'The Suicide Squad' Makes Heroes of DC Universe 'Losers' and 'Also-Rans'

The Suicide Squad, which opens in theaters and on HBO Max on August 6 features some of the same actors and characters, the same premise (a group of C-list comic book bad guys are brought together by a mysterious government agency) and almost the same name as 2016's Suicide Squad. So is it a sequel or a remake? Newsweek spoke to the cast and director to find out.

Director James Gunn says, "I just think of it as itself. I think it's for others to define it however they want. If somebody wants to call it a sequel, cool. A reboot? That's fine, too. People have also called it a 'rebootquel.'"

the suicide squad
"The Suicide Squad" - August 6 Warner Bros

Although a box office success, the 2016 movie was savaged by critics. Director David Ayer wanted to make an intense superhero drama like Christopher Nolan's three Batman movies; the studio wanted a violent action comedy.

Actor Joel Kinnaman, who returns as Rick Flag, the soldier whose job it is to try to keep the Suicide Squad in line, says, "Sometimes It's hard to make movies and there were some conflicting visions going into that film, or specifically in the post production and I think we all felt we didn't quite live up to the promise that the film had." Plans for a sequel never came together, although Margot Robbie's breakout performance as the cheerfully unhinged Harley Quinn proved popular enough for her own spin-off movie 2020's Birds of Prey.

Enter writer/director Gunn who made The Guardians of the Galaxy movies for Marvel. A big part of the success of the Guardians franchise is the sense of humor Gunn brought to it. According to Kinnaman, "We really lucked out by getting James Gunn. There were several iterations of the follow-up and when James came in it became this real opportunity."

The Suicide Squad rain
Joel Kinnaman, John Cena, Margot Robbie, Peter Capaldi and Idris Elba starring in "The Suicide Squad" Jessica Miglio/Warner Bros. Pictures & DC Comics

Robbie says, "I felt confident that whatever James' take [on Harley Quinn] was gonna be, being a comic book lover, that it was going to be all stemming from the characteristics you see in the comics so I felt good about that, and I felt I was going to be in safe hands based on the other films he's made. I was pretty confident that he was going to crush this and he did. I read the script and I was like 'Oh he totally gets the character in the way that I do.'"

"Harley doesn't belong to me," Robbie continues, "Truthfully Harley belongs to the fans and whatever they love about her. I just want to put that on screen, and James definitely has a knack for understanding what audiences want. To give audiences something they weren't expecting but also never knew they wanted, if that makes sense. And I feel like he does that again in this film."

Gunn says he tried to stay true to the spirit of the original DC comics and to develop characters strong enough to sustain not just a single movie, but a franchise. He also says he purposely limited himself to third- and fourth-string characters instead of big name villains he could have used. He says he was tempted to write Catwoman into the script, but resisted.

James Gunn is directing 'The Suicide Squad'
Film director James Gunn attends a keynote discussion about building worlds across entertainment mediums during the Electronic Entertainment Expo E3 coliseum at the Novo LA Live on June 13, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. James Gunn is directing The Suicide Squad, which is set to release in on August 5 . Christian Petersen/Getty Images

According to Gunn, "When [comic book writer] John Ostrander first started writing Suicide Squad comic books in the late '80s, he probably would have loved to use Catwoman and Riddler and Lex Luthor but those characters were all in other comic books so he instead had to choose these sort of C-grade super villains. So he's getting Captain Boomerang and Deadshot, characters that no one cared about. He sort of built up those minor shitty characters into something that became big characters in the comics. I think I was just doing that same thing."

Gunn says the Suicide Squad are "the losers of the DC world and in a world where there are heroes and villains, these are the 'also-rans'. These are the characters that nobody cares about, who some people think are jokes."

While some actors are returning from the first film, among them Viola Davis as the ruthless government operative who puts the team together and Jai Courtney as Captain Boomerang, many members of the large cast are newcomers to the DC Extended Universe. John Cena debuts as Peacemaker, whose original comic book incarnation was billed as "A man who loves peace so much he's willing to fight for it!" Peter Capaldi is superbrain The Thinker and Taika Waititi cameos as Ratcatcher, an exterminator turned bad guy. David Dastmalchian plays Polka-Dot Man, whose powers are just as preposterous as his name, and Sylvester Stallone voices King Shark.

In response to a fan's online question about how he pitched Stallone on the part, Gunn tweeted:

"I wrote this role for you in The Suicide Squad. It won't take too much of your time"

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah, it's a big, kinda chubby human-eating shark."

Laughs. "Anything for you, brother."

In the first movie, Will Smith starred as the mercenary Deadshot. In the new one, Idris Elba is a different mercenary, Bloodsport. Elba says, "The idea of me replacing a character was never even part of the discussion, it was always a new own entity in itself." He adds, "What I think is really beautiful is that my character and Deadshot and Will can still exist within future ideas. No spoilers, I'm not saying that's happening, it's just the nature of what James came to do."

Filming lasted almost six months and the cast bonded during visits to various Atlanta strip clubs. Robbie admits "Clermont Lounge was our go-to. Clermont's was the spot. But it was a shooting location in the film."

"Research!" Elba interjects.

"We were actually doing research. Getting the lay of the land and getting into character," Robbie says.

The Suicide Squad night club
Daniela Melchior and John Cena at a nightclub in "The Suicide Squad" Warner Bros. Pictures & DC Comics

Kinnaman credits Gunn with the good vibe on the set. He says, "James always brings the great spirit to it. He was always this sort of spirit leader in that sense. It was, of course, a very different dynamic in this one than on the first one but it's rare to have this big of a cast. There were no bad egos, everyone was just very generous. There's a lot of funny people in this cast.... It's a really good group of people."

Likewise, Portuguese actor Daniela Melchior, who makes her English language movie debut as Ratcatcher 2, says, "I felt really lucky because they're so kind and such good-hearted people. I really felt like they deserved to be where they are."

As for the future for the Suicide Squad franchise, that will get underway soon on TV. As Marvel has done with its Disney+ shows WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki, DC wants some of its Suicide Squad characters to have second lives via TV spin offs.

Cena, for instance, is set to star in an eight-episode Peacemaker miniseries written by Gunn. The director says "I pitched Peacemaker on August 5 of last year, and hadn't written it yet but now here we are, and we're wrapped after shooting eight episodes. I wrote the whole thing, we cast it, we shot it all and we're done." The series is scheduled to debut on HBO Max in January 2022.

How did it happen so fast? Gunn says "I needed something to get my mind off of being in quarantine."