Here’s one sign among many of how the world of movie franchising has expanded over the past 20 years. It’s not as if there weren’t 20th century sequels—hundreds of ‘em!—but there was a time where the idea of a follow-up to a movie called Suicide Squad, especially one that inspired such mixed reactions, would be a cheap premise for a joke about Hollywood’s bankruptcy. Whaddaya call it, Suicide Squad 2: Still Not Dead? Suicide Squad: This Time We Mean It? Now the central idea behind Suicide Squad, wherein bad guys are forced onto impossible missions with low probability of survival, feels ready-made for sequels. If an actor gets too fussy, kill ‘em off. If the whole thing goes sideways, start over with a new squad. And if people love it, well, no one in comic book movies really stays dead, anyway.
People did not love 2016’s Suicide Squad. It was a mess, taped together by a great concept, the star power of Will Smith, and the allure of the popular DC Comics character Harley Quinn, making her live-action debut. It was then slathered in gluey, trailer-ready pop songs—only this time, the trailer figured out the playlist first and the movie was forced to follow suit. It still made a tonna dough, as Harley Quinn might say, and a sequel was being developed around the same time that James Gunn, director of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies over at DC’s rivals Marvel, found himself with some free time. Parent company Disney had recently been tricked into firing him for some untoward old tweets and DC, apparently being the place for reformed villains, scooped him up quickly enough to get the Squad rolling again. (Gunn was since rehired by Disney and Guardians 3 is in the works again.)
It’s all quite the saga to explain the extremely explainable: Once again, a bunch of bad guys get sprung from prison to be sent out on a deadly mission. The sender is still Amanda Waller (Viola Davis). The sendees include a surprising number of returning alumni for a movie everyone hated, perhaps in recognition of the fact that Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) were not to blame for the previous movie’s missteps. They are joined, in various combinations, by: TDK (Nathan Fillion), Ratcatcher II (Daniela Melchior), Savant (Michael Rooker), the Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), Weasel (Sean Gunn), the Peacemaker (John Cena), Blackguard (Pete Davidson), and King Shark (Sylvester Stallone, in voice anyway), a man-shark hybrid not to be confused with Killer Croc, the man-croc hybrid from the earlier film. Will Smith’s character Deadshot does not appear, nor is mentioned at all, but not to worry: He has been seamlessly replaced by a different super-assassin character with a two-syllable name who is only on the Squad to save his young daughter. Please understand: Bloodsport is completely different from Deadshot. For one thing, he is played by Idris Elba, who has an English accent. For another, uh… what, you really need two things?
The sport-for-shot, blood-for-dead, shark-for-croc swaps reveal a basic truth about superhero reboots, whether soft, partial, or unmerciful: Sometimes, a bold new vision will look a lot like the previous, unbolded vision, even with a color-palette upgrade. Add in the fact that Gunn is an architect of another misfit not-quite-superhero team in the Guardians of the Galaxy, who learn the same basic lessons on the teamwork-family spectrum as the more straitlaced Avengers, and The Suicide Squad is unavoidably familiar group-therapy stuff, even when it’s drenched in way, way more blood and viscera than any previous movie that’s co-existed in a cinematic universe with major-label heroes.
What Gunn does, far more successfully than a lot of contemporary comics-to-film supervisors, is make the drenching sort of the point. An oft-quoted Pauline Kael maxim says that “movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have no reason to be interested in them.” I’d say that goes double, or at least 1.5, for superhero movies, and The Suicide Squad is pretty great trash. Shot with IMAX cameras, it frequently looks spectacular, especially when it hits daylight. The squad, in a different configuration than when the movie starts, and subject to some amusing timeline tricks, lands on an island beach, makes their way through a jungle, and eventually reaches a city where they must find and destroy a massive lab where a terrible secret project is percolating. Though many of the exteriors have a washed out white-sky look endemic to MCU productions, the contrasts pop, especially with the deep red bloods splattering everywhere from Harley’s dress to the many henchmen whose insides come out. The comic-book environments look a bit more tactile than usual, the splash-panel touches splashier. Some of the banter pops more too; it sounds less screenwriter-contrived, mixing the usual tough-folks cliches and sarcasm with flights of fancy, whether courtesy of Robbie’s ever-delightful Harley, Stallone’s simpleminded King Shark, or the more earthbound characters who wonder aloud about their own weaknesses and redundancies. The bigger DC movies have heroes with godlike powers; Gunn is more interested in the Mystery Men-style niche acts struggling to compete. His unveiling of their ultimate adversary feels downright gleeful. For once, the Big Bad really is big, not just a “swirling ring of trash,” as the original film so succinctly described a common superhero visual checkpoint (and, of course, itself).
Despite the considerable mayhem on display, Gunn is not a particularly great action director, at least not in the sense of generating suspense or exhilaration over the outcome of a fight, chase, or shoot-out. (For that matter, he barely stages anything beyond shoot-outs.) But he does communicate in richly ridiculous imagery, an especially necessary skill when dealing with Robbie’s Harley Quinn, the Joker’s ex-girlfriend who nursed her heartbreak and reclaimed herself in the similarly stylish Birds of Prey. Taking a cue from Prey’s moments of delirium, Robbie gets some visual riffs that set her apart from the rest of her cohorts, starring in her own little musical-like numbers. When she engages in a particularly balletic escape scene, suspense isn’t really the point; her character’s point of view is. Same goes for the exhausted, faux-millennial sincerity of Melchior’s Ratcatcher II (with the geeky cherry on top that little is as comic book-y as calling a character “Ratcatcher II” to refer to their predecessor, even if the audience has little to no idea who said predecessor is). Even King Shark is there more to showcase his clumsy Universal Monster loneliness, moreso than his facility with devouring puny humans (though he can do that as well).
Even more than the Guardians pictures, Gunn’s Suicide Squad overflows with characters and personalities. I’m still not convinced that Gunn has much to actually say about them, mind. It seems like most of his thoughts on the foibles and limitations of the superhero genre were expended before it went supernova with the MCU, back when he was making satirical comedies like The Specials and Super (provocative, if not especially good). The Suicide Squad better reconciles his exploitation-movie roots with approximations of genuine heroism, but Gunn still comes across as the dorky gorehound with a heart of gold. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. His new movie sits comfortably on a DC continuum that includes the bonkers fantasy of Aquaman and the playfulness of Birds of Prey (in a perfect synthesis of the two, Harley Quinn takes a run at a large creature that looks like it should head under the sea). Despite the carnage, it can’t credibly stare into the abyss of death, but do we want it to? Better to turn superhero demises into dark jokes than to call take-backsies on some phony, imagined version of comic-book gravitas. The unwieldiness of The Suicide Squad evokes a pleasant woozy sensation; it may not be heady, but it’s vivid, entertaining pulp. Death is never the endgame, anyway, even with the doomy title. The Suicide Squad has been redeemed! Now what? Well, probably more sequels.