** SPOILERS **
Writer-director James Gunn's The Suicide Squad understands the old adage that if you introduce a javelin in Act 1, you must have Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) plunge that javelin into the eye of a giant, telepathic alien starfish in Act 3. That's Chekhov's javelin. Look, I grew up reading 1980s DC Comics and poring over Who's Who character encyclopedias and DC Heroes role-playing game sourcebooks, and apparently, so did James Gunn. The Suicide Squad was made for me. Well, not me, exactly, but 14-year-old me, who probably appreciated the obscure DC references even more than adult me dug the overall film. The Suicide Squad is a far better and more enjoyable movie than the 2016 Suicide Squad. It's unapologetically bloody and ruthless as a movie about a cruel bureaucrat, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), sending superpowered convicts to their deaths ought to be. The bottom line is Gunn understands that it sucks to be in the Suicide Squad but, unlike with the prior film, he also made sure it doesn't suck watching The Suicide Squad.
The Suicide Squad has a massive cast that the marketing correctly urges you not to get too attached to. Waller assembles a group to go to a South American country named Corto Maltese, which is the same country Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) took war photos of that got on the cover of Time in Batman 1989, for some sort of black op. Back leading the group is Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) while Harley Quinn and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), old pals who survived the first Suicide Squad, are also volunteered for the mission. But this version of the Squad has weirdos like Blackguard (Pete Davidson), Savant (Michael Rooker), Javelin (Flula Borg), and a guy named T.D.K. (Nathan Fillion), whose superpower is he can detach his arms. Great. There's also some kind of weasel-like man-thing named Weasel (Sean Gunn). This Squad is useless and they're supposed to be; Blackguard sold them out to the Corto Maltese army (and maybe Waller arranged it so he would, it's not clear), and they get massacred on the beach. But that was the point because there was a second Suicide Squad sent by Waller who is really supposed to accomplish the mission.
The other Suicide Squad is led by Bloodsport (Idris Elba), a mercenary and expert marksman with any weapon. Bloodsport also has a teenage daughter and he's a reluctant leader who doesn't believe he's a good person. If that sounds exactly like Deadshot (Will Smith) in the first movie it's because it's the same character, only Bloodsport's kid is also a criminal. There's also Peacemaker (John Cena), an extremist soldier who loves peace so much he'll murder anyone to keep it, and he wears a toilet bowl-looking helmet on his head. The other oddballs are Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), a sweet narcoleptic who controls rats and has her own Ratatoullie and, naturally, is the daughter of Ratcatcher 1 (Taika Waititi), Nanaue aka King Shark (Sylvester Stallone), an innocent shark monster man, and Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), who was infested with an alien virus and sees his abusive mother in everyone he kills. Waller sends this Squad into Corto Maltese to stop a supervillain named The Thinker (Peter Capaldi), who has spent 30 years experimenting on the aforementioned alien starfish, Starro the Conqueror, who can control people's minds with little starfish face huggers like in Alien. Most of the movie is spent following these numbnuts traipsing through the jungle and bumbling throughout their mission.
And then there's Harley Quinn, who survived the massacre at the beach and finds herself courted by Corto Maltese's new President, Sylvio Luna (Julio Diego Botto). In her third outing as Harley, Robbie has perfected the endearingly hot psychopath, who's basically a female Bugs Bunny with a murderous streak. In a movie filled with unexpected twists, Harley has the best one when she turns the tables on Luna, who she did consider marrying, and she has the best fight sequence in the film that tops the ones she had in Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. Perhaps not so strangely, Harley also introduces The Suicide Squad's moral center: she may be a homicidal girl clown but Harley draws the line at killing kids. Apparently, so does Bloodsport, which we learn when Harley joins up with his Squad. It's interesting to see where supervillains draw the line but letting Amanda Waller get away with allowing an alien starfish to take over Corto Maltese was a bridge too far, and the Suicide Squad turn into heroes by necessity,
As a movie about supervillains abused by the system, The Suicide Squad squarely points the finger at the real bad guys: Waller and by extension, the United States that she 'defends'. The Suicide Squad is an indictment of U.S. foreign policy, the way immigrants like Ratcatcher 2 are persecuted, and it was the United States that brought Starro to Corto Maltese, cutting a secret deal to experiment on the alien far from American soil and without the knowledge of the American people. Even Waller's own staff turn on her, which is pretty ballsy considering Waller shot and killed her prior staff point-blank in the first Suicide Squad. Gunn peppers in a lot of character development for the Suicide Squad members he cares about and he makes the audience care for them too.
However, The Suicide Squad sacrifices forward momentum and a clear throughline for blood-splattered set pieces, narrative time-twisting, and a bunch of strange asides, though getting to know Ratcatcher 2, Peacemaker, Bloodsport, and Nanaue is worth the time spent. Gunn also sets up Peacemaker's solo series on HBO Max even though the guy is a gigantic jerk, but Cena still makes Peacemaker a jerk we want to see more of. The Suicide Squad is infused with pop music like the prior film and Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy but weirdly, the tunes aren't quite as memorable this time around. Overall, The Suicide Squad is a joyously indulgent auteur superhero movie where James Gunn lets us into his very specific comic book mindset as if Gunn himself slapped a Starro on our faces and whispered "have a good time". And you know what? We do.