I think it’s pretty obvious that James Gunn doesn’t agree with me about ensemble movies, not that he thinks they’re easy, but that we differ on how good ones are constructed. I feel that ensemble movies are hard because you have to create a variety of different characters all swirling around one thing, and that their journeys need to interrelate on some level beyond the mechanics of plot to help reinforce the central point of the film. Gunn sees ensemble pieces differently. He seems to see them as large canvases for him to fill in with whatever his imagination deems amusing at the time with little regard to structure. There’s definitely entertainment to be had with Gunn’s approach, but I ultimately find it a frustrating kind of entertainment that’s fun in spurts but ultimately feels like its constantly stopping and going instead of being handled by an artist who understands exactly where the narrative train needs to end up.
Gunn’s haphazard approach to structure often works against him, but I feel like his opening to The Suicide Squad actually works fairly well. We are introduced to Task Force X, a team of half a dozen criminals with super abilities sent to the small Caribbean nation of Corto Maltese. Led by Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), they land on the beach in the middle of the night and immediately get wiped out by the local army leaving only Flag and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) alive. This is told through the eyes of Michael Rooker’s Savant, brought into the mission and our very quick introductory eyes into the rules of the world, including the pressure that Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) brings to convincing these prisoners to go on her missions for her, and ultimately how she deals with people who refuse her orders (heads go boom). All of this mission, though, was a mere distraction for the actual force with the actual mission, though, and the way the film jumps from the distraction to the real team and then back in time three days to see how the real team was formed is an amusing misdirect that I feel like is a fun way to begin the film, especially when you consider the gore that Gunn loves to wallow in, being able to put it all on full display with this R-rated DC comic book movie.
The real team is led by Idris Elba’s Bloodsport, an assassin who can’t miss, followed by John Cena’s Peacemaker, David Dastmalchian’s Polka-Dot Man, Daniela Melchior’s Ratcatcher 2 (her father was the original), and Sylvester Stallone as the walking shark Nanaue. These five have the mission of finding Jotunheim, a secret installation, home to Project Starfish, and destroy it after the country of Corto Maltese has fallen to a military coup. This cast of colorful characters gets moments throughout the film to highlight their unique personalities, and there’s interest to be had here. If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be Polka-Dot Man, subjected to alien experiments by his mother that gave him an extra-terrestrial virus that manifests in the form of circular, primary-colored discs that he must expel in one way or another twice a day. The problem is that his back story comes at the most random time where all progress in the story unnaturally comes to a stop for him to tell his tale.
And that’s the sort of thing that happens to all of them except the characters that we already know, Flag and Quinn. In between, there are definitely amusing bits like the competition between Bloodsport and Peacemaker as they walk into an enemy camp, brutally murdering enemy combatants along the way to the central tent, trying to one-up the other with Bloodsport realizing, in comedic fashion, that Peacemaker had the better time of it than him. But, instead of moving on with the story, the effort to capture the scientist in charge of Project Starfish to get them inside, we have to catch up with Quinn who has been captured by the military and brought to the president because he had fallen in love with her. Again, this isn’t necessarily bad stuff, but it’s the story grinding to a halt completely to tell what essentially amounts to a nearly unrelated short film.
I will say this, I think this is the first time that Harley Quinn feels right. I don’t have a lot of history with her, having only watched The Animated Series a bit as a kid and never reading her in the comics, but moreso than in the original Suicide Squad and definitely more than in Birds of Prey, Quinn feels like an interesting character as she kills the president because she got a bad feeling about him, and she made a promise to herself to do the right thing the next time she got a bad feeling about a man she was involved with by murdering him. When she breaks out of captivity on her own, it’s the absolute best use of her from an action sequence standpoint so far. Gunn knows to give her lots of guns and plenty of environmental tools to make her sequence where she kills several dozen soldiers feel believable, and the effect of taking it somewhat subjective by having flowers explode everywhere as the sequence crescendos is actually quite nice to see. My problem is that this sequence feels like it could have been pretty much cut completely and we wouldn’t have missed anything particularly important to the actual story at hand.
The actual story, if you were going to dig through the morass of different threads, seems to be about American efforts to push off its dirty work onto third-world countries, and it doesn’t really manifest until something like 90 minutes into the 130-minute-long movie. America hired Corto Maltese to study a space starfish that expelled smaller version of itself that attached to the faces of people and starts controlling them, turning them into extensions of itself. The rest of the film is this huge battle to take it out, using everyone’s special abilities to attack Starro in a weird version of the ending of The Avengers (I would be surprised if Gunn wasn’t consciously mirroring the MCU team up movie), and it’s nice to look at.
That being said, though, it ends up feeling like a purely technical exercise because it’s just the latest in a series of events. It doesn’t feel like the culmination of a story. The whole 90 minutes that preceded it was a random collection of moments of people, connected only by the barest of mechanical plot strings. There’s nothing thematic undergirding the earlier moments that brings them together with the larger plot in the form of the giant Starfish that attacks the city, so I end up looking at this finale as mere spectacle and nothing else. It’s pretty in the Gunn twisted kind of way, but I end up feeling like it’s really empty.
I know this film is getting pretty universal praise, and I sort of get it. It’s thinly entertaining, but it doesn’t really gel overall. It’s the best the DCEU has been since Shazam!, though.