‘The Suicide Squad’: 5 Things We Learned From James Gunn About the Supervillain Blockbuster

‘The Suicide Squad’: 5 Things We Learned From James Gunn About the Supervillain Blockbuster

The Suicide Squad isn’t quite the movie that you’re expecting. Oh, sure, James Gunn’s latest superhero blockbuster is as funny, violent, cynical, and chaotic as its red-band trailer indicates. But it’s not just a bloody good time. Amid all of the mayhem, there are moments of genuine emotion. Many of the action scenes are harrowing, not comedic. Gunn plays the biggest character beats completely straight, infusing The Suicide Squad with both tragedy and heart.

“This movie really was about just making the biggest, most entertaining film I possibly could,” Gunn said during a post-screening Q&A, just before admitting he was “trying to take risks with a spectacle film.” The result is unique among big-budget superhero movies. Structurally, The Suicide Squad zigs when you think it’s going to zag. Thematically, it doesn’t shy away from hard questions. Its scope is both massive and intensely personal, and while its characters are funny, they’re never treated like jokes.

It’s an interesting film, and one worth talking about. Thankfully, when it comes to The Suicide Squad, Gunn has no shortage of things to say.

If You Like Starro, You Have Bong Joon-ho to Thank

It’s no secret that Starro the Conqueror, an interstellar supervillain and the Justice League’s very first foe, shows up in The Suicide Squad. If you’re a fan of the character, you should be pleased with his depiction here. The trailers only hint at Starro’s real powers.

But when designing Starro, Gunn didn’t just look to the comics. He also referenced the work of an Oscar-winning filmmaker. “I really like the movie The Host,” Gunn said, name-checking Bong Joon-ho‘s 2006 monster movie. “I like how the sea monster flops around like a giant puppy. I wanted the same sort of unwieldy feeling of a walking starfish.”

The Host tells the story of a snack bar owner named Park Gang-du whose daughter is kidnapped by an aquatic monster lurking in the Han River. After its release, The Host became the highest-grossing (at the time) South Korean movie ever made, while Bong Joon-ho went on to direct movies like Snowpiercer and the Best Picture-winning Parasite.

If you’ve seen The Host, you’ll immediately recognize the physical similarities between its creature and Starro. As Gunn explained, it’s in the way they move. “Getting [Starro] to walk in a way that at least somewhat put people in peril, but also the goofy way a starfish would walk, was difficult,” he says.

The Very Premise of The Suicide Squad is Political

In The Suicide Squad, Task Force X’s mission involves invading a Spanish-speaking country called Corto Maltese, which has just undergone a military coup, in order to keep dangerous scientific knowledge out of the hands of the new regime.

“The story is, in a way, innately about an American institution that is doing these black ops operations … with characters and people that they consider disposable,” Gunn said. “I think it would be hard to tackle that without also tackling the choices behind that.”

Without giving anything away, The Suicide Squad makes the story’s imperialist overtones explicit, using characters like Amanda Waller and Peacemaker (John Cena) to illuminate the moral ambiguity inherent to the Suicide Squad’s mission. “Part of what they’re doing is good, in a way, and then part of it is awful,” Gunn said.

The trick, the director said, lies in making sure every point of view is represented. “I understand Peacemaker’s perspective. I understand Amanda Waller’s perspective,” Gunn said, even though he doesn’t necessarily agree with either. By playing up the premise’s complicated politics, Gunn pays homage to the comics that inspired the movie, particularly John Ostrander’s groundbreaking Suicide Squad run, although the film stops just short of making a definitive political statement.

Gunn Didn’t Have to Put Harley Quinn in the Movie

While most members of the Suicide Squad make their big-screen debuts in the movie, a few old favorites return, including Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. Introduced in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, Robbie’s Quinn quickly become one of the DCEU’s biggest stars. She even starred in her own movie, 2020’s Birds of Prey.

As such, you might’ve expected that Harley’s inclusion in The Suicide Squad was mandated by the Warner Bros. brass. According to Gunn, that wasn’t the case. “Exactly what they said was, ‘Listen, we love Margot, we would love it if she was back in the movie, but as long as you’re doing what you want to do … we don’t really care,’” Gunn said.

Gunn ended up bringing back Harley, Joel Kinnaman‘s Rick Flagg, Jai Courtney‘s Captain Boomerang, and Viola Davis‘ Amanda Waller because he both loved the characters and wanted to work with the actors who played them. “David did an amazing job casting his movie,” Gunn said. “If there’s something that’s good, why ‘fix’ it?”

King Shark was Completely Redesigned During Post-Production

“King Shark was the toughest character I ever had to design,” Gunn said. “Shark skin is much harder to get right than raccoon fur or wood.” In addition, sharks live in the water, not land. A character like Rocket Raccoon is still a mammal, so giving him human qualities is fairly intuitive. “But transforming a shark,” Gunn said, “into something that walks around and has a head bent forward took a lot — a lot — of design work.”

Gunn collaborated with visual effects house Framestore to come up with King Shark’s look, only to throw it out when the effects were nearly completed. “We started almost finishing shots, when I was like, ‘Ugh, he still doesn’t look totally right,’” Gunn said. “His belly was a little too white, his pecs were a little too pec-like … I said to Framestore, ‘I’m sorry, but we have to go redesign.’”

It was worth it. While every viewer will likely walk out of The Suicide Squad with a different favorite character, King Shark, with his blank eyes and squat dad bod — as Gunn noted, fish don’t have abs — is a clear stand-out. His physicality is a major reason why he may very well end up being the film’s break-out star.

In the End, The Suicide Squad is About Making a Connection

With the exception of Super, Gunn’s superhero comedy starring Rainn Wilson and Elliot Page, all of the filmmaker’s movies have something in common: they’re all ensemble pieces— and with 15 anti-heroes on its roster (not counting regular humans like Amanda Waller or Alice Braga‘s freedom fighter), The Suicide Squad is his biggest yet.

As such, there are ample opportunities in the movie for conflict to break out between the characters, and many of them do not get along. However, as the film progresses, certain members of the cast do grow closer. A few even become friends.

“Everything I’ve ever done is about characters trying to connect who have a difficult time doing it, because I have a difficult time doing it,” Gunn said. “These characters have a harder time than anyone else I’ve ever written, because they not only have these horrible backstories … but they’ve also made horrible choices in their lives. To be able to find something good in that is the journey that excites me the most.”

The Suicide Squad debuts in theaters and on HBO Max on August 5, 2021.

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