Joke, joke, kill, kill — that more or less sums up “The Suicide Squad,” the latest installment in the DC Comics franchise. Shiny, busy and self-satisfied to a fault, this chapter follows the comic book movie template, now with 20% more gore. It also has enough cinematic allusions to give critics something to chew on. When writer-director James Gunn is asked how he likes his steak, I am pretty sure he flashes on “Pulp Fiction” and, summoning up John Travolta at his suavest, says “Bloody as hell.”
Stuff happens, you betcha. Mostly, guns fire and faceless minions die by the truckloads as the upmarket hires — Idris Elba, Margot Robbie and a ferocious Viola Davis — earn their pay with precision-timed shtick and unimpeachable professionalism. Both Robbie and Davis embrace their formulaic roles with energy, but neither has enough to do. Elba is pleasantly loose as Bloodsport, an archetypal reluctant squad leader who, unlike most of the B-team crowding the screen, has a personality animating his tough-guy crust.
A few other familiar headliners pop up, including Sylvester Stallone, Pete Davidson and, notably, Taika Waititi, who’s taken the reins on the “Thor” flicks for Marvel and whose presence here reads like a winking joke. In 2018, Gunn — who directed the first two “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies — was excommunicated by Marvel during a social media tempest. After he was called out for cracking tasteless jokes on Twitter once upon a time, Gunn was fired. There were brandished Twitter pitchforks and, from Gunn, sincere self-flagellation; and then, in a sign of cancel culture craziness, he was rehired less than a year later.
He was also hired to take on a project for Marvel’s archnemesis, DC, hence “The Suicide Squad,” a follow-up to the witless 2016 hit “Suicide Squad.” Gunn’s contribution is more watchable than its predecessor but is nevertheless a drag. His first “Guardians” movie was a diverting surprise that didn’t feel encumbered by its importance as a lucrative Marvel property. It was funny and visually ambitious and, for a contemporary comic-book movie, had uncharacteristic lightness. By the second “Guardians,” though, the series already felt stale and Gunn seemed content to simply crank up the volume.
There’s a lot of carnage and pop tunes in Gunn’s “Suicide Squad,” along with an impossible (possible!) mission, bad and good guys, the stench of Nazi villainy and the comedy of a rampaging Godzilla-size monster. The movie is based on DC characters introduced in 1959, but like innumerable action movies, the obvious touchstone is Robert Aldrich’s “The Dirty Dozen” (1967), especially in its cynicism and narrative thrust. Aldrich described this kind of film (he made a couple) as “it’s X number of men trying to get from here to there and back, or from here to there and survive” — so, basically Odysseus and his bros.
It’s a durable formula that has worked across a range of genres from westerns to war movies. The appeal is obvious and at least partly rooted in the enduring American myth of exceptionalism. A group of crazy-skilled, self-interested baddies (rugged individualists gone criminally wrong) enter the fray and, over the course of the story, become a scruffily united band of heroic brothers — a community. (Among other things, it is a self-flattering metaphor for filmmaking itself.) An occasional pretty woman breaks up the monotony.
That a character like Robbie’s Harley Quinn, with her blood-red grin and cutesy psychosis, can now fight in the boys’ club doesn’t change anything. She and the rest of the commercially palatable mavericks — with their quips, quirks, near-magical gifts, narrative trajectories and high kill count — must be brought to heel. They can sneer all they want and flex their unorthodoxies. It doesn’t matter, because however outwardly untamed or, really, just humorously unruly, each and every one will serve the greater good, aka the movie itself, even as they solidify and enrich the larger franchise.
Aldrich saw “The Dirty Dozen” as anti-authoritarian, which appealed to the original ’60s audience, but then Americans have long imagined that they are freethinking mavericks. “The Suicide Squad” dutifully serves up the same evergreen fantasy with amusing flourishes, disappointing stunt choreography and much cartoonish slicing and dicing. The violence is the most consistently inventive part of the whole package, though it grows tiresome in its thudding repetition. Like the story’s superficial finger-wagging at American wrongs, the brutality is both decorative and ritualistic. It keeps eyeballs fixed and worlds unrocked, giving the audience what it expects, no less and certainly no more.
“The Suicide Squad”Rated R for the old laughs and lashings of violence. Running time: 2 hour 12 minutes. In theaters and on HBO Max.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.