James Gunn is back for one last ride alongside everyone’s favorite a-holes with the highly-anticipated Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. The film acts as the final adventure for the ragtag cosmic family and Gunn’s goodbye from Marvel before fully committing to his role as DC Studios’ new head. Gunn will next direct Superman: Legacy, entering a ten-year journey with Marvel’s chief competitor, effectively pitting him against the studio he called home for the past decade.
Superman: Legacy won’t be Gunn’s first entry into DC; two years ago, he made his debut with the deranged R-rated action flick The Suicide Squad, a quasi-sequel to 2016’s outright awful Suicide Squad. Gunn’s style was a perfect fit for Guardians of the Galaxy, but there is no denying that his lunatic glee was better showcased in The Suicide Squad. Both movies are great and cemented Gunn as the most consistent auteur in the superhero space; however, which movie is better — can they even be compared to each other? I say they can, not only because they have the same director but because they share similar themes and tones that make them ideal if not necessarily perfect, companions. So the question remains: which is better and why?
What a bunch of a-holes
James Gunn received a tough task in 2014: to launch one of Marvel’s D-list groups into the A-list, creating a new franchise that would lay the grounds for the MCU’s so-called Infinity Saga. The team in question, the Guardians of the Galaxy, was an obscure comic book property comprised of a space cowboy, the most dangerous woman in the galaxy, a sentient tree, a talking raccoon, and a very angry destroyer. Gunn dived in head first, submerging into the Guardians’ cosmic corner and finding the heart within.
Guardians of the Galaxy was a breath of fresh air. Fun, funny, clever, and with a genuine emotional core not shared by previous Marvel entries, Guardians was a game-changer for the MCU. The film was wacky, embracing the source material’s camp sensibilities and blending them with a healthy dose of sci-fi, crafting a one-of-a-kind superhero movie that wasn’t afraid to mix and match. More importantly, Guardians was heartfelt and earnest, qualities that often get lost in the crowded, flashy, and often superficial world of comic book adaptations.
At its core, Guardians of the Galaxy is a story about family. There are massive action setpieces, lots of talk about Infinity Stones, and enough varsity jokes to make a college frat house combust. However, Guardians is a sweet and quite sentimental story about the importance of family; the one you had and lost or the one you find along the way, it matters not. Family is a family, and according to the film, everybody needs one. Future films in the Guardians of the Galaxy series would expand on this concept, introducing elements such as trauma, legacy, and atonement to strengthen the franchise’s core theme, but family was always the foundation of this cosmic ride.
It’s not an overstatement to say Guardians of the Galaxy is among the best MCU movies; the trilogy is by far the best and most consistent in Marvel, but the first film remains a highlight of complex, layered, and satisfying storytelling. Its triumphs are particularly notorious on a rewatch, especially given the current mediocre state of the MCU. Almost every modern superhero movie seems factory produced and soulless, deprived of any ounce of creativity or artistry in favor of delivering mass content, a “four quadrant” product designed to be consumed without being savored.
But Guardians of the Galaxy is the opposite, a movie full of life with something to say. Guardians is dynamic and charming, and it’s all thanks to Gunn’s distinctive voice behind the camera. The movie is not 100% Gunn — it still operates within the MCU’s constrictive rules, saddled with the pressures of worldbuilding. However, it never loses its voice to the MCU’s antics; instead, it succeeds where so many others failed, delivering an adventure that feels unique and satisfying while still contributing to its master’s overreaching plot.
Dope as hell
The Suicide Squad is Gunn at his most unrestrained. Violent, excessive, hilarious, and unapologetic, The Suicide Squad is the film version of that comic book panel where the Penguin is shooting his gun while laughing maniacally. The film is gleefully wicked, a chaotic and unhinged look at the world of comic book villains and why they are often the best part of their stories. It’s also the best DCEU movie by far — it’s not even a contest if I’m being honest, considering the uneven critical and commercial performance of most DC movies. Consistent, compelling, narratively interesting, and drawing interesting parallels to the real world, The Suicide Squad is DC at its most daring, thought-provoking, and unshackled.
That doesn’t mean the film is without a heart. In fact, The Suicide Squad is more emotional and heartfelt than any other DC movie. Finding the beauty within the ugliness and the truth in a world of masks, the movie is a moving and surprisingly deep portrayal of duty and commitment using unknown DC villains one would usually discard without a second look. Once again, Gunn uses D-list characters to tell his story; however, unlike the Guardians, the villains in The Suicide Squad are not meant to be A-listers. Figures like Polka-Dot Man and Ratcatcher II are unappealing, uninteresting at first sight, and almost laughable. Yet, Gunn uses their lack of mainstream recognition to give them meaning, making them memorable and endlessly entertaining while claiming them as his own.
However, The Suicide Squad is also Gunn’s chance to get political. If Guardians of the Galaxy is Gunn at his most sentimental, then The Suicide Squad is him at his most biting. The film is presumably a sequel/soft reboot of one of DC’s most original and unashamed IPs; in reality, it’s an indictment of American imperialism through the eyes of soldiers the country uses and discards as easily as gun cartridges. Fueled by Viola Davis’ cold performance, The Suicide Squad is the closest thing a comic book property has come to critiquing the United States’ foreign policies, portraying the government as corrupt, twisted, and ineffective.
The Suicide Squad is also pure and unapologetic Gunn. I might not bat an eye to discover Warner Bros. gave Gunn zero pointers about his film. The Suicide Squad feels like taking a tour around Gunn’s psyche, discovering a hectic, violent, hilarious, and traumatized landscape that’s as transfixing as it’s disturbing. The film doesn’t care about the DC Universe; it pays little attention to continuity and logic, throwing the concept of “worldbuilding” out the window. In all fairness, that’s what the team’s lunatic members would do, and one can’t help to imagine the Suicide Squad would be the team Gunn would most likely dream of joining. They’re insane and out of control but also endlessly entertaining and compelling. What other team can say the same?
And the winner is …
In the battle of James Gunn’s projects, I can’t help but give the edge to The Suicide Squad. While Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the best MCU projects, The Suicide Squad is the very best DC has to offer. That’s more a commentary on DC’s overall quality, but there’s no denying The Suicide Squad is Gunn at his most assured and free. By giving into his wildest creative instincts, Gunn creates a delirious and hyper-violent ode to comic book sensibilities and an interesting look into the true nature of heroism. Guardians of the Galaxy is great, but The Suicide Squad is a daring and unconventional masterpiece, especially in a genre desperately crying for something original.
Gunn’s upcoming tenure in DC has everyone guessing. What will his DC Universe look like? Who will return, and who is out? Most importantly, how will James Gunn, the studio executive, do compared to James Gunn, the creative mind? Unfortunately, we don’t have answers for that yet. What we do have is The Suicide Squad, the perfect combination of a director’s trademarks with the source material’s essence. Hopefully, this symbiosis will carry on to Gunn’s other DC projects, but if it doesn’t, at least we will always have a film that is daring and unique, a chaotic romp that celebrates everything comic book movies should be while proudly boasting everything they can be.