The latest salvo in the ongoing superhero wars was fired last weekend when Warner Bros. released the DC Comics-based action flick Suicide Squad. Expectedly, it touched off a firestorm of debate. On the one hand, critics panned it. I, for example, am a critic and thought it was one hot mess. On the other hand, loyal fanboys and fangirls went to bat for the film, accusing critics of being in the bag for crosstown rival Marvel while hating on DC. (To be fair, I did grow up as a bigger Marvel Comics fan. But Marvel has had its fair share of cinematic clunkers as well: X-Men: Apocalypse, that hideous Fantastic Four reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Spider-Man 3, X-Men Origins: Wolverine). Rabid fans even circulated a petition to shut down the website Rotten Tomatoes for daring to point out that Suicide Squad is only garnering 26 percent positive ratings.
Of course, it’s not just a fans vs. critics battle. Plenty of viewers walked out underwhelmed by the film. One fellow in the United Kingdom is even threatening (possibly with tongue in cheek) to sue Warner Bros. and DC for false advertising for filling the film’s trailer with deleted scenes and “misleading visual images” of Jared Leto as the Joker, implying a much larger role than he actually had.
When the dust settled, though, Suicide Squad walked away with a $135 million opening weekend—the largest August opening ever. That would seem to indicate the film is a gigantic hit no matter what anyone thinks. And yet the film is projected to drop a catastrophic 67 percent in its second weekend. Like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the film will struggle to make back its huge budget (a reported $180 million, not counting advertising) at the domestic box office. The bottom line is this: Whether you like Suicide Squad or not, DC needs to do better.
So what was so wrong with Suicide Squad, you ask? Here are a few possibilities.
You might have thought Warner Bros. would have learned the lesson Fox’s Deadpool (and its $363 million haul) taught us all back in February: There’s room for R-rated superheroes. A sizable percentage of today’s moviegoing audience is made up of comic book-loving adults. And some of these comic characters—like Deadpool—demand a more mature treatment. The dark, violent, blackly comic Suicide Squad was just screaming for an R-rated movie. But Warner Bros. decided they needed to appeal to the widest family audience possible. As a result, a story about a gang of murderous, foul-mouthed criminals on a suicide mission became a watered-down fantasy about a group of cuddly, misunderstood anti-heroes who love children, unicorns and one another. That tells you all you need to know about the mind-set of Warner Bros. It’s not about being true to the intellectual property; it’s about making money by appealing to mainstream America.
The bottom line is this: Whether you like Suicide Squad or not, DC needs to do better.
Even those who defend Suicide Squad admit the film kinda looks like two different movies stitched together. That’s charitable. It’s more like three or four. It’s as if Guardians of the Galaxy were acting out the script to The Expendables, got shot down while passing over Black Hawk Down and crash-landed into the set for Resident Evil 6.
Warner Bros. got a lot of positive feedback from the film’s stylish trailers (which were terrific and raised a lot of sceptical viewers’ hopes). Unfortunately, director David Ayer’s gritty original cut of the film didn’t much resemble those happy-go-lucky trailers. Fearing the exact same backlash they got from Zack Snyder’s humorless Batman v Superman, rumor has it WB hired the company that assembled the trailer to make an all-new cut of the final film. The result was two different films with two different tones. Both versions were shown to test audiences and both did well for different reasons. Those “reshoots” that took place a couple months ago were (again, reportedly) used to stitch the two divergent cuts together, resulting in a film whose look, tone, story line, character development and pacing felt like they were haphazardly cobbled together at the last minute in an editing room.
The films that Marvel/Disney are making are all quite different. (Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier couldn’t be further apart.) But they have an internal consistency that comes from hiring good directors and trusting them to come up with a singular, polished vision. Editing by committee based on endless contradictory notes from test screenings results in a muddled product. Trust your filmmakers, DC, and tell Warner Bros. to leave them alone.
The reason Marvel’s hero-filled The Avengers (and Captain America: Civil War) films worked is because the company took time to develop the characters in a series of hit movies. Suicide Squad didn’t have that that luxury and was forced to introduce audiences to a dozen or more major characters in one fell swoop. Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller spent the first hour or so of Suicide Squad just sitting in committee meetings explaining her plan over and over again. (C’mon. It’s The Dirty Dozen with superheroes. Let’s move on already.) When the plot finally kicked into gear, there was hardly room left for a story. And by the halfway mark, Suicide Squad was still trying to introduce new characters (like that poor, useless bastard Slipknot). Think about it: What was the point of bringing in Katana so late in the game? What did she even do? The filmmakers could have cut what little there was of her character, and it would have had absolutely no effect on the film. Jared Leto’s much-hyped Joker spends the entire movie trying to crash the party. But he keeps getting kicked out. There’s just no room for his shenanigans in this movie. Why include all those well-armed commandoes? This was supposed to be a covert mission in which the government could deny all connection. Instead, a bunch of nameless military dudes with guns and explosives stuck around the entire movie and did almost all of the dirty work while the main characters dispensed short quips. It’s supposed to be Suicide Squad, not Suicide Squad Plus Guests. Seriously, DC/Warner Bros. could have saved half these characters for the sequel. A little patience goes a long way, guys. This is supposed to be a marathon, not a sprint.
Listen. At the end of the day, Suicide Squad is a fun, colorful movie. It’s better than Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice by a damn sight. But it’s not nearly as good as it needs to be at this stage of the game. Warner Bros. still has a long way left to go before it nails down this DC cinematic universe it’s trying so hard to create. So ... keep your fingers crossed for next summer’s Wonder Woman and pray WB doesn’t screw it up. Again.