of the 2016 Suicide Squad featured the personal triumphs of some of the surviving team members overcoming their issues, and that happens here in the 2021 version, too, though with unresolved ramifications that beg for a sequel to tie it up (which was also the ending of the previous film, and underscores how much the sequel-laden superhero movies are imitating the serial format of pamphlet comics, aka "floppies"). Though The Suicide Squad is directly tied as a sequel to the earlier film, also in a lateral way (presumably) to the Birds of Prey movie, no one needs to watch the 2016 The Suicide Squad in order to sort out the 2021 The Suicide Squad, though seeing Ayer's older version will beef up your understanding of the main characters that have survived from those other movies and then got themselves into this one (where the survival rate, by the end, is more severely curtailed).

The Suicide Squad stays within basic and long-running depictions derived from comic books, that is: the amazing ability of a superhuman body to get blown up, punched, hit and thrown about without too much damage resulting (mostly blood trickles on the face). Despite the heavy body count with the overall team, this seems like it isn't so much the result of the abundant combat, but rather the need to trim down the team lineup to help focus the story and to carry the football of victory across the finish line (and to supply a few unexpected sequences, such as when Viola Davis as the previously indestructible Amanda Waller, the leader who concocts the suicide missions in the first place, finally faces a teaspoon worth of comeuppance.)

High marks are the filling-in of the story showing Harley Quinn's (Margo Robbie) peculiar sort of traumatized pathology; making King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone) an animated and interesting character; and good performances from Idris Elba as the lethal supermarksman Bloodsport, Joel Kinnaman as Colonel Rick Flag, David Dastmalchian as the only ludicrous on the surface Polka-Dot Man, and Daniela Melchior as Ratcatcher 2, another jokey, parody-like superhero who the story gives a generous and warm portrait, and in this way pulls the emotional strength of comic books into the film, subverting expectations.

Downside is that Harley Quinn remains rather one-dimensional, a crazy woman wielding weapons expertly and making intentional and unintentional funny jokes, not nearly as developed as the comic book character who is crazy but also simultaneously a PhD doctor of psychology with a keen, though fractured, intellect. The Hollywood version remains a dimmer bulb however much warmth and pure showbiz Margo Robbie is able to inject into her. As far as the other characters go, the production loves Idris Elba and the film essentially charts his rise to being the most important personality on the screen, but it also makes sure to tell us how much the production, or the director, or somebody with power making this movie, hates Rick Flagg, providing a hyper-realistic image during a fight scene that underlines just how they really feel by giving the guy's arterial organ a starring role suddenly upon the screen (you'll know what it is when you see it.) Peacemaker, played by John Cena, is elevated by the end, too, probably as preparation for the TV series based around the character. The drawback might be that this Peacemaker may have no fans (everyone I saw the film with didn't like the character and voiced displeasure at the deaths of certain other characters). The ways of Hollywood is a mystery, and perhaps this is all just part and parcel of pleasing an audience that doesn't include the popcorn eaters the movie is supposedly being pitched to.

And then there's that persistent black hole in the center of most superhero movies, which is that The Suicide Squad doesn't try to explain (nor did the earlier film of 2016) how all these various powers are possible, implying at best a vague mixture of kooky science, mysticism, sheer willpower, disease and luck. A brief acknowledgement of religious experience is delivered harshly when villain Thinker (Peter Capaldi) says "If God existed, wouldn't this be proof that he wasn't good at all?" which seems like a sudden shift into Christopher Hitchens territory, but the film doesn't stay there for any exploration and goes back to the business of Do or Die. As a hyper-budget version of shlock mercenary movies spliced into a sci-fi superhero tale, or even as an appeal toward higher grade stuff from out of the past like The Dirty Dozen, and the even more obvious influence, The Guardians of the Galaxy, directed by the same guy doing this current film as that Marvel film, The Suicide Squad is an attempt to cover a lot of bases all at once and it does that by way of craftsmanship and some good script-writing where it matters. The downside is the burden of the R-rating which narrows our expectations and there's also the erosion of any finesse in language due to the coarseness. The gore for its own sake visuals of flying heads and ripped apart bodies made me think of Dostoevsky, "If man wasn't created to be ripped apart, he must have been created for something..." and that question lets The Suicide Squad play both ends at the same time: the heroes are villains but the authority representing the good are the actual villains, making the first villains the heroes when they oppose it, which is what we, in the audience, want them to do.

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Original Page Aug 15, 2021