There is something hilariously ironic about James Gunn reviving the Martin Scorsese “theme parks” discourse while making the promotional rounds for his Suicide Squad sequel. Over two years ago Scorsese off-handedly referred to billion-dollar superhero blockbusters in the MCU and DCEU as theme park rides (as opposed to legitimate cinema) in a one-off interview, and nerds have had their bedroom-mounted swords out for the auteur ever since, apparently Gunn included. While promoting The Suicide Squad for the DC Comics brand this month, the long-time MCU Guardians of the Galaxy director defensively retorted (into the void, I’m assuming, since there’s no possible way that Scorsese could still give a shit), “It just seems awful cynical that [Scorsese] would keep coming against Marvel and then that’s the only thing that would get him press for his movie […] He’s creating his movie in the shadow of the Marvel films, and so he uses that to get attention for something he wasn’t getting as much attention as he wanted for it.” There are two things that are cracking me up about this: Gunn is himself reviving a long-dead non-rivalry with a director way above his punching weight in order to promote his new superhero movie, the exact thing he claims Scorsese was up to. Even more hilariously, “a theme park ride” is exactly how I would describe my experience with The Suicide Squad. I had a lot of fun riding this Tilt-a-Whirl while it lasted, but forgot practically every detail about it the second it was over while seeking out my next amusement.
All told, I enjoyed Gunn’s latest big-budget superhero sequel with a gold-plated heart of rot about as much as I enjoyed his two Guardians films. As with Guardians, this crass, colorful sci-fi action epic follows a misfit group of anti-hero outlaws who reluctantly save the day despite their communal and moral dysfunction. There are bestial humanoids among the crew (this time a shark and a weasel instead of a raccoon); there’s lots of handwringing about fathers who fall miles short (this time pantomimed by Idris Elba & Taika Waititi, two more crossover Marvel contributors); and there are the requisite cameos from extended members of the James Gunn family (including Michael Rooker in a flowing Edgar Winter wig). As you likely recall from the first Suicide Squad film, these particular imprisoned supervillains only fight for Good because they’re being controlled by a government institution that has implanted explosives at the base of their brains, basically holding them hostage in exchange for heroism. And if you don’t recall that, it’s no matter. The set-up is mostly an excuse for Gunn’s big-budget escalation of the same character-based splatstick horror comedy he’s been doing since he was a twentysomething Troma employee. Cruel baddies crack wise, crack skulls, and crack open some cold ones with the boys, getting so chummy with the audience that you often forget they’re worthless scum who kill innocent people for fun. If the gory action-horror sequences are this theme park’s rollercoaster attractions, at least you get to hang out in line with interesting friends who can tell some solid one-liners while you wait.
If there are any specific details about The Suicide Squad that will cling to your braincells, it’s likely to be a stand-out character among the misfit cast. It was unanimously agreed that Margot Robbie’s interpretation of Harley Quinn was the stand-out performance in the first film, which led to the fantabulous spin-off sequel Birds of Prey (the only truly Great superhero movie of the past two decades, imo). Declaring the stand-out character in Gunn’s sequel is more of a toss-up. Robbie’s as delightfully devious as ever here, but she’s more of a tangential side character than a main member of the crew. Lots of people seem to be drawn to the rodent-commanding sleepyhead Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) as Quinn’s successor, likely because she’s the only beacon of sincerity among her heartless comrades. On the exact opposite end, I could see Sylvester Stallone’s slurred vocal performance as a himbo shark-man stealing the show for anyone looking for goofball one-liners, since his entire purpose is to serve as a joke delivery machine. Personally, I was most enamored with John Cena as the fascist American “superhero” Peacemaker, who chipperly parodies the ACAB side of superheroics that usually goes unexamined in these types of movies. There are a lot of reasons why Cena’s performance was the stand-out to me: I’ve never watched popular TV show The Boys—which parodies that exact superheroic fascism in the exact same way—so the humor was still fresh to me. I’m also deeply invested in John Cena’s R-rated comedy work in films like Blockers & Trainwreck, to the point where I’ve turned around in the past decade from thinking he’s the worst thing about pro wrestling to thinking he’s one of the great entertainers of our time. Speaking of which, my most anticipated match at this month’s SummerSlam PPV is John Cena vs. Roman Reigns, something I’m still wrapping my mind around considering both performers’ dull, repetitive ringwork in the not-too-distant past. John Cena is currently at the height of his self-aware, image-subverting powers right now, and Gunn puts his surprisingly game, shockingly raunchy screen presence to great effect here. If I were to visit this particular theme park again, Cena’s performance is the one attraction that I’d be looking forward to revisiting – the same way I used to eagerly anticipate riding the Gravitron at local fairs every year as a little kid.
Besides its gaudy, momentary thrills, the way The Suicide Squad most resembles a theme park is that it’s absolutely fucking exhausting. The film is, at heart, a comedy, which makes its 132-minute runtime more of an affront to good sense & good taste than any of its amoral one-liners or post-Troma gore gags. Even with forty fewer minutes weighing this thing down, it likely still would’ve felt like a never-ending game of bumper cars, but as is it feels like enduring that series of scrapes & jolts while keeping down a stomach full of corn dogs, cotton candy, and gallon-sized sodas. I left the film amused but numb, hardly remembering any details of the sensory assault I just bought a ticket for. The only way I know how to rate this thing is by scoring it slightly higher than the first Suicide Squad movie – a much shabbier, more sinister kind of amusement park run by some real scary looking carnies. Even if this is technically a better film than the first, I don’t know that it’s the more interesting one of the pair. At least in the original, there was a behind-the-scenes war between director & studio execs whose editing room bickering led to a singularly bizarre experience. By contrast, Gunn seemingly got free reign to do his own thing here, and pretty much delivered exactly what you’d expect from him (an R-rated revision of Guardians of the Galaxy with some throwback gross-out aesthetics echoed from his Troma days). It’s hilarious that he thinks this is the art that’s worth picking a one-sided fight with Scorsese over, not his darker, more idiosyncratic works like Super or Slither. It’s a fun ride, but that’s about all you can say about it.