James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad Is a Movie About Being Canceled (by a Giant Starfish Monster)
The various gross-out gags that writer-director James Gunn cooked up for The Suicide Squad include: a stupid talking shark ripping a man in half, John Cena appearing in tighty-whities, a kaiju-sized one-eyed starfish having its ocular cavity eaten out by mind-controlled rats, the pathetic drowning of a man-sized weasel creature, and a slap fight carried out by a character whose superpower is detachable, levitating arms. It’s a weird, outrageous, self-consciously over-the-top movie built out of gory B-movie hijinks: Even the title card is written in the shimmery floating blood of a man whose head has been blown up via a remote-controlled, brain-implanted bomb.
What might be even more subversive than the movie itself, though, is the fact that Gunn was allowed to make it all.
Gunn, after all, was the victim of a high-profile cancellation job, an intentional effort to publicly smear him and have him fired for tasteless jokes he’d made on Twitter years earlier.
In 2018, Gunn got involved in a minor and mostly irrelevant online argument about whether liberals should pay any attention to the arguments made by pundits on the right, and specifically Ben Shapiro. Gunn’s position was, more or less, that Ben Shapiro is annoying, but also that it might not be the worst idea to occasionally listen to some of your ideological opponents—or at the very least that we shouldn’t actively attack people for suggesting that listening to your political opponents might be a good thing.
At the time, Gunn, who had come of age working as a shock-horror maestro for Troma Entertainment—home of the Toxic Avenger films—was riding high on the success of two Guardians of the Galaxy movies for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He was booked to make a third, and to help oversee Marvel’s expansion into cosmic storylines. But Marvel, of course, is owned by the famously risk-averse Disney, which zealously guards its family-friendly image.
So when some right-wing provocateurs dug up a series of years-old tweets by Gunn making vulgar, tasteless Twitter jokes about harming and sometimes sexually exploiting children, Disney gave Gunn the boot.
In one sense, Gunn’s tweets were obviously in poor taste—or at least not the taste of what Disney imagines as its typical customer. They certainly did not fit with Disney’s clean and friendly corporate image.
In another sense, however, they were exactly what Disney was paying him for. His early work on films like Slither and Tromeo and Juliet was deliberately shocking, intended to amuse and entertain through a particular kind of scatological, self-aware offense giving. The Guardians films, which blended B-movie sci-fi tropes with absurdist weirdo humor, worked as a PG-13 mixdown of his R-rated sensibilities.
Disney had hired Gunn, the vulgar provocateur, and made more than $1 billion in the box office on his ideas. The company then turned around and fired him for having been a vulgar provocateur when online trolls got mad about it.
It’s not too hard to imagine a world in which someone like that has trouble working again, or at least has difficulty working for big studios making big-budget movies. Bad tweets can maim even the most promising careers.
But fortunately for both Gunn and those who enjoy his work, Warner Bros., which owns Marvel’s main competitor in the world of superheroes, DC Comics, saw an opportunity. The studio was in the process of rebooting The Suicide Squad, which had already been made into a dreadful, self-serious movie by David Ayer. And the Suicide Squad, a hyper-violent, often absurdist team of loser super-anti-heroes, looked like a perfect match for Gunn’s particular sensibility.
The result is in theaters and on HBO Max this weekend, and it’s a gloriously obscene delight—a gory, funny, surrealist romp through the DC Comics D-list that is both reverent to its source material and an effective send-up of superhero movie pretensions. The Suicide Squad won’t be for everyone—if you’re sensitive about on-screen blood and guts, stick with Black Widow—but for a movie so dedicated to Gunn’s distinctive, adolescent aesthetic, it’s also a surprisingly effective crowd pleaser.
The darkest, most amusing thing about the movie, however, might be the way that Gunn has stealthily made it about his own cancellation. (Warning: Minor spoilers ahead.)
It’s a movie about a team of villains you’re supposed to root for, and one way to make that easier is to draw a distinction between the ordinary bad guys and the truly evil people. And in the movie’s moral taxonomy, you can always identify the truly evil by their willingness to…harm and exploit children, a point that is emphasized again and again, until it becomes clear that it’s a meta-reference to Gunn’s own employment troubles.
Later, it’s revealed that the big bad is the aforementioned giant starfish monster, Starro the Conqueror. Starro draws its power from controlling the minds of others via swarms of tiny starfishes attached to their faces, forcing them to act as a mindless, destructive collective. It’s a mob, in other words, that grows more powerful as it takes over people’s wills.
When the starfish is on the brink of killing a mad scientist who experimented on it for years, the scientist tries to negotiate: “I understand where you are coming from,” he pleads, promising to reform his evil ways. “I’m ready for change!” It tears him apart anyway.
Gunn, of course, had deleted his tweets and issued an apology. He was fired anyway.
There are probably some lessons here. For one thing, it can pay to ignore the mob. For another, it’s better to judge people by their current work rather than their old tweets. Also, a stupid giant shark-man ripping tearing apart a bad guy in gory slow motion is funnier than you might think.
And there’s a happy ending too: Marvel rehired Gunn to write and direct Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, which is coming out in 2023.
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