The Suicide Squad begins roughly how you’d expect. En route to the island nation of Corto Maltese, we’re introduced to the members of a revamped Task Force X, a motley crew of super(anti)heroes assembled for a covert mission at the behest of shady US intelligence agency Argus. These are new faces, but we recognise them all the same: there’s the cocksure wisecracker, the pretty boy, the taciturn senior figure – familiar guides to see us through another team-based superhero movie.
Or so we think.
Before the opening credits, most of these newcomers are wiped out in an orgy of brutally comic violence, their faces replaced by gooey bullet holes, their heads exploded by bomb implants, their bodies atomised in a fiery helicopter wreck. All the observing Argus agents can think to do is make bets on who’ll die next.
The Suicide Squad review – eyeball-blitzing supervillain reboot
The Suicide Squad ain’t your daddy’s superhero movie. Bloodthirsty and liberally profane, James Gunn’s hardcore do-over of 2016’s Suicide Squad wouldn’t have seemed possible even five years ago, when the similarly violent and irreverent Deadpool was made for a relatively hesitant $58m (The Suicide Squad reportedly cost about $175m). But the success of Deadpool, along with its sequel and the X-Men spin-off Logan, proved that an audience that grew up on a steady diet of PG comic book movies was ready for F-bombs and bloody decapitations, and to have its expectations challenged. The Suicide Squad doubles down on the swears and gore – and like its R-rated cousins, it goes all in on defying the conventions of a by now well-established genre.
Ridiculing mismatched superhero team-ups of its kind, The Suicide Squad features characters with essentially useless powers like Nathan Fillion’s TDK, whose detachable limbs can do little more than tickle the bad guys from a distance; it pokes fun at the ubiquity of superheroes with mummy and daddy issues, with David Dastmalchian’s Polka-Dot Man seeing his detested mother in the faces of all his enemies, including the skyscraper-sized celestial starfish that is The Suicide Squad’s chief antagonist; then there’s John Cena’s Peacemaker, who is prepared to kill absolutely everyone in the name of freedom, and plays like an (only slightly) more extreme version of every cape-wearing super-patriot who ever graced a comic book cover.
As wilfully silly as it often is, The Suicide Squad is proof that the superhero movie is beginning to mature. It’s not just the increasing taste for violence and sex (one of The Suicide Squad’s funniest scenes finds Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn falling in lust with Corto Maltese’s hunky dictator); the genre is now reflecting and commenting on itself. And though this makes a film like Gunn’s, and like Deadpool and Logan before it, feel fresh, it might also be evidence that the superhero genre has entered its late stage.
Beginning with X-Men in 2000 and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002, the superhero movie has over the last couple of decades grown to become Hollywood’s obsession. In recent years, as mid-budget movies disappeared and original blockbusters became ever rarer, studios have begun to bet the house on their extended comic book universes. All the while, commentators and some major film-makers (including, most famously, Martin Scorsese) have bemoaned the cultural dominance of superhero franchises at the expense of most everything else. As Marvel plans its next phases into 2026 and beyond, it could almost seem as though the superhero’s on-screen golden age will never end. As James Gunn himself admits, however, no genre remains popular forever.
The musical, the epic, the romcom – all have enjoyed their day in the sun as reliable box-office draws. Once upon a time, the western ruled. For years, western movies and TV shows were churned out with such regularity it might have seemed like the stream of cowboy content would never dry up. As the fanbase grew older, the genre simply evolved. The spaghetti western replaced the traditional “white hat” with the antihero and then, beginning with films like Sam Peckinpah’s bloodbath oater The Wild Bunch, the western entered its revisionist phase, a period of reflection which birthed some of the finest ever examples of the cowboy picture. Then the genre exhausted itself and petered out.
With The Suicide Squad, as well as TV shows like Watchmen and The Boys, it would seem the superhero genre is now in its own revisionist phase. The number of superhero projects aimed expressly at adults is growing – The Suicide Squad’s Peacemaker, for one, has his own R-rated TV spinoff coming to HBO Max next year – though it’s too early to tell if this will come at the expense of family-friendly comic book projects. (Some commentators are already wondering whether Black Widow’s disappointing box office indicates waning interest in Marvel’s cleaner, more conventional brand of superhero story, but it’s easy to be sceptical given the myriad factors that might have led to that film’s under-performance.)Margot Robbie, Daniela Melchior, Idris Elba and David Dastmalchian in The Suicide Squad. Photograph: AP
However long the superhero movie has left as Hollywood’s premier genre, the stage of evolution that the genre finds itself at now could prove particularly fascinating. The popular western’s revisionist phase gave us such classics as McCabe & Mrs Miller and Ulzana’s Raid, films of great depth which couldn’t have existed without decades of well-worn tropes to build upon and upend. Following The Suicide Squad, it’s tempting to think we might be due more adult-oriented revisionist superhero stories that are as free, inventive and pointedly topical (yes, The Suicide Squad has things to say about American foreign policy).
Marvel’s crescendoing epic Avengers: Endgame, with its colossal box office showing two years ago, will undoubtedly represent the peak of the superhero movie’s popularity. The Suicide Squad meanwhile may prove to be to the superhero movie what The Wild Bunch was to the western: a bloody, game-changing end to one phase, and the beginning of another, even richer one.
Quentin Tarantino only has one movie left to make before he retires, and he has one idea he knows would make for a slam-dunk good movie. That idea involves casting Adam Driver as Rambo in an adaptation of “First Blood.” Tarantino said on “The Big Ticket” podcast during his “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” book tour (via /Film) that his “First Blood” would adapt David Morrell’s 1972 novel of the same name and not have anything to do with remaking Sylvester Stallone’s 1982 movie.
“When David O. Russell talked about doing ‘The Fighter,’ he was over himself and over being the auteur,” Tarantino said. “He just wanted to make a good movie that people are going to enjoy. There was something really refreshing about him saying that, and that perspective. If I just wanted to make a good movie, that I knew would be good, I would take David Morrell’s novel for ‘First Blood’ and do the novel. Not the movie that was made out of ‘First Blood.’ I would do the novel.”
Tarantino continued, “Kurt Russell would play the sheriff, and [Adam Driver] would play Rambo. Every time I read it, the dialogue is so fantastic in the David Morrell novel that you’re reading it out loud. It would be so good. But now I want to do more than that. But if it was just about to make a good movie, that’s out there.”
It appears Tarantino wants something more challenging than just a slam-dunk good movie like “First Blood” for his final feature. The director revealed at the end of June that he briefly considered making his last movie a “Reservoir Dogs” reboot. Tarantino promised fans he would not be rebooting his feature directorial debut, but it could find life on the stage.
“I’ve decided if I wanted to do something like [a ‘Reservoir Dogs’ reboot], I would do it more on stage. I think that would be cool,” Tarantino told ReelBlend podcast in July. “It’d be a great stage play. My thought process was, ‘Well, if it’s a strong piece of material, it would work doing it any time.’ It does seem timeless. And then just with a new group of actors, that would have a new life.”
Tarantino continued, “It would also have a new life by the fact that I didn’t really know what the hell I was doing when I did ‘Reservoir Dogs.’ And now I know what I’m doing a little bit more…I think I was thinking at the time when I was considering doing it as a movie, making it an all-Black cast. That’s what I think would have been my twist on it, as far as making it a different movie.”
With “First Blood” out of the running, Tarantino fans will have to keep waiting to find out what his last directorial effort will be.
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We’ve come a long way since Disney released “Tron” 39 years ago — so far, in fact, that some people actually buy into the theory that what we think of as existence could be just a giant computer simulation, as Elon Musk described at Code Conference in 2016: “Forty years ago we had ‘Pong,’ like two rectangles and a dot. That was what games were. Now 40 years later, we have photorealistic 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously, and it’s getting better every year,” Musk mused. Therefore, “If you assume any rate of improvement at all, the games will become indistinguishable from reality.”
In “Free Guy” — an inventive, much-better-than-you’d-expect 2020 summer tentpole that’s finally being released post-pandemic — Ryan Reynolds plays a video game character who doesn’t realize that his world isn’t real. Guy is what’s known as an NPC, or “non-playable character.” In a realm of ones and zeros, he’s a zero: just another of the generic background sims who serve as collateral damage for carnage hounds in a game called “Free City,” a “Grand Theft Auto”-style free-for-all where players are encouraged to wreak havoc, joyriding and blasting their way through a virtual metropolis.
Wearing a look of almost Capraesque simplicity on his mug at most times, Reynolds’ upbeat, blue-shirt-and-khakis bank teller has just enough programming to hit the deck during a stick-up, or to utter a stock phrase before being struck by a car in the street. And like Neo in “The Matrix,” he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. “Free Guy” focuses on the moment all that changes — the red-pill rift when his consciousness blows open, after the minimal AI that governs his behavior evolves enough to give Guy something resembling free will (and a pretty raunchy sense of humor, considering how oblivious he is to most things).
Whether through a lack of originality or a desire to minimize the exposition in a movie whose elevated concept could’ve gotten unnecessarily complicated, the opening minutes of “Free Guy” borrow heavily from both “Deadpool” and “The Lego Movie,” as Reynolds wryly narrates the rules of his world: In “Free City,” the “sunglass people” are the heroes (represented here by a self-deprecating Channing Tatum), while everyone else are NPCs, blithely going about their “lives” in an endless, uninteresting loop (a “Groundhog Day” conceit that lifts still more DNA from other films, including last spring’s game-based action comedy “Boss Level”).
OK, so “Free Guy” isn’t the most original movie of all time, but what matters here is how co-writers Matt Lieberman (“The Addams Family”) and Zak Penn (“Ready Player One”) make it fresh. Simple, by asking: What would happen if Guy, an NPC, fell in love with one of the players he sees inside the game? It’s like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” in reverse, where the hubba-hubba fantasy girl isn’t an imaginary toon, but the avatar for Millie (Jodie Comer), AKA Molotovgirl, the Pygmalion-like coder who conceived him. So long as audiences like Guy (and he’s played by Ryan Reynolds, so what’s not to like?), it’s easy to root for an impossible romance between the pixelated Romeo and his flesh-and-blood ideal.
Inventively brought to life by “Night at the Museum” helmer Shawn Levy (who designs Free City to look like a cross between a studio backlot and one of those pliable cityscapes seen in “Inception”), the movie’s overstuffed plot divides its time between the game Guy inhabits and Millie’s “real world,” where she and former programming partner Walter “Keys” McKeys (Joe Keery) have parted ways. Keys now works for Soonami, the big-time gaming company that acquired their idealistic early project and, if Millie is correct, buried their code somewhere inside “Free City” instead of developing it as agreed (which, I’m pretty sure, is something software companies are free to do as they please after purchasing someone else’s work, but no matter).
Like Jeff Bridges’ character in “Tron,” Millie sneaks into the game trying to prove that the developer “swiped our AI engine for his shooter.” Needless to say, all those intrigues are considerably less interesting than Guy’s quandary inside the game, although Levy balances things out somewhat by casting Taika Waititi as Antwan, the massively uncouth Soonami owner who comes across as a hilarious combination of all of Silicon Valley’s worst character traits: disgustingly rich, immature, abrasive and inclined to treat everyone who works for him as expendable peons.
Waititi makes his entrance late in the film, but nearly hijacks it when he does, inventing a uniquely larger-than-life greed- and attention-monger, bent on forcing the millions of “Free City” players worldwide (glimpses of whom we see in hovels and internet cafes around the globe) to upgrade to his forthcoming sequel. Apparently, “Free City 2” isn’t backwards compatible and will effectively wipe out the revolutionary AI miracle of Guy’s rapid-upgrading personality — just like pretty much every video game sequel ever, by my understanding.
This would be a good point to admit that my own investment in video games dried up almost 30 years ago, when the Sega Genesis came along and rendered my 8-bit Sega Master System obsolete a month or two after I’d poured my life savings into the console. I pretty much stopped playing video games (or anything more complicated than “Candy Crush”) at that point, whereas my brother now spends more of his waking hours gaming than doing anything else. “Free Guy” wasn’t made for me so much as it was for those who invest actual dollars on in-game currency, buying skins and who-knows-what to upgrade their avatars.
“Free Guy” assumes a certain level of video game literacy that I don’t necessarily possess, as in vaguely “Matrix”-like action sequences where Keys and Soonami colleague Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar) enter the game as virtual cops and take out offending players (is that a thing?), or when Antwan reboots the game in order to wipe Guy’s brain (aren’t there easier ways to bug-fix?). When all that fails, Antwan takes a fire ax to the server room, which strikes me as one of those Hollywood conceits — like the virus in Sandra Bullock thriller “The Net” melting the screens of every computer it infects — that the filmmakers have embellished to make a thoroughly uncinematic geek concept more exciting.
But let’s be honest: “Free Guy” is a lot of fun, despite the fact that Levy and the screenwriters seem to be changing the rules as they go. Reynolds might be a little to charismatic to believe as a personality-devoid NPC (the way that Jim Carrey always seemed a little too chirpily self-aware as the ostensibly naive star of “The Truman Show”), but it’s a thrill to watch the character come into his own, as “Blue Shirt Guy” (as the fans following his exploits in the game call him) levels up in a hurry.
Less experienced, Comer and Keery are young TV actors (from “Killing Eve” and “Stranger Things”) still trying to pin down their respective big-screen appeal, and they come off more generic than the virtual dude their characters invented here. I’m skeptical that the world really wants the “fishbowl game” they developed, or that people would rather watch an autonomous video game than play one themselves. But “Free Guy” is all but guaranteed to make audiences think differently about NPCs. The medium is still in its infancy, and 40 years from now (if Musk is right), when those virtual characters are sophisticated enough to be indistinguishable from people, it could be fun to go back and see how much “Free Guy” got right.