During a time when he was beset by controversy — the type of phony controversy manufactured by the right wing with the relentlessness that the Hershey company brings to the production of chocolate treats, but controversy nonetheless — James Gunn hit the jackpot. Ousted by Marvel Entertainment after a pair of Guardians of the Galaxy features, the first a delight and the second a reasonable echo, the mischievous director was quickly recruited by the distinguished competition with the hope that he could inject liveliness into an extended-universe slate burdened by the plodding, visually monotonous style rendered by director Zack Snyder. Philosophical unfocused because of their spottier success rate, at least in comparison with Marvel’s string of winners, DC could offer an enticement that must have been irresistible to Gunn. He could play around with costumed super-beings and the generous budgets usually afforded for their screen efforts while simultaneously indulging in his taste for taste-challenging raunch and gore. Given the go-ahead to essentially try again with the franchise based on villainous misfits plunged into highly dangerous adventures, Gunn could make a big, booming mess, content that everyone was going to be perfectly content with the inarguable R sure to be handed down by the ratings board. Gunn could have his cake and smear it in the audience’s faces, too.
The Suicide Squad benefits from any comparison with the cataclysmically bad predecessor that first ushered the concept — and some of the characters present here — into moviedom. Gunn has a bludgeoning sense of humor that too often skates by on the shock of a colorfully profane, but also connects with corkscrew cleverness plenty of times. Also the sole credited writer on the screenplay, Gunn has an obvious affection for the real ding-dongs that populate the long publishing history of DC Comics, and he largely finds the right balance of snide joshing and unabashed delight. The film’s plot is a grind that is stretched far too long. Especially in the midsection, the overlong running time is felt. Gunn does uncork a few fine set pieces, including the kinetic escape from a tumbling tower, and the bulk of the action sidesteps the usual superhero slurry of indiscriminate blasts and bombast.
Gunn’s work with actors is more haphazard, and he’s occasionally done in by his tendency towards stunt casting. It’s enjoyable enough to watch Idris Elba leverage his easy charisma into the role of Bloodsport, the de facto leader of the latest assemblage of rough-around-the-edges teammates, and his one scene of escalating decibels with Viola Davis, returning as squad overseer Amanda Waller, has enough sparks that it invites rueful amusement that the two formidable actors are facing off in this spiked cotton candy rather than in a weightier project that would properly test them. Margot Robbie, taking her third sledgehammer swing as Harley Quinn, remains the scene-stealer, working flinty magic with flickers of expression and implausibly disarming line deliveries. Maybe more than any other reaction to the chaos, I found myself wishing The Suicide Squad were worthy of her. The movie probably tickles Gunn to no end and leaves him feeling satisfied that he was able to unfurl all his creative kinks. That self-satisfaction doesn’t automatically transfer to everyone one else gazing at the spectacle.