When James Gunn eventually releases both of his upcoming superhero movies –The Suicide Squad for DC and his final Guardians of the Galaxy film for Marvel – it’ll have been a long and winding road for both of them. At one point he wasn’t supposed to be involved with either one due to the Coen-esque series of events from the summer of 2018 to spring 2019 that led to a firing, a hiring, and eventually a rehiring. Said events were confusing and often frustrating, but as The Suicide Squad approaches ever-nearer (July 30th for the UK), it might also be rewarding.
Because an avalanche was caused in 2018 after alt-right grifter, commentator and all-round POS Mike Cernovich dug up years-old tweets that Gunn made about bluer-than-blue topics. This was a retort to the director taking public snipes at figures like Trump and Ben Shapiro, and the unearthing led to a wave of outrage – despite the years removed and Gunn previously apologising. I’m not going to debate the meaning behind those jokes, because that discourse was exhausting and unearthed from a place of near-universal bad faith which baited a lot of well-meaning people into smearing someone who had already apologised and clearly evolved in the public eye in the (many many) years since writing them.
Anyway, he got kicked out of Marvel, but unlike almost everyone this has recently happened to, various studios lined up around the block to court Gunn into joining them. Almost immediately post-firing, Warner Bros. offered him any DC project he wished – and he chose Suicide Squad, which makes so much sense. Every single James Gunn project from the Dawn of the Dead film he wrote for Zack Snyder, to Super and Guardians, has been about people who, through whatever extraordinary situation they’re thrown in (or caused themselves to be in) push to be better people and actually earn their redemption through action.
Even the Scooby Doo movies he penned in the early 2000s, which I still have an overwhelming fondness for, are all about finding yourself through other people, and pulling yourself out of whatever terrible situation you might be in by using your love and care for them as a conduit. In a genre where oftentimes the dramatic focus is the one super-strong maestro that struggles with the weight of the world on their shoulders, Gunn focuses on the team and the family dynamic better than anyone.
People should be held responsible for wrongdoing, but “cancel culture” as a term (used more as a phrase by the self-aggrandising right-wing more than ever these days) feels a little strange. Using the word “cancel” implies that the simple and correct act of asking for personal and societal accountability from people for mistakes or genuinely awful behaviour, is akin to wanting them dead or destitute. It isn’t that at all, of course. If that logic was true, then none of the superheroes that have become our cultural titans would ever get as far as trying their suits on. Scott Lang is a petty criminal. Tony Stark is an actual war criminal. Gamora is an accessory to genocide. And Bucky? Forget it man. There’s a whole block in the Hague that should be reserved for him after all the stuff he got up to in the last century. But they all eventually come out on top because they acknowledge how shitty they used to be, and actively atone for it.
Also, in terms of accountability, some of these tweets were brought up in 2012, when Gunn was first hired for Vol. 1. And that’s good! He was rightfully called out for making hurtful, unfunny, boneheaded “jokes”, and it gave him the chance to do the right thing; profusely apologise, condemn the person he was when he wrote them, and vow to never do that again going forward (“I promise to be more careful with my words in the future. And I will do my best to be funnier as well.”) Which he did. And then he made two movies all about pretty bad people who overcome their terrible-ness through great effort and understanding of empathy and humanity through each other’s trauma. He was clearly a better person, and the grace with which he handled his firing was proof of that (and also one of the reasons why Disney exec apparently decided to Uno reverse-card the whole thing).
There’s a reason why Guardians feels more personal than almost anything else in the MCU: when Kraglin actor Sean Gunn took to social media to comment on his brother’s initial firing, he had this to say; “…this change in my brother was reflected in the change that the Guardians go through. I’ve heard my brother say many times that when Quill rallies the team with “this is our chance to give a shit” – to care – that it’s the pep talk that he himself needed to here.” At every step of his career going forward, he’s channelled his own personal growth into his movies.
It’s interesting, because one of the many distinctions between the DCEU and the MCU are how they originate their heroes. DC’s gang are usually born out of tragedy (dead parents, orphans, mutilation etc.); but Marvel’s more often than not begin as out-and-out assholes. Think Tony, Stephen Strange, Thor or any one of the Guardians. Their stories aren’t about them gaining superpowers and becoming great people, but using their newfound responsibility to become good people, which somehow makes for a far more rewarding experience.
However, The Suicide Squad isn’t a rebirth just for Gunn, but for the Squad in general. Whereas David Ayer’s original 2016 offering reads very much like a moody, Snyder-esque film that was retrofitted into Guardians of the Galaxy via post-production and reshoots, this time it’s that kind of vision from the beginning – which is a definite upside from Marvel’s more predictable house style at the moment. Say what you will about Joker, but it’s definitely it’s own thing in the DCEU. And Zack Snyder’s Justice League is very different to Shazam! in a way that most MCU movies are broadly similar. It sounds strange, but the de-emphasising of the shared universe actually broadens it, letting so many aspects and colours of this world shine through more than if it had just one outfit to keep wearing.
Going off the trailers, The Suicide Squad looks brighter and lighter (despite the R-rating) than the other DCEU films by a longshot – and clearly less ashamed of having fun or just being plain ridiculous. I mean, Starro – a goddamn massive starfish – is the villain of this one! Hell yeah! Oscar-winner Peter Capaldi has an enlarged bald head with bolts sticking out, Frankenstein’s monster-style. Behind him, Oscar-nominee Sylvester Stallone is voicing a shark man with a dadbod. This is the kind of wonderful nonsense that made kids fall in love with comics like this in the first place, and it’s good to see something from the DCEU that isn’t the brooding and edgy style that originated it. Dark and gritty works for Batman. It doesn’t necessarily work for Captain Boomerang.
Another change is that, save for Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis and Jai Courtenay, we’re in for a completely new and massively extended cast. The likes of Idris Elba, John Cena, Daniella Melchior, Pete Davidson and (a staple of Gunn’s films) Michael Rooker are all getting put in the firing line, and by the sounds of it, a sizable majority are actually dying in this one, which (fingers crossed) will give the sequel more weight and heft than the original whilst still openly enjoying and exploring its own premise more. And as a fan of the comics and the animated Batman show when I was a kid, seeing Polka-Dot Man in a live-action film gives me so much joy.
We’re going to see something new from the old guard as well. For example, Harley Quinn is no longer burdened by her co-dependency on the Joker, it’ll be interesting to see Amanda Waller deal with a threat (and a Suicide Squad) considerably larger than the first time around… but Kinnaman’s updated Rick Flagg excites me the most. It seems like in this one he has infinitely more of a spark and sense of fun around him that just wasn’t there in the macho colonel he portrayed in the original. It also appears like he genuinely cares about the team under his instruction and protection this time, and it’ll allow Kinneman’s natural charisma to shine through so much more. It’s another example of Gunn refusing to let people stay stuck in the same rut forever. That being said, Jai Courteney has admitted that Captain Boomerang will remain “the same shitbag liability we came to learn about in the first one.” And to be honest, thank god for that.
So really – despite everything – Suicide Squad 2 could end up being a genuine standout of summer movie season. Despite being another example of an anti-hero team-up superhero story, it’s once again coming from someone who clearly wants his characters to change as meaningfully as he once did. I’m very glad that Gunn is back on track to finish his Guardians trilogy, but I’m also happy that he gets to stretch his legs and broaden his artistry in a markedly different sandbox. To go back to what Sean Gunn wrote when he was trying to make sense of something that would thankfully all work out in the end; “I guess my hope is that fans continue to watch and appreciate the Guardians movies, not despite the fact that the filmmaker used to be kind of a jackass, but because of it. They are, after all, movies about discovering your best self.” I hope we discover more of James’ on July 30th.