The Suicide Squad, the latest iteration of the DC Extended Universe and one of the best blockbusters of 2021, had the bad luck to open in Australia when half the country was heading into lockdown. Four weeks later, it’s been “fast-tracked” to local digital platforms, the latest example of an industry continually scrambling for the right modes of delivery for the tentpole pictures that prop up the whole movie-biz circus.
In the United States, The Suicide Squad opened simultaneously in cinemas and on its studio’s affiliated streaming service (HBO Max). This was how Marvel’s Black Widow, the year’s biggest box-office earner, debuted worldwide in July. Its success proved that such “same-day” models could work, and the fact that star Scarlett Johansson sued Disney over such a release seemed more like business negotiation than a legitimate threat to the model. The release success also suggested to studios that a post-pandemic box-office boom loomed. This optimistic outlook – symbolised by the stacked release schedules for the remainder of 2021 – already seems like a misread, with best-laid plans undone by the Delta variant.
The latest Marvel title, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, was locked in for an exclusive theatrical release: a corporate decision that Disney chief executive Bob Chapek regretted in the lead-up, lamenting that the studio had anticipated a “healthier theatrical environment”. It wasn’t their first setback in maximising the profits of Shang-Chi, which, despite being conceived to add much-needed diversity to Marvel’s slate of superheroes, has been unofficially blacklisted in China, probably because of its origins in comic books that trade in martial arts stereotypes and Yellow Peril villains. Shang-Chi opens in Australia this week, but only if your local cinemas are actually open.
Those seeking blockbuster thrills in lockdown can be grateful for the existence of The Suicide Squad, in itself a story of strange Hollywood machinations. As a standalone feature, The Suicide Squad is pure delight: fast-paced, profane, irreverent, ridiculous. But, given the spectre of 2016’s Suicide Squad, it’s hard to see it as a standalone feature. These sister pictures share almost the same name, the same set-up and four actors/characters, but are wildly divergent in tone and quality.
The first Suicide Squad was genuinely awful, a laughless dirge of adolescent rebellion, macho posturing and gun worship that played like a two-hour nu-metal video. Released five months after the brooding, risible Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, 2016’s Suicide Squad marked the nadir of the dated trend of making comic books “dark” and “edgy”. It also made $US747 million at the global box office, meaning there was no way its established brand would be abandoned.
The Suicide Squad is DC’s attempt to have its cake and eat it too. A course correction in which the sins of the original are washed away, it’s neither reboot nor sequel – more like an updated product, a new and improved version of the ragtag superhero team-up. James Gunn mastered this nascent genre with 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy and 2017’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, in which he took obscure comic-book characters and “assembled” them in bright, batty shades. Gunn’s definitive contribution to the canon was a climax where a universe-in-the-balance standoff is settled by a danceoff. He was recruited for this Suicide Squad makeover when on a brief hiatus from Marvel – where he’s now back making Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 – due to a controversy over unearthed, decades-old, offensive tweets.
Gunn cut his teeth at the notorious grindhouse production company Troma Entertainment before writing two live-action Scooby-Doo movies and making the superhero black comedy Super. All that history shows up in The Suicide Squad: there’s comic gore and splatter, seditious elements smuggled into a familiar IP and the satirical skewering of the superhero genre.
Its key character is Peacemaker (John Cena, in a heel turn), an all-American douchebag who will kill anyone and everyone in sight, in search of “liberty”. This plays into an unexpected thematic undercurrent: The Suicide Squad opens with a slow-motion strut staged in front of a giant American flag but ultimately settles on American foreign policy as its faceless villain, although squad mastermind Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), camp megabrain scientist The Thinker (Peter Capaldi) and a starfish kaiju with Alien-ish face-huggers all serve as personified antagonists.
There’s a host of often comic characters, including Harley Quinn, again played to the hilt by Margot Robbie. Before the opening credits roll we’re introduced to a whole new motley crew who are summarily and gleefully killed off, in a mocking misdirection that distances this Suicide Squad from its predecessor. This beginning – which includes the staff at HQ wagering on who will die and who’ll survive – sets the tenor of this freewheeling film, where the jokes come fast and furious (there are at least two references to Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker’s 1984 rumpus Top Secret!, the ne plus ultra of spoof movies).
There are moments of emotion, too: Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), who Gunn called the “dumbest DC character of all time”, is given a tragic backstory and Elephant Man-esque pathos; the equally dopey Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) possesses sadness and empathy in spades; and even King Shark, a lumbering fish-man with a “dad bod” voiced in monosyllabic drawl by Sylvester Stallone, is bestowed with a bittersweet sequence of species loneliness. But for every sentimental flourish, there’s an attendant treacle-cutter. While the film possesses none of Marvel’s family-friendly vibes, Gunn understands the audience goodwill of a great joke. More importantly, he understands that comic-book movies are an inherently absurd undertaking, and proceeds accordingly.
What to make of this cockeyed crowd-pleaser is ultimately up for debate. While it’s a corrective to the terrible Suicide Squad, it’s also undeniably an exemplar of the Hollywood content machine as ouroboros, where popcorn-movies eat themselves, and refurbished titles are turned out in ever-shortening release cycles, bound for the endless scroll of streaming services. It’s also a symbol of the Marvelisation of studio output, brands managed through large-scale interrelated screen content. In the bigger corporate picture, The Suicide Squad may be essentially a 130-minute preamble to the Peacemaker TV series, which hits HBO in early 2022.
However, given some of the best motion-picture art of recent years has come from comic-book shows – Watchmen’s incisive study of race and justice, Loki’s impish psychedelic vision-quest – the old laments about originality don’t carry the weight they used to, and the hierarchical distinctions between cinema and television are long dead.
The Suicide Squad fails the “original idea” sniff test, and, after a brief spell in whatever cinemas were still open, is now a small-screen experience. But as a daffy diversion from the darkness of the newsfeed, consumers should feel free to ingest its exuberant entertainment any way they can.
The Suicide Squad is available on Apple TV, Fetch, Foxtel Store, Google Play, Microsoft, Prime Video, Telstra TV Box Office and YouTube.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 4, 2021 as "Second time lucky".
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