The Suicide Squad is one of the most pleasantly "that was exactly the movie I assumed it would be" movies in ages. That is to say: it has always been very clear that it would be better than 2016's Suicide Squad, to which it is a very vaguely-related sequel. It has also always been very clear that Warner Bros. and DC wanted it to be a clone of Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, which is why they hired those film's writer-director James Gunn to write and direct this one; and it has thirdly been clear that it wasn't going to be as good as those. So, threading the needle, quality-wise, between Suicide Squad and Guardians Vol. 2: that was the only thing to ever expect of THE Suicide Squad, and that is precisely what THE Suicide Squad has delivered.

The other thing to expect is all of the above with a mean ol' R-rating, though not too hard of an R. It's meant to be a movie for adolescents to sneak into, not a movie for adolescents to be traumatised by. And this is probably the single element that most makes this feel like its own thing. After all, much of what we get here is just remixing elements of other movies, and if there's one obvious shortcoming of The Suicide Squad, it's that nothing about it feels at all fresh or surprising. One could, with little effort map the main characters of the titular squad right onto the Guardians of the Galaxy, and while the fit would be a bit loose; the kinds of jokes that Gunn builds onto each of the characters feels awfully familiar, with a bit more absurdity and silliness in addition to the barking irony that is the current default for comedy in contemporary popcorn cinema. The R-rating and attendant violence means that Gunn gets to add in plenty of gross-out humor this time, recalling his formative years with the gross-out titans at Troma. Even all of this doesn't really make The Suicide Squad a brand new thing all unto itself; it basically just makes it DC's version of Deadpool and Deadpool 2 on top of all the rest, only with less meta-humor and more deadpan.

The point being, anyway, that violence is what this film has to distinguish itself, and happily, it is mostly very good violence. It's bunched up in the first and last thirds, which is part of the large-scale issue with the movie: at 132 minutes, this is drearily overlong for something that has banked everything on being punchy and flippant, and while I think it's up for debate whether the place to start ruthlessly cutting out filler would be its aimless middle or its paint-by-numbers superhero movie finale, there's no denying that it sags pretty hard once it finishes setting up its scenario.

The set-up is pretty great, though, including an opening ten or so minutes that are the equal to any similar stretch of filmmaking in any recent comic book movie.Β  Gunn crisply reintroduces the notion of "Task Force X", the amoral and cynical program concocted by the amoral and cynical Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, given less to do than in the first movie, but doing much more with it), in which various low-rent supervillains are given the opportunity to reduce their sentences by serving on hopeless missions to do off-the-books dirty work for the U.S. government. On this particular occasion, she has sent two forces to the South American island of Corto Maltese to ensure that an ongoing revolution lands on the side friendliest to U.S. interests, assuming that one will be quickly ripped to shreds by what's left of the island's army, while the other is able to penetrate to the interior. And this is just what has happened by the time the zippy, snarky opening credits have ended.

It's a funny prologue, showing off pretty much all of the film's chief strengths: jokey dialogue being hurled with more of an eye towards speed than rhythm; editing beats that that offer very clear punctuation marks for chunks of narrative, gags, and gore effects; actors who are very willing to look goofy and foolish as they align themselves with the juvenile nastiness of the script (to be clear, I do not here mean "juvenile" as an insult). It also starts to show off the film's most obvious weakness after its miserable running time: this simply isn't a very fun movie to look at, relying on the house style of cinematography used through most of the DC film universe: some desaturation, way darker than it needs to be (the opening bloodbath undeniably loses a bit from taking place at night), much too grey when it's fully lit. Given that the most noteworthy visual element of Guardians of the Galaxy, and Vol. 2 even moreso, was an atypically rich color palette for a comic book movie, it's rather disappointing that this would be the one thing Gunn wasn't invited to bring over from those two films. For all that The Suicide Squad wants to be a bright and zany bit of fun, it's hard to overlook how drab it mostly is, without the solemnity and self-mythologising that makes e.g. the Zack Snyder DC films, which are even more drab, at least feel intentionally so. This just feels stripped clean, like a satisfactorily colorful movie was dipped in lime (a feeling that grows especially strong in the climax, when a large CGI thing in bright, fake-looking colors is weirdly mashed into a watery grey world - and it's supposed to look weird, to be sure, but not, I think, weird and unpleasant).

The sluggishness and the colorlessness both argue pretty hard against finding this particularly fun or bouncy, or whatever other things we're meant to find it to be. But is still mostly a good time, just nowhere near a great one. The punchy editing is part of this, as is the palpable joy at bloodletting. And a lot of it is just that the very stuffed cast mostly works, and the film has the remarkable good fortune that the best performances are in the exact roles that they need to be: Margot Robbie returning for the third time as psychotherapist-turned-psycho Harley Quinn, who was at no point in Suicide Squad nor Birds of Prey (etc.) so good at finding the wounded, sympathetic core of her character without sacrificing the nihilistic joy in destruction and murder that makes her a good villain (admittedly, Gunn errs on the side of making all his anti-heroes into just plain heroes, but Harley is certainly less defanged here than in Birds of Prey), and on top of it she's nailed the squawking New York accent better; Joel Kinnaman as petulant badass soldier Rick Flag, who made absolutely no impression on me in the 2016 film, and is quite good at playing the exasperated older brother who can't make his gang of misfits go the direction he needs them too; John Cena, leagues more fun than he was elsewhere this summer in F9 as patriotic sociopath Peacemaker; Daniela Melchior, making a terrific English-language debut as Ratcatcher, a sleepy-eyed slacker who ends up serving as the focal point for the film's at-times strained but generally successful bids at warmth in its second half. And best of all in the closest thing we have to a central role, Idris Elba as Bloodsport, a weary assassin with a perpetual "what is this shit?" expression of irritation that lets the great actor have fun with broad comedy that still feels muted and human-scale. A lot of the film is simply watching these figures prod at each other - Elba and Cena, in particular, get a lot of wonderful interactions, including a terrific sequence during one of the film's violent setpieces where they keep staring at each other with looks of mutual disdain while murdering soldiers - and it pretty much always works.

Not as well as the same thing works in either Guardians movie, perhaps, and not really enough to make The Suicide Squad a new classic of ensemble-based superheroics. But it's a fun time with just enough of a nasty edge to feel like it has a personality. And maybe it really does have a personality, or maybe that's just how low the stakes for comic book movies have gotten. At any rate, the cast is having a good enough time to make even those ill-judged 132 minutes movie with something relatively close to speed, and we've been in enough of a drought for popcorn movies that I would hate to undervalue one that has this much genuine energy, secondhand or not.

Reviews in this series
Man of Steel (Snyder, 2013)
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Snyder, 2016)
Suicide Squad (Ayer, 2016)
Wonder Woman (Jenkins, 2017)
Justice League (Snyder / Whedon, 2017)
Aquaman (Wan, 2018)
Shazam! (Sandberg, 2019)
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (Yan, 2020)
Wonder Woman 1984 (Jenkins, 2020)
Zack Snyder's Justice League (Snyder, 2021)
The Suicide Squad (Gunn, 2021)