Picture this: there are two films in front of you with the same name and the same premise. But upon closer examination you see that one is one of the best reviewed superhero movies of the past decade, and the other is one of the worst reviewed of all time. Of course, I am talking about the infamous Suicide Squad and The Suicide Squad, directed by David Ayer and James Gunn, respectively. So how can two movies that are so similar yield such vastly different results? Today, we compare the two attempts at the same story.
In 2016, DC hired David Ayer to direct the first film adaptation of Suicide Squad, a comic book series by David Kanigher and Ross Andru. Prior to directing Suicide Squad, Ayer directed, wrote, and produced the military film, Fury, starring Brad Pitt and Shia LaBeouf, which was a generally well-received film. Suicide Squad would be Ayer's first attempt at anything superhero-oriented. Zack and Deborah Snyder soon latched onto the project as producers. Filming began in Toronto Canada is April of 2015 and was released the following year. The movie was a box office triumph for DC, grossing $747 million on a budget of $175 million. Upon release, Suicide Squad was a cultural phenomenon, the soundtrack was a best-seller and everyone knew at least one girl who was Harley Quinn for Halloween. To this day, it's still an incredibly popular costume for both Halloween and conventions. Not to mention the film's star-studded cast including Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Viola Davis, and Jared Leto.
But in terms of ratings, Suicide Squad was the studio's worst rated film since 2011's Green Lantern, scoring a 26% on Rotten Tomatoes. For every person that loved it, there were ten more who hated it. Being twelve years old at the time, I was very comfortable saying I liked the movie, I even went to see it in theaters multiple times. Nowadays, it is NOT a film looked back upon fondly, and considering how poorly it aged, it's easy to see why. People criticized its overuse of licensed songs, poor acting performances, sub-par CGI, and absolutely terrible script. Even to the casual movie watcher, the flaws were glaringly obvious.
Fans around the world were disappointed that the source material they loved so much was turned into a disappointing film. But it had already been released, it's not like you can try again right?
Cut to 2021, The Suicide Squad is released b0th theatrically and for home-viewing on HBO Max to a skeptical world. Didn't they already make this movie? What changed? The addition of the word 'the?" In reality, this new film was about as far from the 2016 version as possible. This time, DC employed the most acclaimed comic movie director in the industry, James Gunn, director of Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy. Even though they might come from the same source material and share a name, Suicide Squad and The Suicide Squad could not be more different. It shares the cast members Margot Robbie, Viola Davis, and Joel Kinnaman, but in terms of plot, it's trying to make you forget that the original film ever existed, to wipe it from the cannon completely. This is a do-over, and the kind of movie the source material deserved. It also managed to have an even more high-profile cast with the additions of John Cena, Idris Elba, Pete Davidson, Sylvester Stallone, and Peter Capaldi.
Unlike its predecessor, The Suicide Squad was not a colossal financial success due to COVID-19 restrictions still being in place around the world. It also received a certified fresh score of 90% on Rotten Tomatoes and was met with rapturous applause by fans and critics alike. To this day it is the 6th highest rated film to ever come out of DC. If you ask any die-hard comic book fan what exactly makes these films so different, they could go on for hours, I will attempt to condense this into a few minutes...
Let's start out with the overall creative vision. Originally, David Ayer was planned to return to direct, but the studio instead hired James Gunn after Ayer backed out. This may seem like a small thing at first, but this switch ended up being the key to the movie's creative success. While David Ayer may have experience in the film industry, calling him a beloved director would be a lie. His films Bright and the Tax Collector received similarly low scores to Suicide Squad. Let's just say his reputation is far from spotless. It wouldn't make sense for him to come back because his speciality is not comic b0ok movies, unlike James Gunn who has made a name for himself by working on Marvel and DC projects his whole career. Ayer's instinct with his films is to go gritty, Gunn's is to go cartoony, which is exactly what this comic movie needed. The main strength of The Suicide Squad comes with its commitment to being ridiculous while also being a solid movie. Being rooted in reality does not automatically make a film stronger and Gunn understands that. This stark change in tone from the first film is made abundantly clear within the first five minutes.
Next, let's focus on villains. 2016's Suicide Squad has one consistent villain throughout, the spirit of an ancient deity named the Enchantress with cosmic powers. DC is a studio known for its iconic villains so Enchantress is kind of a bizarre choice. She's a character that not many viewers will have heard of before and her status as basically an immortal god erases any humanity or relatability she might have. An interesting villain will have a healthy mix of redeemable and irredeemable qualities but this just isn't present here. Perhaps a more interesting villain would have been the Joker since Harley Quinn would be specifically hired to take him down. However, to say Jared Leto's Joker wasn't liked by audiences would be an understatement, his performance is probably one of the biggest reasons why the original movie gets so much hate. Leto's Joker initially had much more than his minuscule amount of screen time but most of this was scrapped from the theatrical cut of the movie.
The Suicide Squad on the other hand has a seemingly ever-changing roster of villains throughout the runtime. At first, it is the fascist dictator of Corto Maltese, Silvio Luna, then it is The Thinker, then it is the Kaiju, Starro the Destroyer. At some points, certain protagonists end up switching their allegiance. These constantly updating threats make each scene seem fresh and give the characters more than just one objective for two hours.
As for the acting, the performances in the original Suicide Squad weren't laughably bad or anything, but they were saddled with a pretty terrible script. A few particularly egregious scenes have even achieved internet meme status such as Katana's introduction, and a handful of Deadshot and Harley Quinn's lines. The film also had a notable lack of effective comedy, which is unusual for a modern superhero movie which are usually rife with jokes. Unfortunately, when you're an actor, there's not much you can do about the script you were given, so I don't blame the cast for this at all. Luckily, James Gunn wrote a much better script for The Suicide Squad filled with memorable lines that don't sound like a ten year old wrote them. Despite watching this movie so many times, the humor is still effective and the jokes remain just as ridiculous as the rest of the film. Unlike the previous film, The Suicide Squad's comedy is strategically placed throughout the movie whereas in the 2016 film, there are several dramatic or emotional moments that are interrupted by a sub-par joke.
While 2016's Suicide Squad may have been heavily praised for its soundtrack upon its release, in the years since, opinions have shifted. The soundtrack consists of mostly extremely popular top 40 hits from genres ranging from classic rock to hip-hop and while the included songs are great in their own respective ways, there's just too many. It's kind of funny how the majority of this movie is just licensed song after licensed song. I'm guessing that's where a big chunk of the budget went. More radio hits does not equal a good soundtrack. Half the time, the placement of these songs don't make sense and are simply included because of their recognizability.
2021's The Suicide Squad also has a soundtrack that includes popular radio hits, but they are used sparingly and appropriately. The film starts with Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues because the scene takes place in a prison, whereas Ayer's Suicide Squad ends with Bohemian Rhapsody because...it's a popular song? There is also something to be said about the sheer iconic status of the songs being used. Fortunate Son, Without Me, Black Skinhead, Bohemian Rhapsody, and House of the Rising Son, are all songs that could be the musical centerpiece of any movie, but when they're all crammed in together, it cheapens them.
The Suicide Squad has an embellished soundtrack but with much more subdued hits like Pixies' "Hey," Just a Gigolo, and the Fratelli's Whistle for the Choir. The film puts much more of an emphasis on its original score by John Murphy rather than its collection of pop hits.
When it comes to any movie, I'm someone who pays a lot of attention to the music and it was nice to see all of the improvements made in Gunn's film compared to its predecessor.
There is a laundry list worth of improvements made from Suicide Squad to The Suicide Squad, however the most significant yet is their depictions of Harley Quinn. It goes without saying that Margot Robbie's numerous performances of Harley Quinn have been fantastic and memorable, but there is quite a stark difference between Ayer and Gunn's films.
In 2016's Suicide Squad, Harley Quinn is the embodiment of "cute but psycho." She's a hot girl with a cutesy, immature sense of humor with an intense bloodlust. Her sole motivation is her relationship with the Joker, and if you know absolutely anything about these characters, you know this relationship is insanely abusive. This rich character is boiled down to nothing but a sex object and its made abundantly clear from things like the script to her costume. I've written about this more in-depth in its own article.
In the first movie, Harley Quinn's outfit is a ripped up, skin tight t-shirt, stripper heel boots, fishnet tights, sparkly booty shorts, and a jacket that reads "Property of the Joker." I mean, that just says it all doesn't it? The way the camera focuses on her makes the audience feel like we're ogling her. So many of the film's jokes are about how attractive she is. Harley Quinn as a character has been around since the 90's and has had so much development since her first appearance, I'd like to think she's graduated beyond just being eye candy. As far as I know, Margot Robbie had an amazing time shooting Suicide Squad, she was not forced into anything, and she still remains close friends with her fellow cast members. This doesn't change that she was exploited for her looks in this movie. I'm glad to see that her roles since have evolved from her just playing the token hot girl. David Ayer was far from the first person to majorly sexualize Harley Quinn, and he won't be the last.
It's now a common opinion among DC fans that The Suicide Squad did more justice to Harley Quinn's character than the first film did. Her jokes have moved beyond her being a ditsy dumb blonde, her physical and mental prowess are on full display, and the Joker is not mentioned once. Unlike the previous film, where she was seen as an extension of the Joker, she is now her own fully fleshed-out character. In addition to her character, her costumes have also evolved. She has adopted her signature colors of red and black again, her clothes are much less revealing, and her jacket now reads: "live fast, die clown." It was such a joy to watch this character reach her full potential on screen by a director who didn't just use her as a lure for male audience members.
Any comic book material is a difficult and ambitious thing to adapt for the big screen, and any effort to do so is commendable. But let the case of both Suicide Squad films show you how much of a difference it can make when the right director is put in charge and how fans will not be happy with just anything you put in front of them. Perhaps if we allowed other films to be re-done like this with different creative teams, we could end up with great films like The Suicide Squad that bring justice to their source material.