The Suicide Squad – film review

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for The Suicide Squad and other recent DC titles.

I always caveat my reviews of comic book films by saying that I’m not really a huge comics fan. I never read comic books as a kid, and while there have been some cinematic adaptations that worked well, for the most part the highest praise I can give most comic book films is that they’re moderately entertaining action fare.

My most recent encounter with a DC Comics film was Zack Snyder’s Justice League – and I really didn’t enjoy that film. But in 2016 I’d watched the first Suicide Squad and enjoyed it for what it was, so I figured I’d check in with this film to see what it had to offer. First, though, I had to figure out what The Suicide Squad is. Is it a sequel? A reboot? A soft reboot? In short, what’s going on with the confusingly similar title?

Poster for The Suicide Squad.

DC has struggled to compete with Marvel in terms of film adaptations, despite having just as many well-known and well-regarded superheroes at its disposal. Following disappointing results with some of the films of the DC Extended Universe, including the original cut of Justice League, DC opted to rework its cinematic offerings, and I think that’s why this film is called The Suicide Squad instead of Suicide Squad 2. DC hasn’t done a good job of communicating all of this, though, at least not to casual viewers. Hardcore DC fans who follow all the ins and outs of the brand and its news will know what to expect from The Suicide Squad, but there’s no doubt in my mind that its confusing name and the deeply muddled state of DC’s film universe is going to be baffling to many would-be viewers – if not outright offputting.

Compounding this was the fact that most of the cast of Suicide Squad didn’t reprise their roles this time around. Will Smith, Cara Delevigne, Jared Leto, and several other big names either chose not to return or saw their roles cut when the DCEU’s plans changed.

Though The Suicide Squad is tonally similar to its predecessor, when compared to the likes of Zack Snyder’s Justice League – a film which tried so desperately hard to take itself seriously that it became unintentionally funny – there’s a wild shift in tone. The dark humour and lack of seriousness in The Suicide Squad is a massive improvement over a film like Zack Snyder’s Justice League, and a far better fit for its source material, which was something I appreciated! But it does make DC’s recent cinematic output feel completely disjointed; wild jumps in tone and style make the two films feel like they couldn’t possibly be part of one supposedly-connected, ongoing world. Marvel comparisons again abound because that franchise handles this so much better. Marvel projects are generally consistent in basic things like their style and tone, and it’s seldom the case that one comes away from a Marvel film feeling it’s wildly out of kilter with other parts of the franchise.

The Suicide Squad had a light-hearted tone and knew what kind of film it wanted to be.

Humour is a very subjective thing, and not every joke or comedic moment will have landed for every viewer. But for me, the film’s sense of humour was generally on point. The Suicide Squad didn’t strive to take itself too seriously, and at the same time was able to successfully communicate the stakes involved for the protagonists. That isn’t a line that’s easy to walk sometimes, yet the film broadly stayed on the right side of it.

Keeping a relatively lighthearted tone throughout was to the film’s benefit. Not only was it appropriate for a story that bordered on the ridiculous (a giant starfish from outer space) but it provided The Suicide Squad with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. A lighter style allowed the film to embrace much of the silliness that comes from comic book characters and their visual styles, and compared to other DC titles The Suicide Squad leaned into campiness in its costuming and took in its stride some truly wacky concepts, characters, and premises.

The Suicide Squad has a pretty wacky and silly premise, and the film leaned into that in a big way.

There were some definite visual misses in The Suicide Squad. The CGI and green-screen work was far from perfect, and though the worst moments were few and far between, in a film with a budget of more than $180 million that really shouldn’t be happening in the first place. There were some “uncanny valley” moments with the CGI, particularly CGI moments involving the film’s human characters. Then there were some moments where the use of green-screens was just incredibly obvious to the point of being offputting.

Interestingly, these issues also plagued Zack Snyder’s Justice League. In my review of that film I wondered if some of the visual effects misses might’ve been due to the lower budget afforded to the re-editing of the film. It now seems as though that wasn’t the case; DC just isn’t especially good at green-screen and CGI moments. In a film that relies heavily on visual effects, this isn’t just noticeable – it actively detracts from the experience and can completely ruin suspension of disbelief.

One of several green-screen moments that missed the mark.

After his recent controversy for apologising to the Chinese dictatorship, it was ironic – no, it was grotesque – to see John Cena playing a character whose defining characteristic is is love of freedom and peace. Though this character was always presented as a semi-antagonist, something about the casting really got under my skin. Cena’s portrayal of Peacemaker was fine – competent, even. But knowing how the actor favours Chinese money over basic human rights, seeing him spouting lines like “I would do it for liberty” was vomit-inducing.

Idris Elba took the leading role in The Suicide Squad and put in a creditable performance as a mercenary “with a heart of gold;” taking on the dangerous mission for the sake of his daughter. Giving Bloodsport this extra motivation added an extra dimension to the character and kept him believable – despite the wacky situation and the chaos that unfolded around him. Elba had previously played Krall, the villain in Star Trek Beyond, and it was fun to see him in a different role on this occasion.

Idris Elba’s Bloodsport was the main hero of the piece.

Margot Robbie got top billing alongside Idris Elba, but in 2016 I felt her forced “American” accent as Harley Quinn was just plain awful, and unfortunately that situation has not improved in the slightest in the years since. Robbie put in an otherwise impressive performance as the damaged, psychotic Quinn, but her accent was never believable and that did detract from the character at points.

The surprise star for me was Portuguese actress Daniela Melchior, who played Ratcatcher 2. Her deeply emotional portrayal cut through what was a strange and even silly premise to become an unexpectedly impressive performance in a film laden with established stars. Her character arc, coming to terms with the loss of her father and finally putting to use his odd invention, was elevated far beyond what it could’ve been by Melchior’s performance, which is even more impressive considering that The Suicide Squad is one of her first ever English-speaking roles. She provided vulnerability and emotion to the character – and the paternal relationship between Bloodsport and Ratcatcher 2, while not fully developed, really formed the film’s entire emotional core.

Daniela Melchior put in an amazing and emotional performance as Ratcatcher 2.

The decision to begin the film with a fake-out – setting up a secondary “suicide squad” and then watching them get slaughtered – was a bold decision. Setting up a different crop of characters, and framing that part of the film from the point of view of one of them, did succeed at setting up Harley Quinn’s storyline and at communicating the stakes involved and the level of risk to the main characters. But at the same time it felt cheap; setting up minor characters – redshirts – to be killed off allowed most of the other main characters to survive their so-called suicide mission. Only one of the principal characters on Bloodsport’s team ended up dead by the film’s end, which might not be enough for a film literally called The Suicide Squad.

Perhaps the decision for all but the Polka Dot Man to survive is DC’s way of teeing up another sequel. If that’s the case, I would definitely be interested to see Bloodsport and Ratcatcher 2 return for another outing. The disjointed way DC still runs its cinematic arm makes me wonder if they have any such plans, though – and if they do, whether it’ll ever happen!

The characters from the film’s opening act were all killed (except one).

In a film with a larger cast, some characters can end up feeling underused, and Peter Capaldi’s Thinker definitely fell into that trap. Set up early on in the film as one of the main villains of the piece, he ended up being little more than a one-dimensional hurdle for other characters to blaze past on their way to completing their mission. Peter Capaldi is an actor I’ve admired in the past, yet in recent years he never seems to land roles that are honestly worthy of his time. His tenure in Doctor Who saw lacklustre stories, and now his role in The Suicide Squad was, at best, a run-of-the-mill “mad scientist” trope.

It was a little disappointing we didn’t spend more time with the Thinker, nor really learn what he was doing at Project Starfish. A brief scene showed off a number of caged folks infected with the Starfish’s face-huggers and a few gory-looking but unexplained experiments. Yet the Thinker, despite being the closest The Suicide Squad got to a supervillain, had no motivation, no real accomplishments, and seemed to exist simply to fill a hole in the script.

Peter Capaldi’s character of the Thinker felt underused.

The Suicide Squad wasn’t shy in its criticism of American foreign policy, particularly the way the United States can be selective when it comes to favouring liberty and human rights. There were echoes of American policies toward Cuba and nations in Central America in its portrayal of Corto Maltese, as well as the United States’ general policy of supporting “pro-American” dictators all over the world.

These themes have been explored better and in more detail in other films, and while their inclusion in The Suicide Squad wasn’t necessarily bad, it didn’t exactly make for biting satire either. Nor was it particularly original; the political themes present in the narrative had things to say that have already been said both in entertainment and non-fiction on many other occasions, and the film added nothing to this conversation that hasn’t already been discussed and dissected in many other projects. In that sense, the political stuff was a bit unnecessary. It added little to the film except to elevate the ambiguous morality of Viola Davis’ character of Waller, the leader of the suicide squad programme.

The political themes didn’t really add a lot to the film, and similar criticisms of American policies have been done better in other titles.

Seeing Waller get her comeuppance from members of her own team was satisfying, and perhaps this was the best-executed moment on that side of the film. Waller had been presented as ruthless in the first Suicide Squad, but on this occasion we saw her team grow increasingly uncomfortable with the way she handled the squad and their mission, culminating in her getting wacked on the head. It was definitely a satisfying moment, but as with a couple of other storylines it feels as though there was no real resolution to what happened between Waller and her team.

Even the post-credits scene, which revealed that the Peacemaker survived, didn’t see Waller getting her own back or even interacting with her team in any way. After being knocked unconscious she never says another word on screen to any of them, and that conflict, which had been expertly built up in a number of sequences across the film, feels like it reached its climax then fizzled out. Perhaps it’s something else to be addressed in a sequel?

Perhaps a future sequel plans to look at the conflict between Waller and her team in more detail?

The Starfish alien, which was the reason for the story, was definitely one of the weirder villains I’ve seen in any comic book film to date. It was familiar enough to not be frightening in its appearance, yet it was also eerie in the way it moved. The face-hugging smaller starfish were like something right out of sci-fi horror classic Alien, but despite being unoriginal were still intimidating enough at first to seem to offer a degree of threat.

The fact that the suicide squad themselves were so easily able to fight off the smaller, mind-controlling starfish was poor, though. I’ve said this before, but the concept of a zombie virus, Borg assimilation, or anything else that can control minds and turn allies into enemies is deeply frightening; the thought of losing control of one’s body is, for many folks, a fate worse than death. Yet when it really could’ve mattered, The Suicide Squad wasted this concept. The only characters we saw get caught by the face-huggers were nameless goons (and one villain). As a result, the Starfish alien lost its only genuinely threatening aspect pretty quickly.

The smaller mind-controlling starfish only seemed to harm minor characters and extras.

It was still a giant monster to fight, and the squad had trouble taking it down. Because of the name of the film there was a sense that any of them could’ve been in danger, yet as noted only one character ended up being killed off during this climactic final battle. I had become somewhat attached to the likes of King Shark and Ratcatcher 2 (and the adorable Sebastian the rat) so on the one hand I’m glad that they all made it. On the other, it feels as though there could’ve been more casualties.

A film called The Suicide Squad and which sets up the premise of a forlorn hope type of mission seems like it should’ve ended with more casualties. Even one of the characters who appeared dead – Peacemaker – was later revealed to have survived, so at least part of the film’s premise doesn’t feel fulfilled. Though losing a protagonist is almost never fun, in some stories it feels right – and The Suicide Squad was certainly a story that could’ve seen more of its protagonists fail to make it home.

The main characters (bar one) survived to the end of the film.

Other superhero films using a team-up premise often set up at least some of their characters beforehand. As a result we know going in what to expect from them. In the case of The Suicide Squad, one negative point against the film is that none of the characters really felt like villains. We didn’t know any of them (except Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn) before the film started, and though we heard from Waller and others that some of them had done bad things in the past, that never really came across on screen; none of them felt like bad people.

To me, this chips away at the premise of The Suicide Squad. It wanted to throw anti-heroes at a far worse villain, allowing us as the audience to feel like they were redeemable and not all bad. Yet because of the way the film started and the way the characters were introduced, none of them ever really felt like bad people or even people who deserved to be imprisoned. Perhaps if we’d seen for ourselves a montage of some of their worst moments earlier in the film that sense could’ve been present, and the moral ambiguity it would’ve brought to the film might’ve elevated it into something more complex. Instead we were given that fake-out sequence with the suicide squad B-team.

The titular suicide squad – and friends.

Overall, I had a good time with The Suicide Squad. It wasn’t the perfect film by any means, but it was funny when it wanted to be, it leaned into its over-the-top storyline in a way that was in keeping with its comic book origins, and featured a couple of truly outstanding emotional performances that I wasn’t expecting.

Though DC continues to struggle and not really know what kind of films they want to make, I would say they should try to make more like this one! It was everything I expected from a comic book film, and thanks to the emotional performances of a couple of its main characters, maybe even managed to be something more. There were some visual misses, some underdeveloped characters, and a childish storyline featuring a weird alien, but under that fluff I found a decent action-comedy that I decidedly enjoyed.

The Suicide Squad is currently available to stream on HBO Max in the United States. The Suicide Squad is the copyright of DC Films and/or Warner Bros. Pictures. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.