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The Suicide Squad (2021) By James Gunn - Movie Review

The Suicide Squad (2021) By James Gunn - Movie Review

The Suicide Squad 2021 Director: James Gunn Writer: James Gunn Stars: Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Sylvester Stallone, Daniela Melchior, David Dastmalchian, Viola Davis, Joel Kinnaman, Jai Courtney, Michael Rooker, Nathan Fillion, Peter Capaldi, Juan Diego Botto, Joaquín Cosio, Sean Gunn, Tinashe Kajese, Storm Reid, Alice Braga, Steve Agee, Lynne AsheTaika Waititi Runtime: 132min Rated: 14A (Canada Alberta/Ontario) 13+ (Québec) R (MPAA) for strong violence and gore, language throughout, some sexual references, drug use and brief graphic nudity

Listen here for audio of radio interviews about films from a Christian perspective with Pastors Ted Giese and Todd Wilken on where Christianity meets culture. (This review contains spoilers) 

Caught Between Heroic and Psychotic

In what can be considered a true sequel to David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (2016), James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad (2021) clearly benefited from less interference by Warner Bros. and DC Comics/Entertainment. Hamstrung and muddled, Ayer’s film never quite achieved what the director desired to put on the screen whether for good or for ill. Gunn, on the other hand, has indelibly left his day-glow, irreverent, and off-kilter imprint on the franchise seemingly without any impediment to his quirky sensibilities. Think of the two films as wooden planks dovetailed together by a central theme, shared characters, and a pop aesthetic.    

For a new mission, new super-villains are recruited and deployed from prison by Squad director Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), all fitted with exploding ordnances injected into the base of their heads which have also been filled with promises of freedom, favours, and reduced prison sentences. The idea is that the US federal government covertly uses dangerous, unhinged criminals with unique “skill sets” in double-super-secret black-ops-style activities both domestically and abroad. The protagonists are all DC comic book villains. The tricky part of watching films like this is remembering they are in fact villains and not heroes because audiences naturally root for the protagonists. Give these characters compelling and emotionally complicated personal lives and the audience is even more endeared to them and forgiving of them even when the characters aren’t necessarily looking for forgiveness.

The squad is a rogues gallery. Robert DuBois/ Bloodsport (Idris Elba) is an elite hit man who agrees to be recruited into Task Force X because it may help his daughter (Storm Reid) who is in danger of being sent to prison for petit larceny. As broken as he is Abner Krill/Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), who was experimented on as a child by his mother (Lynne Ashe) wanting to create superheroes through science, agrees to be recruited because he truly desires to be a hero in spite of his mother. Orphaned Cleo Cazo/Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) is an armed robber who controls rats and agrees to the mission because she wants to honour her father who cared for her as a child. Finally, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) the former physiatrist and erstwhile moll girlfriend of the Joker seems to go along with the suicide squad because she has nothing better to do. On a criminal sanity scale Bloodsport and Ratcatcher 2 are the sanest characters and Polka-Dot Man and Harley Quinn are the most insane. Add to the mix a friendless mutant Nanaue/King Shark (Steve Agee and voiced by Sylvester Stallone) who is a little like a combination of Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) from Ayer’s Suicide Squad, Groot from Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films, and a rescue pit-bull in need of a home and audiences will have more than enough characters for which to feel sympathy.

This time around a military coup in the small fictional island nation of Corto Maltese off the coast of South America prompts the deployment of Task Force X. Because of the anti-American sentiments of the new government, Bloodsport— the freshly-minted leader of the Suicide Squad’s Task Force X— and his team are sent to mop up and hide potentially embarrassing evidence of American involvement in secret unethical scientific experiments. Harley Quinn and Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), the survivors of an expendable decoy team also sent by Waller, join the mission. With the help of local guerrilla freedom fighters the team discovers the subjects of the experiment were political dissidents and their families and that the new president and military leaders of Corto Maltese plan to do the same to their rivals and enemies. They also discover that the object of the experiments conducted by the Thinker, Gaius Grieves (Peter Capaldi), is a lovecraftian alien starfish which enslaves the bodies of its victims creating extensions of its body with every mind it controls. Discovering the experiments included children and that this would continue, the squad earnestly sets out to do all it can to stop it and expose the American government’s involvement. They do this against the orders of Waller and at their personal peril.

Gunn has made a violent and conflicted film where the pop aesthetic and snappy jokes mask the film’s dark misanthropy. His Guardians of the Galaxy films may have moments of dark humour and harsh violence but nothing like this. This is not a film for children and likely not even for many adults. In tone and execution it has much more in common with films like Tim Miller’s Deadpool (2016) and David Leitch’s DeadPool 2 (2018) or Drew Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods (2011). Often the graphic violence is presented as the punch line to a grim joke. This creates a kind of casual disregard and devaluation of life in general. In a world becoming more callous with every hour, adding humour to brutal violence doesn’t seem like a good idea. That said, the film slowly reveals which characters have a moral compass and which ones are truly broken.

The reluctant leader Bloodsport is paired up with the pathologically patriotic Peacemaker (John Cena). Their banter and competitive antics eventually break down into hostilities as they find themselves on the opposite side of what is best for America and the people of Corto Maltese. The ultra-violent Peacemaker  (whose costume ironically includes the kind of representation of a dove which would be more at home on a felt banner in a Christian church) decides that covering up American involvement in the gruesome Nazi-esque experiments is more important than America and the world knowing about the atrocities. Bloodsport at the very least wants to stop and end the experiments.

Margot Robbie turns in another deft performance as Harley Quinn and just when audiences are lulled into rooting for her, Robbie and Gunn pull the carpet out from under everyone reminding the audience that Harley Quinn for all her charm is really a dangerous psychotic. The scene that best demonstrates this is Quinn’s dinner date with Corto Maltese’s smitten Presidente General Silvio Luna (Juan Diego Botto). It’s this vacillation between heroic and psychotic that makes the film both compelling and disturbing. Viewers are either seduced into rooting for some ultimately evil characters, which only appear good when contrasted against even worse villains, or they are being confronted with obviously evil actions. Either way the film is an exercise in post-modern moral relativism: the idea that there is no universal or absolute set of moral principles when it comes to good and evil actions and that such actions can be judged on a sliding scale justified by circumstances and lived experiences or the emotional state of the individual.

Are there any redeemable things for the Christian viewer to contemplate? There are a couple. First, the relationship between Ratcatcher 2 and Bloodsport: Cleo Cazo acts as a kind of surrogate daughter to Robert DuBois who in turn acts as a kind of father figure to the orphaned young woman. She becomes the catalyst for Bloodsport’s paternal instincts and their relationship suggests that DuBois may actually have hope in repairing his relationship with his estranged daughter Tyla. Cazo, in a flashback with her father Ratcatcher (Taika Waititi), provides the most important take away from the film when she asks “Why rats, Papa?” Her father in a tender-hearted moment responds, “Rats are the lowliest and most despised of all creatures, my love. But if they have purpose, so do we all.” This is reminiscent of Jesus’ words, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29–31). The rats controlled by the orphaned young woman play a pivotal role in the story’s resolution and in a way point to another Biblical idea that God sometimes uses villains to His own end. In the Bible there are accounts where God raises up and uses one evil to punish another evil like with the Chaldeans: “They all come for violence, all their faces forward. They gather captives like sand. At kings they scoff, and at rulers they laugh. They laugh at every fortress, for they pile up earth and take it. Then they sweep by like the wind and go on, guilty men, whose own might is their god!” (Habakkuk 1:9–11). This is a particularly mysterious and challenging teaching in the Bible and The Suicide Squad invites contemplation of it. In the context of theft Martin Luther in his large catechism contemplates this very spinning wheel of retribution among criminals and villains when he writes, “In short if you steal much, you can expect that much will be stolen from you. He who robs and gets by violence and wrong will submit to one who shall act the same way toward him. For God is master of this art. Since everyone robs and steals from another, God punishes one thief by means of another. Or else where would we find enough gallows and rope?”[1] But the question remains: Is this a salutary topic of entertainment?

Second, redemption in Gunn’s film is largely fixed on personal works-righteousness; if members of Task Force X/the Suicide Squad use their skills for the common good and not for evil they are redeemed as characters. Christian viewers will see through this because Scripture teaches that salvation is a gift of God graciously given through faith “not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9). Interestingly, these cracked and busted characters need mercy and if anything approximating Christian redemption might be found in this film it is in the grace they sometimes extend to each other. For example, King Shark won’t eat his friends but he has never had friends. When he is first befriended out of necessity the grace extended to him eventually grows into true friendships. The team also grows in compassion toward Polka-Dot Man after hearing his story of how he got his powers and his sad childhood as an experimental guinea pig. This is a similar narrative device used by Gunn in The Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) with the character of the surly raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper) who was also a lab experiment. The twist in The Suicide Squad is that Polka-Dot Man’s mother was the one experimenting on him and his siblings. These themes of compassion between team members become the catalyst for them to grow in loyalty towards one another and inspire them toward heroic acts of self-sacrifice for the good of others.   

For audiences that prefer their entertainment to be less brutally violent and dark perhaps a re-viewing of Gunn’s Guardian’s of the Galaxy films would be in order. The R-rated Gunn is not going to be for everyone. Perhaps it’s important to point out that Gunn started his directorial career with films like Slither (2006) and working for B-film schlock horror production company Troma Entertainment. While well crafted, acted, and directed The Suicide Squad is simply a return to form for Gunn. However, when the comedic, cotton candy, comic book veneer, with its underbelly of B-film grind-house horror, is stripped away, Gunn’s film is quickly revealed as a geopolitical espionage story about deep-state funded mind control, vivisection, and blackmail populated with mentally damaged and broken criminals.

Rev. Ted Giese is lead pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; an award-winning contributor to The Canadian Lutheran; Reporter; and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGieseCheck out our Movie Review Index!

[1] “You shall not steal,” The Large Catechism, Concordia the Lutheran Confessions Pocket Reader’s Edition, Concordia Publishing House 2006, pg 540.

This review also available at The Canadian Lutheran online.