Come Monday, tens of millions of people will know who Polka-Dot Man is, and that’s really weird. But it’s okay, because The Suicide Squad is a genuinely fun flick that has plenty of humor but never at the expense of its core cast of likable baddies. Beware light spoilers for The Suicide Squad.
The Suicide Squad
Marvel Studios and DC Films spent a lot of time and money constructing a clear image of what a comic book movie looks like, and now things like HBO’s Watchmen and Amazon’s The Boys are tearing that image down, piece by piece. Right in the middle of that is James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, a film that both revels in its source material and yet doesn’t treat it as a sacred text. It stares comics in the face and says ‘yes, superhero comics are absurd and yes, I love them in my heart of hearts.’ It’s something comic book movies have struggled with for years as they try to appeal to the masses and rake in hundreds of millions of dollars, but The Suicide Squad movie, like characters, seems to have nothing to lose.
The Suicide Squad is inherently a pretty silly concept; DC’s most disposable villains, of which there are many, are given the chance by Amanda Waller to perform difficult, dangerous missions for the United States government for a full 10 years off of their sentences. There’s room for all kinds of hijinks in there, and to take it ultra-seriously wouldn’t do justice to the original concept.
An explosive start
And so, The Suicide Squad plays its hand in the opening minutes. We’re introduced to characters like Javelin, Savant, and Mongal, as well as returning faces like Captain Boomerang, Rick Flag, and of course Harley Quinn.
And within the first fifteen minutes, the vast majority of those characters are dead on a Corto Maltesian beach, riddled with bullets, charred to a crisp, missing their head, or julienned by a helicopter rotor, with virtually all of these moments played for laughs.
And then we meet the primary team, miles away on another beach, while the other team is doing a great job of providing the Corto Maltese military with convenient, flamboyant targets.
The Suicide Squad is dark, brutal, and consistently hilarious throughout. Gunn managed to balance humor, violence, and heart without seeming to really sacrifice any of those for the others, and that lends to some truly unique characters and moments from a cast of actors that seem truly invested in their parts.
The Core Cast
The most interesting characters are Polka-Dot Man, Ratcatcher II, and Peacemaker. Harley Quinn gets her time to shine and Margot Robbie makes the most of her screen-time. After two movies prominently featuring the character, she doesn’t have as much in the way of surprises–she’s just a joy to have on screen, without the movie actually being about her. Idris Elba’s Bloodsport has the cleanest character arc, but his job is mostly to play the straight man and resident action hero character, both of which he does with aplomb. He helps make many of the movie’s best jokes work, while rarely being the joke himself.
The real core of The Suicide Squad is made up of Polka-Dot Man, Peacemaker, Ratcatcher II, and King Shark.
Gunn said during press events that he wanted to take a ridiculous comic book character and make him complex. Indeed, Polka-Dot Man ends up being one of the most interesting characters in the movie thanks to a combination of David Dastmalchian’s acting, Gunn’s writing, and some killer visual effects.
I like to call David Dastmalchian the real nexus of the comic-book multiverse. He’s appeared in the MCU’s Ant-Man movies (and soon in What If…?), Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, the CW’s The Flash, Fox’s Gotham, and the animated Batman: The Long Halloween feature. Of those, his turn as Polka-Dot Man is undoubtedly his best work, and I hope it turns out to be a “big break” moment for him. Polka-Dot Man is a truly silly Silver Age comic character–he seemingly has no place in modern comics. He could’ve easily been among the opening salvo of sudden, shocking, and hilarious deaths that opened the movie, and no one would’ve blinked.
Instead, though, what we get from Dastmalchian is a wildly powerful but deeply disturbed character. He’s not a hero, really, but he doesn’t feel like a villain, either. He would fit in with the Doom Patrol quite well; his powers are a curse that he doesn’t really know what to do with, and it takes the Suicide Squad for him to start to find some peace. But he’s not just a bummer.
Polka-Dot Man’s powers make for some truly unique visual effects, whether it’s when the polka dots show up as a physical rash-like affliction on his skin, or when he unleashes them on an enemy. He’s hilarious, too. His tragic backstory gives way to some amazing visual gags that I don’t want to spoil. In a scene where the team has to try to blend in in a bar, I got the feeling that this character was having some kind of fun for the first time in his entire life.
Peacemaker, Ratcatcher, and King Shark
Cena, meanwhile, gets to flex his physical and comedic muscles alike as Peacemaker. We don’t go as deep on the character, but Cena makes great use of his looks and physique for some great gags. Two of the best of these pit him against Idris Elba’s Bloodsport to great comedic effect, including one extended scene that has the two creatively offing soldiers as a competitive act, only to realize that maybe some of the killing was unwarranted.
Ratcatcher II is kind of the emotional core of the film. Portuguese actress Daniela Melchior is making her English-language debut with The Suicide Squad, where she plays a grimey, possibly narcoleptic woman who controls rats with her light wand. I get the feeling watching her that she ended up imprisoned less for doing bad things and more for being unappealing to society. Despite that, Melchior brings an optimistic innocence to the character that does an incredible amount of heavy lifting to balance out some of the darkness of the other characters.
And then there’s King Shark. The movie never actually calls him King Shark, but he plays a significant role nonetheless. Again the character seems to be all over the place in DC these days, appearing in Harley Quinn, the CW’s The Flash, and now The Suicide Squad. He’s a very different character in all three. Here, he feels the most like a James Gunn character, a sort of carryover from Guardians of the Galaxy. As a big, dumb, lethal-but-lovable bruiser with mythical origins, he’s very much a hybrid of Groot and Drax. He does something cute one minute, and the next, he bites off a soldier’s head and gnaws on it for the next two scenes.
The Suicide Squad moves quickly for the most part. There are a few slower scenes; Harley has a romantic interlude with the dictator of Corto Maltese that lasts a few minutes longer than it really should, and a couple of cuts to the Task Force X headquarters last longer than they should. But aside from those, the pacing of this movie is just about perfect and even with those slowdowns I never found myself wondering why the characters were doing what they were doing, or where the movie was going with it. Despite the chaos inherent to these characters and to such a large cast, everything feels like it has a place.
Make no mistake, though, this is an incredibly violent movie that earns its R rating. It’s gory, though never pornographic about the gore the way some movies like to handle it. It’s more like a splatstick Gallagher act, and is almost always played for humor or a quick gasp.
There are some James Gunn-style excesses, too. A few too many needledrop moments, cameos of many of all of his best buds (look for Sean Gunn, James’ girlfriend Jennifer Holland, Pom Klementieff (Mantis from the Guardians movies)). But they ultimately take little to nothing away from the movie.
True comic-book love
What we’re left with is characters that shouldn’t work, but instead work both on their own and as a group, that feel true to their comic book counterparts, and are given surprising life in the course of the two-hour film. I want more of many of these characters, despite knowing that that’s not going to happen for various reasons that may or may not involve sudden, bloody deaths.
The Suicide Squad embraces all the silliness of comics but shows it genuine love when so many other superhero movies just try to work around it. The Suicide Squad is a comic book movie for comic book fans.