In Fast 9, John Cena’s performance as Jacob was a personification of why that movie worked. Playing a square-jawed badass who just needed a hug, Cena embraced his destiny as an action icon with the right dose of retrospection, giving a new life to what could have been a stereotypical, muscle-bound threat.
Like his performance in Fast 9, Cena’s Peacemaker in The Suicide Squad makes his impact by embracing and subverting an action hero tropes in equal measure. One minute, he’s Leslie Nielsen in Airplane!, using stoic sincerity to make his foolish dialogue even funnier. The next, he’s the T-800, a focused killing machine who you want on your side more than anything.
Also like Fast 9, Cena’s characterization is a personification of why The Suicide Squad works. Writer-director James Gunn’s use of humor doesn’t only entertain: it helps the characters resonate with the audience, and keeps us on the edge of our seats. An argument between an imprisoned Robert Dubois (Idris Elba) and his daughter Tyla (Storm Reid) speaks to the resonance. The argument covers heavy subjects, like Dubois’s contempt for himself seeping through as contempt for his daughter, Tyla’s loss of her mother, and the merit of a style watch (you can watch TV on them). Their sloppy, insecure rage comes out as both venomous cruelty and comedic foolishness.
Once the characters are on their mission, the film’s subversive humor means anything could happen at any time. There’s King Shark (Sylvester Stallone), a wholesome, hungry idiot, who needs to pledge his allegiance to the squad so they don’t have to worry about the hungry side turning on them. When he shakes Cleo’s (Daniela Melchior) hand to affirm this, one of two jokes can happen: either his idiot side won’t know when to stop shaking her hand, or he’ll take a chomp at her to subvert the emotion of the moment. That moment stands out on the first viewing. You want to feel the wholesomeness, but you’re too busy bracing for a horrified laugh for it to comfortably settle.
But, as difficult as it is to say, that you’re bracing for a horrified laugh is a testament to the emotional investment. Cleo’s cool! You’ll like Cleo! And her theoretically getting her head chomped off could make for a great theoretical gag, but that you’re bracing for this theoretical gag means you care about her!
This is the core of how the movie functions. It certainly uses absurd humor and sickening violence for laughs and fun, and you’ll have plenty of those. The action, as with everything else, is an extension of the characters, and their inventive weapons and strengths make for great fun. But Gunn also uses these elements to show our messy humanity at its messiest, its most evil, and its most beautiful.
There are plenty of ways to watch this messy beauty. I’d recommend theaters, particularly IMAX (it was shot entirely with IMAX cameras) for the scope, or HBO Max if you just want a fun night at home.
Either way, whatever itch you have, this movie will scratch it.