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After the reception that Warner Bros.’ first Suicide Squad film received back in 2016, Warner Bros. needed to do something. (Truth be told, they should’ve done something before Suicide Squad hit theaters, but you’d have to ask David Ayer about all of that.) When James Gunn was fired from working on Guardians of the Galaxy 3 back in 2018—a decision which was reversed in early 2019—it opened the door for Gunn to get in the director’s chair for The Suicide Squad, which hits theaters (and HBO Max) on Aug. 6. While taking in the film (on IMAX), it was hard to shake one thought: James Gunn is the perfect director for this world.
Think about it: Ultraviolence? Gunn’s got that in spades—or do we need to sit all of you down so you can properly take in The Belko Experiment? Comedy? Gunn wrote and directed both Guardians films; Rocket Raccoon and the Star-Lord’s banter? That’s all Gunn! Gunn is also great at building relationships within groups of people—again, both Guardians films are as much about the interspecies relationships between the group and how they form that union. Gunn was likely the best choice for this film, but this film also ended up becoming the most James Gunn James Gunn film I’d ever seen.
“I think that is a fair statement,” Gunn tells Complex when asked about the comment during a recent junket for The Suicide Squad. “I think all my movies are obviously as James Gunn as I can be at that time, but I think I’m probably more fully myself than I ever was before, and I think I trust my instincts more than I ever have before, and I trust my creativity more than I ever have before. And there’s a lot of attention focusing on how much freedom Warner Bros. has given me.” That last part is the intriguing one. We’re living in an era where DC is simultaneously building a film universe (Aquaman, Shazam!, Birds of Prey) while also working on huge non-canon films (Joker, The Batman). Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is firmly in the former (Harley Quinn is damn near one of the lynchpins in the DC universe), but in tone? John Cena’s Peacemaker and Idris Elba’s Bloodsport engage in a soliloquy of chaos, there are a grip of four-letter words thrown about, and there’s goddamn kaiju! It’s a wild ride from jump, and feels like this could be what DC’s needed all along. It’s one of the best decisions Warner Bros. has made with the DC movies in a bit, and allowed Gunn to craft what feels like the ultimate amalgamation of his creativity thus far.
That creativity manifested itself in a number of ways. The first is one of his favorite sequences. “I love shooting action,” Gunn admits. “I love watching the humor and the dramatic stuff in my movies, but I find it strangely more painstaking to do that because I’m really focusing on these performances and I get incredibly invested in pushing the actors hard, and it’s draining, whereas the action to me is more like a puzzle. It’s more like putting together puzzle pieces and thinking of new ways to shoot action, and that haven’t been done before.
“So for me, the Harley fight scene was the most fun thing to do,” Gunn continues, “because there’s also action, like when the building is falling over and all that stuff. You’re shooting a little piece here, a little piece there, a little piece there, we’re flooding—we had 60,000 tons of water. It’s really big stuff, but also you’re just shooting a little bit at a time whereas the actual fight scenes are, two people are fighting or Harley and 42 people, in that sense. And I’m shooting as we’re going, so it moves faster and it’s more fun.”
The second is a bit more subtle at first. With so many characters and time jumps in-story, Gunn essentially turned those textual references to different points in the story into entire setpieces. I thought it was a gag when I first saw it, but when it became a recurring part of the film, I started looking for—and looking forward to—them more and more. “I wanted to allow the movie to take right turns and left turns where people don’t expect them,” Gunn explains. “People talk a lot about how it’s so risky with the gore and having a shark rip a guy in half. But to me, the riskier thing is allowing the movie to go off with Harley for 15 minutes and it’s her story that really is separate from everything else. We’re a multi-protagonist film; that in itself is difficult. My rule was, there are no rules except [to] keep it entertaining, keep it fun, take risks, and don’t push the audience away. Anything that’s outrageous or over the top isn’t about saying, ‘Hey, look how freaking cool [or] edgy we are,’ it’s about saying, ‘Come and enjoy this with us, we are in this with you, let’s have a blast together and let’s be emotionally moved together and let’s have fun together.’
“In the service of that,” Gunn continues, “I knew that I sometimes needed to let people know where they were. ‘OK, we’re going back to Harley. Let’s designate. OK, now we’re going 10 minutes earlier from where we were before, let’s designate that, let’s not use that as a way to make people confused.’ The idea of building that into the sets. We had a giant ‘NOW’ written out on the beach. We built that into the sets. That was just an outgrowth of keeping everything organic, keeping it all baked in. I didn’t want to have a card coming up that said that it’s all a part of the movie.”
While it's easy to say, “Well of course he could take those swings, he has the budget,” it's deeper than that. You have to have a company like Warner Bros. really backing your ideas, but you also have to get out of your own way. “I think I really did just trust myself for the first time ever to create something that took all the risks,” Gunn shares. “I felt a lot of responsibility because I was being given money to make this big, huge film. And I knew that not too many directors have had this much money to make a movie that could still take risks. For the sake of fans, for the sake of myself, for the sake of cinema in general, to be able to do something that goes outside the box in this forum was important to me.”
What’s amazing is the fact that it worked; after completing The Suicide Squad, Gunn stayed with DC to create the Cena-led Peacemaker series, which is set to premiere in January 2022 on HBO Max. With Guardians 3 looming, it was an interesting choice, especially considering that Gunn wrote all eight episodes of Peacemaker, as well as directing five of the episodes. “They came to me afterward and said, ‘If you were to do a series about any one character?’ I think I could have picked anybody and they would have been OK,” Gunn admits. “‘If you made a series with any one character who would it be?’ And I said, ‘Peacemaker.’ In the movie, we get to see the backgrounds of Bloodsport, of Ratcatcher, we learn a lot about Harley. We learn a lot about other characters, but I felt with Peacemaker, we really just scratched the surface of who this guy is, what makes this douchebag tick. I called up John immediately and I said, ‘Hey, do you want to do this thing?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah.’
“John and I have become incredibly close,” Gunn reveals. “He is one of the best people I know, and I mean that as a human being, and he’s an incredibly talented actor.”
Peacemaker also allows Gunn to hold the mirror up to America. “He’s a lot of Americans today,” is how Gunn describes Peacemaker. “A part of him is this guy who has very different political beliefs than what I have. Being able to put him in an environment where he’s in the modern world with very different character[s] and to be able to see them interact, I thought was a different way to take what is thought of as a superhero TV show, so that we’re able to address all that stuff.”
Don’t trip, though, Peacemaker isn’t going to be The Daily Show with guns. “It’s still in the play space of a giant science fiction action show and an ensemble cast where we get to know each of these characters,” Gunn confirms, “Jennifer Holland as Emilia Harcourt, Steve Agee as John Economos, two other characters that are in The Suicide Squad, are equally important to the Peacemaker show. It’s been the time of my life making the show.”
We’ll have a better idea of the future of this iteration of The Suicide Squad after opening weekend box office numbers are in. Right now, Gunn looks like he could be two-for-two in the DCEU, and proving that a darker superhero film could still do what it needs to do within this universe. Maybe James Gunn’s work on this film should be the new starting point. Try and find that balance within the genres, and being unafraid to color outside of the lines. If they wanted to stake their franchise behind one creator, maybe Gunn should be the one to do it.