How 'The Suicide Squad' Showcases Both Sides Of James Gunn

The Suicide Squad is the James Gunniest movie ever made. The director, who skyrocketed to fame after his work on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 1., has a unique style that's impossible to deny. His work is both brutal and heartfelt, grotesque and beautiful. He brings together pitch-black humor with surprising warmth to create characters and worlds that live and breathe. In The Suicide Squad, his latest film, he was able to marry his soft squishy heart and cruel creativity, and really show us what he's made of.

From Screenplays to Slither

Gunn has always been a little bit mercurial. The director got his start working with Lloyd Kaufman for Troma studios, making intentionally offensive, low-budget schlock. The studio, most famous for its 1984 superhero spoof The Toxic Avengergave Gunn a chance to explore taboo subjects and get as gross as he wanted. He helped co-write a couple of features for the gonzo grindhouse studio, but his big break would be something completely different: writing the screenplay for 2002's live-action Scooby DooHe then did another complete 180, writing the script for the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, directed by fellow rising star Zack Snyder. A standout moment in Dawn of the Dead highlights Gunn's twisted sense of humor, in which the characters create a game where they shoot zombies who look like celebrities.

From that moment forward, Gunn's greatest talent became mixing in-your-face violence with humor and warmth. In 2006, Gunn made his first feature film, Slither. He wrote and directed this gross-out romantic horror-comedy, about a town invaded by a mind-controlling alien slug. Slither is mean, killing off animals and children in grotesque and gory ways without hesitation, but it also has a huge heart. The center of the story is a King Kong-style romance in which the alien-possessed Grant Grant (Michael Rooker) falls in love with his wife, Starla (Elizabeth Banks) all over again. The town sheriff, Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion) is also in love with Starla, and will do anything to protect her. What results is a story about love and survival, with lots of gross gore gags peppered in.

Slither and The Suicide Squad bear quite a few similarities. Both feature unlikely heroes, unconventional love stories, mind-controlling alien hordes, and more guts and gore than you could shake a stick at. Both are stories about how we treat each other, and how our assumptions about one another can hurt us more than even invading aliens.

Subversive Superheroes

If ever there were a story about an unlikely hero, it's Gunn's 2008 film SuperSuper is Gunn at his meanest and most nihilistic. Rainn Wilson stars as Frank, whose girlfriend falls under the sway of a drug dealer. He decides to attempt vigilante justice, using a wrench as a weapon. He dons a homemade costume and calls himself Crimson Bolt, and soon has a sidekick in the form of his friend Libby (Elliot Page). Super is funny, but it's also emotionally devastating. Gunn manages to make us really care about each of these characters, even though many of them are nigh-unlovable. It's a good example of his ability to be nihilistic and empathetic at the same time, though it's not nearly as fun as Slither.

In a move that shocked everyone, Disney hired Gunn to make Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014. Fans of his, myself included, were thrilled to see him get a big budget and superhero sandbox to play in, but his previous output didn't feel Disney-safe. (Maybe they only saw Scooby Doo?) Nonetheless, Guardians was a box-office smash, and he was hired on to do two sequels for Disney. He was fired by Disney in 2018 after old, offensive tweets of his resurfaced, though he was re-hired shortly after. Gunn's Guardians flicks are colorful, sugary fun with a lot of warmth, but they lack his more sadistic sensibilities. As a result, the Guardians movies are a lot of fun, but they don't quite have the bite that Gunn's fans have come to expect.

The Perfect Combination

The Suicide Squad is the perfect vehicle for Gunn's brand of heart and horror. Gunn regularly champions the underdog, and there's no one less likely to succeed than a bunch of misfit criminals on a suicide mission. In the opening scene of The Suicide Squad, a large portion of the team is killed when they storm a beach. The deaths are horrific, though some of the brutality is mined for laughs. As The Jim Carroll Band's "People Who Died" plays, the camera zooms around the beach showing the eviscerated corpses of about half of the team we just got to know. We see the squad's handlers back at headquarters divvying up money from a dead pool, the winnings going out to whoever guessed the right deaths. It's a perfect introduction to the movie's warped whimsy, and Gunn doesn't shy away from showing the devastation, either. It's a helluva statement and way to open the movie, and it sets the tone for everything that comes next.

What's brilliant about The Suicide Squad is its precarious balancing act. Too much sentimentality and you lose the hardcore comics crowd; too much violent anarchy and you lose just about everyone else. Thankfully, Gunn has learned through his experiences with family-friendly entertainment and his own early work to walk that line with ease. You can see shades of Slither in the way characters banter with one another. When John Cena's Peacemaker and Idris Elba's Bloodsport bicker about "bags of d*cks," it doesn't feel like company executives trying to be edgy or funny. It feels natural, like a part of this gross and gonzo universe that Gunn has created.

Gunn's work is genuine and earnest, which is why it works. You can tell he cares about the characters he creates, even if he chooses to kill his darlings in the most graphic ways possible. He doesn't pull any punches, so his work feels even more visceral. The consequences are real and sometimes fatal, even for characters the audience has grown to love. Gunn's willingness to go to extremes gives the work more emotional weight and makes the stakes feel like they matter.

It's easy to be gross and violent for laughs, but Gunn does it with a heaping helping of heart. Here's hoping he gets many more chances to share of his unique visions, because I'll be watching.