Even by Marvel standards, the two “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies had wit and originality. So the news that James Gunn, their writer-director, would be doing the same for “The Suicide Squad” was encouraging. Even by DC standards, that movie’s predecessor, “Suicide Squad” (2016), had been short on both. David Ayer had written and directed. To Ayer is human, but to James Gunn … oh, never mind.
Never mind “The Suicide Squad” either. The addition of Gunn, like the addition of a definite article to the title, means more of the same: a baroquely nasty, flauntingly mean two-plus hours of superhero action that is also (a much greater sin) noisily tedious. Jocose and skanky, it’s the WWF of superhero movies. “Squad” has attitude to burn, and the smoke smells rancid rather than acrid.
Anti-superhero might be more accurate than superhero. The squad consists of imprisoned bad guys who can get their sentences reduced by completing some deadly mission. To make sure that squad members don’t bolt — having superpowers definitely increases bolting options — a miniature explosive has been implanted in their heads. The squad’s fearsome minder (Viola Davis) watches them on video monitors in a control room, ready to flip a switch if any of them go rogue (admittedly, a relative term). It’s like “Mission: Impossible,” only there it’s the tape that self-destructs; here it’s team members that can.
Davis, who’s stony enough to be a fifth face on Mount Rushmore, is one of three returnees from “Suicide Squad.” Joel Kinnaman is a military officer nominally in charge of the mission. Margot Robbie is the squad’s most exuberantly entertaining member, Harley Quinn. Even Harley’s name is good. She’s a Candyland version of over-caffeinated villainy and a lot of fun — though her vocal channeling of Fran Drescher on ”The Nanny” gets very tired very fast.
Many newcomers mean the cast is large and hard to keep track of. Is that Pete Davidson? Yes, it is. Sylvester Stallone? Him, too. Chief among the reinforcements are squad members Idris Elba, as Bloodsport, and John Cena, as Peacemaker (a hardy-har-har name if ever there was one). Elba is Elba, meaning a welcome and reliable screen presence. Cena is Cena, meaning it’s a shame the filmmakers couldn’t afford Dwayne Johnson.
The mission involves an island nation somewhere off of South America … and a coup (the new president seems to be auditioning to take over as Dos Equis’s Most Interesting Man in the World) … and a secret scientific installation where research involving an extraterrestrial is going on … and it’s called Project Starfish … and the fate of the world is at stake … and which of us is having a harder time keeping a straight face: me typing these words or you reading them?
The mad scientist in charge of the project (Peter Capaldi) actually asks in horror, “What have you people done?” The question might better be directed at him, since he has an array of lit-up bolts sticking out of his shaved skull. Clearly, Brainiac is his favorite superhero. Now “The Suicide Squad” graduates from superhero movie — or anti-superhero movie — to monster movie. This is worth noting, because the creature in question (hint: what was that secret extraterrestrial project called?) has to be the lamest-looking monster in movie history. The. Lamest. Ever.
But enough of superlatives. That’s not the business of “The Suicide Squad.” The business of “The Suicide Squad” is violent death. People here die by gun, blade, fire, fist, explosion, building collapse, teeth, rodent infestation, colored discs. Those last three come courtesy of squad members King Shark (he’s part shark/part human — Aquaman, better watch out); Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), whose name is self-explanatory; and Polka-Dot Man. As played by David Dastmalchian, he is easily the most endearing of the crew.
The violence isn’t so much excessive as reflexive. If there was even an iota of human emotion evident the movie would be unbearable as well as increasingly vile. But there isn’t, so instead it’s just kind of exhausting — unless you’re an anti-social 14-year-old male desperate to seem heartless (which describes an awful lot of 14-year-old males), in which case “The Suicide Squad” is kind of enchanting and instead of being mechanical and relentless it presumably seems inventive and exhilarating and cries out for another sequel.
Since there’s an Easter egg, that shouldn’t be a problem. Nor should the title be an issue. Having gone with a definite article, it would be time for indefinite: “A Suicide Squad.” After that, though, there being no more articles available in English, it’s anything goes: “National Lampoon’s Suicide Squad”? “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Suicide Squad”? “The Most Interesting Suicide Squad in the World”? “King Shark vs. Aquaman”? All right, that last one isn’t going to happen. Jason Momoa would insist on top billing, and only James Gunn could blame him.
THE SUICIDE SQUAD
Written and directed by James Gunn. Starring Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Viola Davis, Peter Capaldi. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, suburbs, and streaming on HBO Max. 132 minutes. R (violence, language, a general repellent skankiness)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.