The Suicide Squad: James Gunn was dying to save Task Force X

Suicide Squad
(James Gunn Credit: Eric Charbonneau)

It’s no secret that 2017’s Suicide Squad, while a hit at the global box office to the tune of $746.8 million, was a complete and utter disappointment both to fans and critics. Aside from the performances of Will Smith as Deadshot, Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, Joel Kinnaman as Rick Flag and Jai Courtney as Captain Boomerang, the story was muddled and the vfx were shoddy.

And Ben Affleck’s superb take as Batman was wasted in two small cameos.

It has also become apparent that Warner Bros. re-envisioned director David Ayer’s grittier take with editing. While we will never see “The Ayer Cut,” we do have director James Gunn’s take on Task Force X

In The Suicide Squad, which opens tomorrow, writer/director James Gunn takes the criminals of Task Force X on an outrageously visceral, R-rated wild ride that blends balls-to-the-wall action, blood-spattering violence and life-or-death (most likely the latter) situations with irreverent humor and even heartfelt moments, all filtered through Gunn’s singular vision. Main characters will die while, in all likelihood, audiences will die laughing.

With the entire DC canon to choose from for his dream team of Super-Villains, Gunn was the proverbial kid in a candy store—if that store sold comic books. After just a weekend of revisiting legendary writer John Ostrander’s run from the 1980s that reintroduced the Squad, a favorite of Gunn’s as a boy, the auteur’s ideas began to crystalize.

“I have loved the Suicide Squad since I was very young,” Gunn states, “they’re one of my favorite groups of comic book anti-heroes. I’m always interested in people who have not lived their best lives and have an opportunity to become something better—a chance at redemption. Some of them take it, some don’t; it’s humanity in all its various degrees of morality, and I get to put it on screen in a really grand, exciting way, with aliens and monsters and a walking shark.”

REELated: The Suicide Squad: Do critics love James Gunn’s film or want to kill it?

Gunn cites early influences like the war films The Dirty Dozen and Kelly’s Heroes as the impetus not just for the story, per se, but also the style of film he sought to make: gritty and real. Juxtaposed with hyperrealism in certain instances, of course— these are comic book characters, after all. And what truly sets his vision apart is that, in true Squad fashion, no one is ever safe; from the get-go, he determined that every single character, no matter how big the name cast to portray him or her (or it), would be in real danger, with no rules imposed upon who survives and who doesn’t.

Producer Peter Safran knew Gunn would be perfect for the property, and thankfully it didn’t take a lot of convincing. “After I suggested it, he went back to the source material, became inspired, and said to me, ‘I know exactly what I want to do with this movie, so if the studio is interested in that exact vision, let’s do it.’

Producer Charles Roven, well-versed in the DC feature landscape, was eager to work with Gunn again. “James and I had collaborated in the early 2000s on a very successful franchise, the live-action ‘Scooby-Doo.’ We made two of those movies and he wrote both scripts, and we’ve remained close ever since,” Roven relates.

“Once I heard he was available, I started talking with James about working with him again. Coincidentally, Peter Safran and Walter Hamada at DC Films were already talking with James about The Suicide Squad. Obviously, it then became a very easy conversation.”

“There were a lot of great characters James wanted to have fun with,” says Safran, “but it was always about bringing his own sensibility to the movie—his sense of humor, his style of action, and very specifically he wanted to make a war caper movie that was almost a throwback to the movies of the `70s.”

Despite his longstanding familiarity with Gunn’s work, Roven admits that not only was Gunn’s script “a fantastic read, but he did things that completely surprised me in the best sort of way. I never really knew exactly where the story was going to go.”

Still, how does a filmmaker craft a compelling story around a group of misfit baddies—really, truly bad guys and gals—that will not only entertain but also make audiences care who, if anyone, survives? Roven agrees with Safran, stating, “James can take characters with these really terrible qualities and make you really like them, and even root for them.”

“I don’t come at any movie I make thinking how I’m going to set it apart from other movies,” Gunn relates. “I just come from the point of view of telling a story I want to tell as well as I possibly can, and ‘The Suicide Squad’ was exceptionally exciting to me. I was emboldened by everyone’s faith in me to take whatever risks, kill whatever characters, tell the story in whatever outlandish way I wanted…total freedom. I was enlivened by the whole process.”

The scale of The Suicide Squad was massive on every level, with the studio’s largest constructed set pieces to date and a hugely ambitious approach dictating that everything that could be done practically, in-camera, would be. For that, Gunn assembled what he describes as “by far the best group of production heads I’ve ever had.”

That list includes production designer Beth Mickle, costume designer Judianna Makovsky, director of photography Henry Braham, visual effects supervisor Kelvin McIlwain, and second unit director/stunt coordinator Guy Norris, among others.

Soon, dropping from the Atlanta sky onto the fictional island of Gunn’s imagining, Corto Maltese (specifically onto the shore of a beach his crew created), then traipsing through the thick jungle (also courtesy of the crew), was Gunn’s cast of 17 or so leads (further proof that through Gunn, Amanda Waller leaves nothing to chance). Huge stars like Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, with Sylvester Stallone and Viola Davis, to namecheck just a few, comprise the international ensemble.

Gunn’s vision of his Squad was so clear that, though each character is an established Super-Villain in their own right, he manages to imbue them all with a sense of redemption…or at least the possibility of it. And while he went for some of the big- name villains, he primarily opted to include more obscure characters who many readers would consider expendable, cultivating within each of them their most endearing traits, ensuring audiences would root for them anyway. Until, you know, they die one-by-one in some cringeworthy, yet hysterically funny, manner.

The Suicide Squad opens in theaters tomorrow and begins streaming on HBO Max on Friday. It is currently at 96% on Rotten Tomatoes.