If you think of the Marvel Comic Universe (MCU, for all its angst and blockbuster bombast, as the glossy, pretty member of the superhero family where bad things happen but it’s all reasonably tidy by the end, then the DC Universe is its scrappy, angry, dark and messy sibling, the one who throws all the neat and tidy rules of the genre to the floor, stomps all over them with bloody boots and then sets fire to them, cackling with manic laughter all the way.
It is, by any measure, quite the graphic contrast but in a world where homogenised superhero movies have become the norm, and big titanic battles to the death or something approaching it feel staged and choreographed to within an inch of their brutally poetic life, a film like James Gunn’s 2021 take on The Suicide Squad is gloriously noticeable if only because it is so over the top, messy, and chaotic in all the best ways.
This is what happens when Superman, Batman and Aquaman, themselves possessed enough existential angst and inner turmoil to keep a brave psychiatrist busy for a multiverse millennium step off to the side of the stage and let the antiheroes do their morally dubious thing.
Only in this slice of the superhero universe, you could well argue that antiheroes like Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Peacemaker (John Cena), Nanaue/King Shark (Sylvester Stallone) and Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) are the ones with a moral compass neatly and nicely intact (well, mostly; in common with most people, their humanity is flawed at best) while those calling the shots such as Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), the head of A.R.G.U.S. and administrator of the Taskforce X program have left their humanity long behind them.
For people like Waller and a couple of other double-crossers in the film who must remain nameless for narrative integrity to be observed, and yes, there is a cohesive if throwaway storyline running through the film in amongst all the orgiastic violence, murder, mayhem and horror-like villains, the ends very much justify the means which are fully disposable, exist in a moral vacuum and grist for the realpolitik mill.
While you would hardly call The Suicide Squad a thoughtful rumination on the human condition, and to be fair, it doesn’t even attempt to present itself that way, there is actually a solid moral backbone running through the film.
And it comes courtesy of Harley Quinn, a character you might not necessarily think of being the flag bearer for all things admirably human, but who is, throughout this film for all the jaggedly offbeat parts of her crazed, criminal persona, the one with the beating heart.
Along with Ratcatcher 2 aka Cleo (Daniela Melchior) who is as sweet and committed to doing the right thing as an anti-hero can be, Quinn is the one who time and again calls morally expedient souls like Bloodsport back to the truth of a situation which because of power plays and a loose commitment to the observing of human life is often buried under a ton of morally compromised action.
While The Suicide Squad is a big, giant video clip sprung to magnificently expansive life, sporting scene upon scene where death is played for comic effect and it’s funny to watch people die in horrifically awful ways – this is not always a good thing and there are times where, even if you are regular viewer of superhero battles, you will wince at the casualness of gruesomely-executed murder, it actually manages to have a great, big, beating moralistic heart thanks to Quinn, Ratcatcher 2 and a number of others who decide there is some good in them after all.
It is also the care taken, in a film that sometimes looks like it was thrown together by a committee doing some pretty impressive drugs on a hot summer’s day, with interpersonal relationships and judiciously-used backstory that gives The Suicide Squad a sense of raw, affecting and surprising humanity.
Cleo is the key to this in many ways.
With a hardscrabble life on the streets behind here, saved only by the love of a father (Taika Waititi) who was ultimately unable to beat his inner demons but loved his daughter fiercely and well, Cleo is the one who convinces Nanaue he can have friends, who assures Polka-Dot Man he is loveable and who persists with Bloodsport as nascent authority figure, even when he doesn’t believe it is something of which he is capable.
Together Cleo and Harley Quinn, who is also a seriously funny character who has far and away the best lines with Robbie possessing the acting chops to deliver them with exuberant vulnerability and chutzpah depending on the moment, infuse The Suicide Squad with the kind of humanity which saves it from becoming a vacuous video game on steroids.
If you are seeing precious little of the actual storyline reference here, that’s because while it exists and it is cohesive enough to serve the film well, it is there mostly for some bloody, brutally efficient scenes which play to the need to see death rendered in a plethora of gory and skincrawlingly chilling ways.
In a sense they fit well because The Suicide Squad is nothing if not a messy anti-hero film.
It wears its ballsy, smart-quipping, rock music-blasting – though there is clever ironic use of far older tunes that counterpoint to the scenes they are in to grimly amusing perfection – suit well, and while it does have things to say about power, its use and abuse and the sublimation of good by evil even by those who claim to champion the former, it exists mainly as a character study aimed at subverting our ideas of who is good and who is bad.
And to do it in wildly entertaining fashion, never ever taking its foot off the pedal and yet somehow being far more human, heartfelt and moving than many entrants in its MCU counterpart.
It is also does a nice job, right at the end, of completely damning people for wholly misunderstanding the nature of the Big Bad in the film who enacts carnage and damage on a massive scale but only because he too has been wrongly categorised, poorly treated and criminally misused.
The Suicide Squad might be far too violent, bleak and murderously casual for its own good at times, and often appears to be a vapid montage of blood, guts and violence played for comedic effect and little else, but it is possessed of a great big and surprisingly thoughtful heart that understands that being flawed does not preclude goodness, that those deemed lost and broken by society might actually be its moral standard bearers and that not recognising this damns those in positions of authority because were they to embrace such a notion, and they likely won’t, they might find the world a better, more caring place after all (though if you watch the film, you’ll realise that’s not even close to what they want, anyway).