The Playful Amorality of The Suicide Squad

The Suicide Squad might seem like a typical superhero movie at first: Yet another group of powerful comic-book characters is thrown together to fight insurmountable odds on a mysterious, deadly mission. Audiences will recognize a few faces from the last (horrendous) Suicide Squad film, such as that of the chipper criminal Harley Quinn (played by Margot Robbie). But much of the fun comes from trying to puzzle out who the newcomers are, including a costumed hunk named T.D.K. (Nathan Fillion). When someone asks him what T.D.K. stands for, he replies, “It doesn’t stand for anything. It’s just my name. It stands for me.” “Your name is … letters?” “All names are letters,” another character shoots back.

Hollywood is now deep in the superhero-movie craze. Every year another torrent of films about caped do-gooders dominates box offices. T.D.K. (whose name is in fact a cheeky initialism) is mostly a winking joke from the writer and director James Gunn about the sheer number of characters who have appeared in these works at this point. The comic-book source material is running out, forcing movies to resort to villains whose names are just … letters. Can viewers still love characters they’ve never heard of?

Gunn knows the answer is yes, given that he launched the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise for Marvel, which also featured a little-known motley crew of champions. But in the looser world of DC Comics movies, which place less emphasis on narrative continuity and have no mandate to position individuals as long-term heroes, Gunn can finally do something truly novel: break the genre’s unspoken rules and mock its blustering morality.

The film’s plot is fiendishly simple, until it isn’t. Gunn’s Suicide Squad, much like the last, is a team of villains. The group is sprung from prison and coerced by the United States government to cover up the country’s involvement with the evil experiments of a military junta in a fictional Latin American country. The villains storm a beach, infiltrate the country’s capital, and try to destroy a nefarious prison. Bombs, ready to detonate if they disobey orders, are planted in their skulls, but the real motivation is the chance to sow chaos under the American flag.

A few holdovers from the first film remain, but the newcomers stick out most. Idris Elba is a grumpy assassin named Bloodsport who is appointed leader almost by default; John Cena plays a psychotic, metal-helmet-wearing patriot named Peacemaker; David Dastmalchian is a squirmy introvert with multicolored skin named Polka-Dot Man; and Sylvester Stallone voices a cheerful, slow-witted human-shark hybrid who can’t contain his appetite. The cleverest addition may be Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), a moon-eyed urchin who can control rats; she is so deep in the comic-book rosters that she isn’t even the first villain to bear the name.

Gunn’s challenge is not just that the major characters are obscure; it’s also that their objective is dishonorable, their attitudes range from disinterested to cruel, and their only guiding principle is survival. He is pushing the limits of taste in a genre given to self-importance to see if audiences can still care about such vicious characters by the film’s conclusion; because of his gift for balancing cynicism and silliness, they absolutely will. The Suicide Squad is very funny, bleakly self-aware, and shockingly violent—a refreshing mix of familiar conventions and gory satire. In a sea of sequels, reboots, crossovers, and origin stories, it stands out like few other recent adaptations have. (Logan, Black Panther, Shazam!, and Aquaman are among the exceptions.) Gunn’s brilliance is that while he revels in the villainy of his ensemble, which is happy to swear, maim, and kill without asking too many questions, he also captures the carnage it’s leaving behind.

The team’s mission is clearly intended as a one-way trip. Amid the bloody fun of the squad’s attempts to reach its final target, Gunn slowly makes us question the very point of the assignment. Corto Maltese is a stand-in for many smaller nations that found themselves in the crosshairs of modern imperialism. The prison that the squad is raiding is also strangely reminiscent of the film’s protagonists, designated for dirty work that America could never publicly admit to doing.

The film comes close to embracing the nihilistic humor of a South Park episode, concluding that no one can plausibly claim to be a hero or a villain. Gunn started his career at the (virtually) no-budget indie company Troma, where storytelling often relies on shock value. But he’s always blended that edginess with Hollywood sentimentality—a combination that makes The Suicide Squad work. In between the ultraviolence and political scorn, Gunn’s love for his misfit characters shines through, stopping the entire exercise from feeling pointless and embittered.