Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 20, 2021)
Five years after 2016’s Suicide Squad introduced movie audiences to its themes and characters, we get a sequel via 2021’s The Suicide Squad - or does this bring a reboot?
The 2021 flick seems like a little of both, honestly. While it doesn’t formally relaunch the series, it also doesn’t provide a clear-cut continuation of the prior flick’s themes.
US intelligence officer Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) again assembles “The Suicide Squad”, a group of incarcerated super-villains who she uses to complete extremely hazardous missions. In this case, she sends them to the South American island of Corto Maltese, a land that recently underwent a military coup.
However, Waller doesn’t care about that. Instead, she wants the Suicide Squad to go to a special lab called “Jötunheim”.
Secrets reside within its walls that American authorities prefer to remain hidden. Waller wants the Squad to extract this information, but the inevitable complications ensue.
In the hands of writer/director David Ayer, the 2016 Squad failed to live up to expectations both in terms of critical/fan reaction and box office. Not only did the first flick receive brutal reviews and lackluster viewer reaction, but also its $746 million worldwide failed to match the studio’s hopes.
On the surface, that sounds absurd. The 2016 Squad cost $175 million, so it clearly turned a good profit.
However, in this era of Marvel movies that would often shoot past $1 billion worldwide, a “mere” $746 million acted as a disappointment. Given the negative critical/fan reaction, this led the studio to take the franchise in another direction for the 2021 film.
This meant two obvious changes, the first of which relates to MPAA rating. Whereas Warner pushed for a teen-friendly “PG-13” in 2016, the 2021 flick went full “R”.
In addition, the 2021 Squad replaced Ayer with James Gunn. Given the success of his two Guardians of the Galaxy movies, this elevated hopes for his Squad.
Which seems a bit ironic since Gunn’s two Guardians movies weren’t more profitable than the 2016 Squad. Because the title characters were obscure in 2013, the first Guardians still felt like a major hit with its $772 million worldwide, but given it cost $170 million, it didn’t do much better than the 2016 Squad.
Since the 2013 Guardians turned into a success, that elevated expectations for 2017’s sequel, and indeed, it came with a higher worldwide gross of $863 million. With a $200 million budget, it also cost more, so I can’t imagine it made much more of a profit than the 2016 Squad did.
With its release during the COVID situation, the 2021 Squad fell well short of those box office numbers. However, we can’t compare COVID-era receipts with those from the “before times”, so we will never know what the 2021 Squad would’ve done without the impact of the pandemic, though it seems clear it would’ve pulled in less money due to its “R” rating.
While Gunn’s Guardians movies weren’t all that much more successful financially than the 2016 Squad, they do enjoy a much stronger reputation, both with critics and fans. That carried over to the 2021 Squad, as its positive reviews and viewer reactions mean it got a much better reception than did its predecessor.
Which it deserves, as it clearly surpasses the 2016 flick. However, the 2021 Squad doesn’t top the prior movie nearly as much as I’d like, which turns it into a disappointment.
We last saw Gunn with 2017’s Guardians entry, and he went through controversy between that time and now. Some old crude-but-tongue-in-cheek Twitter comments came back to haunt Gunn, and these led to him to initially get the boot from the third Guardians installment.
After the Guardians cast revolted, Disney reinstated Gunn as writer/director of the next flick in that series. However, I think the experience left scars on Gunn, as he brings a deep cynicism to Squad that didn’t appear in the two Guardians movies.
Granted, some of that stems from the nature of the material. Whereas both the Guardians and the Squad revolve around mismatched bands of misfits, the Guardians lack the villainous tone of the Squad. They might be rogues and mercenaries, but we never really doubt that the Guardians are good, whereas the Squad characters need to fight against their malevolent nature to work to benefit mankind.
As such, I get that Squad will come with an inherently darker, more pessimistic worldview. Nonetheless, Gunn turns this into a tremendously cynical movie, and that attitude grates after a while.
Maybe I over-analyze Gunn to believe that his social media controversies influenced his script for Squad, but I do know that he makes a movie with a largely negative tone. While the flick toys with themes of family and friends, it doesn’t seem to buy into them.
Instead, Squad revels in its own unpleasant worldview. Characters work for the benefit of others in a grudging manner, and the film comes with a bit of a “can’t win, don’t try” attitude.
In theory, this could become refreshing, but Squad just feels cynical for its own sake. The movie doesn’t benefit from its pessimistic feel – indeed, it acts to disenchant the viewer because it becomes so tough to bond with anyone involved.
As noted, the 2021 Squad enjoys the “R” rating the 2016 flick lacked, and in theory, this seems like a good thing. Characters as crazed and homicidal as these seem stifled by the limitations of “PG-13”.
Since the Guardians movies also opted for “PG-13”, this seems to liberate Gunn, as he revels in the opportunity to depict all the violence and gore his warped little mind desires. Unfortunately, he tends to go too far.
To be sure, I don’t object to graphic content when warranted, but in this film, the gross-out material just feels gratuitous. Squad can’t resist the urge to turn every action scene into a disgusting bloodfest, and this harms the overall impact.
It doesn’t help that Squad delivers an awfully disjointed story. At its heart, it provides a simple plot, but Gunn complicates matters too much and fails to tell the tale in a coherent manner.
Squad leaps around an awful lot, and various characters/themes get lost in the sauce too much of the time. Gunn seems so preoccupied with all the violence that he forgets he needs to give us a coherent narrative as well.
We do find a fine cast with Squad, though only a handful of actors return from the first film. The 2016 flick acted as a coming-out party for Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), one that prompted the studio to greenlight 2020’s Birds of Prey.
While Birds did plop Harley into another group of action characters, it made her the focal point, and it did well in that regard. Unfortunately, Robbie seems deflated by her return to being “one of the pack” with Squad, so don’t expect the same kind of vibrant performance she gave in her earlier turns as Harley.
The others do fine, and we get decent chemistry between Idris Elba’s Bloodsport and John Cena’s Peacemaker, two roles with similar powers who butt heads. Nonetheless, none really stand out as memorable.
I don’t want to come down too hard on Squad, as even with its flaws, it manages to offer a reasonably entertaining experience. While the film’s consistent black humor can feel forced and gratuitous, Gunn still lobs enough at us that some of it sticks.
We also get more than enough action to keep us moderately engaged. Again, Gunn creates a flick packed with mayhem, so this means we stay with the story.
Nonetheless, I can’t help but view the 2021 Squad as a definite letdown. It creates a fast-paced tale full of action but it never connects in a deeper or more creative sense.
Maybe Cathy Yan should’ve gotten the gig, as her Birds of Prey creates the same kind of anarchic mix of comedy and action Squad pursues but it does so with greater impact. Hopefully Gunn will rediscover his mojo for the third Guardians, as his Squad falls short of expectations.
Footnote: additional material appears both during and at the conclusion of the end credits.