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How James Gunn retooled this 'Suicide Squad' and made these supervillains his own

Brian Truitt
USA TODAY

James Gunn made us fall in love with a talking raccoon and an alien tree. For his next trick, he’s doing the same with a young woman who communes with rats and a dude expelling interdimensional, highly destructive polka dots from his body.

Welcome to “The Suicide Squad” (in theaters and on HBO Max Thursday night), featuring another family of comic-book misfits that Gunn, the director of Marvel’s two blockbuster “Guardians of the Galaxy” films, has lovingly made his own in the DC movie universe. This new Squad offers more twists and turns, plus a lot more bloodshed and four-letter words, than Rocket, Groot and Star-Lord did, though there's a similar emotional core at play.

“If you don't care about the characters, the heads exploding don't really matter,” Gunn says. “And if you do care about those characters, then those things become incredibly dangerous, incredibly deadly and incredibly exciting.”

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Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, far left), Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) and Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) take the fight to a formidable enemy in "The Suicide Squad."

It isn't the same old Task Force X folks might have seen before, however. In 2016, director David Ayer’s “Suicide Squad” was a hit at the box office though got hit by bad reviews. Gunn’s retooling returns old teammates – squad leader Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), fan-favorite Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and government hard case Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) – plus new rookies like Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) and Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) on a succeed-or-else black-ops assignment involving a South American island and a giant mind-controlling starfish.

The director and his cast dig into what’s different about this “Squad” than the first film:

Joel Kinnaman (far left), James Gunn, Margot Robbie and John Cena attend the LA premiere of "The Suicide Squad."

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Since the first film’s release, Ayer has at times expressed his disappointment about the project, even tweeting last week that “the studio cut is not my movie.” (He did add that he's proud of Gunn and "excited for the success that's coming.") On the contrary, Gunn’s “Squad” is definitely his vision: “We weren't adhering to any rules. We could change whatever we want,” he says. Dastmalchian calls Gunn the perfect “Squad” director because he’s “a master of taking characters that otherwise people would just laugh at or throw away” and making them pop on screen.

That eye for detail carries over into Gunn’s filmmaking, where Robbie was blown away by the opening beach-attack sequence straight out of a 1970s Vietnam war film. “What astounded me most was how steady a production this big and this insane could be,” she says. “And we all still had fun."

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Rick Flag (front right) has some words with Peacemaker (John Cena) with Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) and King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone) in town in "The Suicide Squad."

Rick Flag gets a personality adjustment

In the original “Squad,” “I basically hate everyone all the time,” Kinnaman says of his group leader. This go-round, it’s a “softer” Flag who’s still prickly but finds a friend in the unpredictable Harley and can relate to Bloodspot as a fellow ex-soldier. “To be honest, in the first film I never really got loose. There was a rigidness to the character that I felt in some ways limited me a little bit.”

Gunn “set me free on this one,” Kinnaman says. “When Flag joined the military, I don't think he imagined one of his team members to be Harley Quinn. He sees her as a lunatic but with some weird, kind of good heart. It was fun to really reevaluate those relationships and play off of that.”

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Bloodsport (Idris Elba) doesn't appreciate being manipulated by Task Force X leader Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) in 'The Suicide Squad."

Bloodsport finds a daughter of sorts in a Ratcatcher

Will Smith’s Deadshot was an imprisoned father in Ayer’s “Squad” trying to be a better man for his daughter. The resident dad this time around is Elba’s Bloodsport, whose own estranged teen daughter (Storm Reid) is what Waller uses against him to sign on for a deadly mission. On a calm bus ride between insane circumstances, though, Bloodsport and Ratcatcher 2, who’s lost her own father, have a moment where they vow to protect each other.

With the “reluctant” hero Bloodsport, “we found this fragility in his daughter's story and that family connect that propelled him and became his motivation,” Elba says. Adds Melchior: “If Ratcatcher 2 could, she would give Bloodsport the love that he didn't have. This is one little proof that everything James does, he touches with love.”

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Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) and her pal Sebastian would sometimes rather nap than save the world in "The Suicide Squad."

No joke, the rats are actually on screen this time

Jared Leto infamously went Method to play the Joker on the OG “Suicide Squad” set, going so far as to gift Robbie with a rat as a prank. Ironically, the critters play a big role in Gunn’s film with Ratcatcher 2, her furry BFF Sebastian (played by real animals, including one named Squeaky) and a squad of computer-generated rodents. “Once I got the rat in my hands, I was like, ‘Don't look at the tail, it's just a baby cat,’ and it was fine,” Melchior says. “During shooting, I spent a weekend in New York and I saw the real rats, like the big (ones). In comparison, my rats were really professional and clean.”

Like Rocket and Groot before them, Ratcatcher 2 and Polka-Dot Man are both scene-stealers ready-made to win the audience’s hearts. Gunn says he tends to align himself with traits of his rag-tag personalities. “I relate to Ratcatcher's innocence in a way. She's just this character surrounded by all these people doing messed-up stuff," says the director. "I relate to Polka-Dot Man feeling like an outsider. There's characteristics of all of these characters that are characteristics of me.”