What does Suicide Squad say about the state of superhero movies?

The fallout from the negative critical response to Suicide Squad is making several things very clear.

Earlier this week, critics began posting their reviews of the film, the DC Extended Universe’s $175 million foray into a world of bizarre supervillains, and they were overwhelmingly negative (the movie stands as I write this at 31 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes). Almost as soon as the reviews began to hit, DC fans online began to push back by resurrecting their complaints from earlier this year -- when Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice received similarly harsh treatment -- that critics were somehow biased against DC projects in favor of Marvel movies, with some suggesting that they were being paid off by Disney to be kind to the Marvel films.

As fan rage began to heat up -- and keep in mind, not a single one of these fans have seen the movie yet themselves -- the Hollywood Reporter published an article on the rushed production and extensive studio interference that may have damaged Suicide Squad. On top of that, a fan from Egypt launched a petition to shut down Rotten Tomatoes, saying that the site -- which simply aggregates reviews from hundreds of outlets -- needed to go because (sic) “It's Critics always give The DC Extended Universe movies unjust Bad Reviews...and that Affects people's opinion even if it's a really great movies.”

Let’s get one thing straight right up front: I’ve seen Suicide Squad and it’s a bad movie. I say this with no malice and quite a bit of disappointment, actually, because I would love to see the DCEU succeed. But the film is deeply, fatally flawed, from its lack of tonal command to its dull pacing to its sloppy script to its weak villains. It does have several things going for it -- primarily the performances of Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Viola Davis and surprise MVP Jay Hernandez -- that make it watchable to some extent. But it looks ugly, appears to have been edited with a rusty nail, and has a third-act battle that may rank among the worst ever seen in a superhero movie.

I didn’t care for Batman v Superman either, and while I liked parts of Man of Steel, it too has a lot of problems. I’m not on the Disney “payroll” (nor is any film critic or journalist I know), and I’ve never been partial to one comic book universe over another. My favorite character of all time is Batman, as a matter of fact, and I adore the Nolan trilogy. I feel like I have to say all this because inevitably someone will accuse me of cashing a Marvel check or having some long-simmering hatred of DC, but the simple truth is that Warner Bros. Pictures is having a hard time making good DCEU movies. Not every Marvel picture is a home run, but that company has done two things correctly that DC has not: build its universe and characters gradually, and have one consistent tone throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Ironically, tone is the thing that makes the Marvel movies successful but also what they get the most criticism for. Marvel films are accused of being less like cinema and more like episodes of a gigantic TV show, with the sameness that being part of a weekly series implies. Yes, there is a certain lightness of touch and lack of strong directorial voices (with a couple of exceptions), but there is a competence and continuity in the Marvel movies that is true and clear, and says yes, all these stories are taking place in the same universe. There is a familiarity that is welcoming and comforting, and yet there is room for experimentation as well in films like Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

DC and Warner Bros. boldly proclaimed, when announcing their slate of 10 films, that they were going in the other direction: their movies would be “filmmaker-driven” and would allow the directors considerable creative freedom to interpret the material as they saw fit. But the results have been two movies directed by a man, Zack Snyder, who doesn’t seem to understand or even much like his heroes, and now a movie by a director, David Ayer, who is known for his gritty, streetwise thrillers but somehow made a picture that has a witch shimmying around a train station while opening the old portal in the sky that we’ve seen in about 467 other genre outings (including Marvel films). 

The problem is that with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line, there is almost no way that a movie studio is going to let a single voice dictate the production of these now-massive films. Yes, there are exceptions: Nolan made the Dark Knight trilogy the way he wanted to, while James Gunn put his personal stamp on Guardians. For the most part, however, superhero movies -- and most other “tentpole” films -- are increasingly made by committee, even more than they were before (a notable exception is Deadpool, which was made cheaply enough that the creatives were given all the freedom they wanted; it’s not a great movie but it does have a point of view and audiences responded). 

Reshoots are common and often extensive now; directors are regularly sidelined or forced to accept additional input from other filmmakers (sometimes they’re just in over their heads -- hello, Josh Trank!). Marvel has embraced this style of filmmaking and arguably made it a strength, with Kevin Feige at the top providing the overall vision: the result is a series of movies that have ranged from fair to excellent while staying within a certain stylistic format. At Warner Bros, however, there is no such consistency and no real leader, all due respect to Geoff Johns. Everyone there seems to be in panic mode: when the grimdark Batman v Superman did not do as well as hoped, a reportedly gritty director’s cut of Suicide Squad was altered to lighten the mood and make it more like Guardians of the Galaxy.

So what does this mean and what happens next? Well, Marvel is going to keep trucking along, doing exactly what it’s doing, until that doesn’t work anymore. The company has racked up such an impressive string of hits that it can theoretically absorb the impact if one or even two films tank outright. As for DC, their universe now hangs in the balance: Suicide Squad must do gangbusters business for this whole enterprise to survive. It’s already going to have a huge opening weekend thanks to great marketing, but if word of mouth is poor and it plummets at the box office in its second week the way Batman v Superman did, there are going to be a lot of execs at Warner Bros reaching for their antacid and demanding to see a cut right away of Wonder Woman, to see if that needs “fixing” too (despite the fact that these same geniuses are the ones who contributed greatly to making Suicide Squad a hot mess). 

I hope you like Suicide Squad when you see it. If you do, we can politely agree to disagree, perhaps even engage in respectful debate (you know, without death threats or harassment like some critics have received) and move on. Yet there is a fringe element of fans, like Mr. Shut-Down-Rotten-Tomatoes, who refuse to accept any opinion that dissents from their own carefully cultivated worldview. It’s part of the entitled, narcissistic society we live in now: if you are not with me, you are automatically against me. There is no room for a wide range of opinions or ideas because I cannot accept any that don’t jibe with my own. Either Suicide Squad is great or you are on a mission to destroy DC (sounds a lot like “If I don’t win, the election is rigged,” doesn’t it?). This is a narrow and even dangerous way to view movies, art and life itself, and it does nothing to help make any of those three things better.

Just remember that the films don’t belong to me or you or the stars or the writers or even the directors who make them. In the end, they’re not really cinema in the way we think of it, but corporate product, a line of branded goods that can be fun and thrilling and entertaining, even occasionally profound, but are primarily created to boost the bottom line, sell toys and not bring great artistic achievement into the world. All we as fans can do is ask for is good movies, and continue to hope with each new attempt that we’ll get one this time.

Suicide Squad opens on Friday (August 5).

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