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The Suicide Squad is in UK cinemas.

For much of the 1960s, Marvel Comics adopted the slogan of car rental firm Avis, who were perennially overshadowed by market-leader Hertz: ‘we’re number two – we try harder’. DC Comics had crossover pop culture icons – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman – so Marvel presented quirkier characters. As editor, Stan Lee often pointed out that Spider-Man or the Hulk had problems – torn costumes that needed replacing, the enmity of the US government/army – which would never trouble the dignified heroes of the Distinguished Competition.

In the current incarnation of this rivalry, Marvel (in the form of the Marvel Cinematic Universe) is Hertz, so DC’s generally shambolic DC Extended Universe films have to try harder, sometimes by taking risks the Disneyfied MCU is averse to. After Patty Jenkins parted ways with Marvel during pre-production of Thor: The Dark World, DC hired her to direct their Wonder Woman film. James Gunn, writer-director of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy films, was (temporarily) let go after an orchestrated kerfuffle about tasteless things he tweeted when he was associated not with Disney but the low-rent exploitation outfit Troma. With the glee DC once demonstrated by signing up Marvel’s top artist Jack Kirby, Gunn was hired and given free rein with a follow-up to David Ayer’s compromised, financially-successful-but-little-loved Suicide Squad (2016).

Though the plot outline – a group of expendable supervillains are coerced by a government hardliner (Viola Davis) into going on a mission that turns out to be a cover-up of US dirty deeds more than it is an exercise in saving the world – is similar, this particular exploit – a raid on an ex-Nazi mad science workshop on the coup-torn Cuba-like island of Corto Maltese – is better tailored to the cast of oddballs, psychopaths, monsters and chancers.

The Suicide Squad (2021)

Besides being ensembles of misfits, the Guardians and Suicide Squad sub-franchises aren’t that similar. Gunn gives The Suicide Squad a different tone from his Guardians films, though he retains a fondness – suprisingly unusual in an era of big-budget superheroism – for the kind of splash panel awesomeness that made Marvel/DC comics seem fresh in the first place.

Here, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn – at last given a decent costume (two, in fact) – swims into the vitreous humour of the single eye of a giant starfish from the dawn of comics’ silver age (the first Justice League of America story, 1960); King Shark, a Hawaiian sea god reduced to playing comedy goon (voiced by Sylvester Stallone), is momentarily bewitched by a horde of mirror-fish in a mad scientist’s aquarium and overcome by yearning for the sea (or, at least, a cameo in Aquaman 2); Polka Dot Man (David Dastalmachian), selected for the team because of his standing joke status as the most feeble villain Gotham City ever produced, suffers from ‘an interdimensional virus’ and an Oedipus complex, seeing his evil mother’s face on every other character; and Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), a sleepy millennial among veteran antiheroes, summons a vermin horde from the rubble to swarm over the giant alien, who (through a possessed dictator) murmurs that before it was brought to Earth it was happy floating and looking at stars. Unlike, say, Logan or Joker, this isn’t a comic book movie that’s embarrassed about being a comic book movie.

There are still signs of the DCEU’s usual patchwork development. Idris Elba’s leading man Bloodsport is a stronger, more engaging redeemable baddie than Will Smith’s Deadshot was in Ayer’s film but is obviously a stand-in for the departed star/character. Robbie’s Harley is off on her own subplot for much of the film and never really clicks with the team. Gunn’s touch is also apparent in a kind of gruesome comedy that harks back to his work on Tromeo and Juliet (1996) or Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (2004) as body horror carnage reminiscent of George A. Romero’s zombie movies is inventively played for mean-spirited laughs. Typical is a rescue mission whereby the Squad set out to save an ally only to eliminate an entire rebel movement – including a washerwoman – who are seeking their help.

Further reading

Zack Snyder’s Justice League reloads for the streaming wars

By Tim Hayes

Zack Snyder’s Justice League reloads for the streaming wars

Wonder Woman 1984 shrinks history, stretches patience

By Adam Nayman

Wonder Woman 1984 shrinks history, stretches patience

In Birds of Prey, Harley Quinn lets her hair down

By Christina Newland

In Birds of Prey, Harley Quinn lets her hair down