Alas, poor DCEU! Such a bright future I saw for it, True Believer, painted in dark tones; amassed of colorful characters, full of most excellent story potential. And now, how abhorred my imagination is! My nerdom rises at it. Where be your plot and character development, your source material loyalty? Your flashes of brilliance that were wont to set the superhero genre on a roar?
Suicide Squad, the ensemble super-villain romp that was set to take the 2016 Summer by storm, is now disappointing a theater near you. As the third installment (counting Man of Steel), many hoped SS would be the film to right the ship for the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) after the poor critical reception for Batman v Superman earlier this year. Did it succeed in doing so? In the name avoiding SPOILERS I’ll save my opinions until after the jump (spoiler: no, it didn’t. Oops.), so CLICK BELOW to read my
bitterness at review of David Ayer’s Suicide Squad.
The rule they seem to be completely overlooking in the DCEU camp is a simple element of storytelling: your characters have to WANT things FOR REASONS. It’s what’s called, in the biz, character motivation and to me it is the single biggest piece missing from both BvS and SS. You can’t just base your characters on some assumed traits and desires and hope the audience buys the premise. Your characters must be grounded in whatever reality it is that you structure around them, which pertains equally to both your heroes as well as your villains (and in SS’s case most characters are a little of both). With both BvS and SS the audience is asked to assume relationships and tensions that are not grown from organic ground – Lois Lane and Superman love each other, likewise with Dr. Harleen Quinn and the Joker, a super monster will inevitably appear someday backwardsly necessitating Waller’s hit Squad, Lex Luthor is simply a bad guy so he hates good guy, etc. The audience is asked to accept these premises a priori, rather than deriving them from the films themselves. This is a convention of a bygone era.
Also, there’s a new rule in the superhero movie genre, brought along by Chris Nolan (and then blatantly broken by him in TDKR) and rather openly ignored by the Snyder and Ayer: plot contrivances will no longer be overlooked. This isn’t 80’s Christopher Reeve Superman. Giant CGI piles of horseshit as the main antagonist, and big/nuclear bombs as the threat and solution to every problem, and confusing plot conveniences that only make sense because it’s a movie which inevitably take the audience out of their immersed experience – such lazy tactics that defined the early decades of the genre and re-appear in this new era less frequently but more obviously will no longer be tolerated. This is the era of superheroes grounded in reality, even the most outlandish ones like Deadpool. Chis Nolan and Bryan Singer before him (though he quickly went off the rails…) asked the question, “Why would people become superheroes?”, a notion taken for granted in the genre’s earlier eras. It was a simple but beautiful concept that defined Batman Begins and which, I believe, gave inspiration to Kevin Feige and his respective camp of directors and then the genre as a whole. It’s a central concept for each of the Avengers, as well as Daredevil and Jessica Jones, and even the campy kids at Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. You have to write these characters as you would any other, like normal people without superhuman abilities because it is their humanity that drives a strong story. Their powers make for a thrilling tale, but without real human interaction and tension, agony and victory, real struggle, there is nothing for the audience to latch onto, nothing to capture their emotions while their eyes are fixated on the circus.
You want to add in easter eggs and nods for the fans? Excellent, we #nerdherd eat that shit up. But they need to be the tinsel, not the lights on this cinematic Christmas tree. You want to show Harley and Joker in their dressed up dancing outfits from the cover of Batman: Harley Quinn, have Boomerang get Slipknot blown up because it’s directly out of the comic, and hold on a shot of a building named after the book’s creator, I can appreciate the flavor of that. But simply expecting the audience to be ok with a rushed Harley and Joker backstory because ‘real fans don’t need that explanation’, or chalking up the faulty reasoning in the team’s selection as a function of the new meta-human reality we now live in is mistaking source loyalty for lazy storytelling.
By the way, zipping along the fact that Harley is “an accomplice in the death of Robin” in her opening intro too quickly for many to notice, despite the fact that that is a huge switch from the source material, isn’t cool or edgy, it’s just a dick answer to the fan rumors about Jason Todd aka Robin becoming the Joker. I find it somehow akin to shooting Jimmy Olsen in the face in BvS just for the hell of it. These aren’t easter eggs, they’re sour crumbs.
Suicide in the DCEU: a Non-Ensemble
In many ways SS aims to be the misfit group action comedy that Guardians of the Galaxy was two years ago, complete with an August release and its own classic rock soundtrack (thought this one is less “Awesome Mix” and more jukebox). Unfortunately, the only squad members deemed important enough for development are Harley Quinn and Deadshot. Killer Croc is a complete waste of intense makeup, relegated to interjecting token Black lines (I mean, honestly, does anyone actually still watch BET other than the Awards Show?) Katana is another character with a cool look, pulled almost directly from the comic, but if you were to subtract her from the movie absolutely nothing would change. This is equally true of Croc and Captain
Kangaroo Boomerang as well. Slipknot’s role is comically cut short as Boomerang convinces him to try to escape in order to test their implanted bombs and Slipknot ends up with an exploded head. This scene is pulled directly from the pages of Suicide Squad #9, but due to the lack of introduction or investment in him as a character the gag becomes cheap and haphazard. Significant time is spent on showing Deadshot as the hitman with a heart (‘I don’t shoot women or kids, and I love my daughter’) and Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn is the movie’s best character, both in performance and writing, though her comic relief role does get a bit stale. But, in truth, this is no ensemble tale, no story of how the disparate elements of a group of non-heroes somehow come together to form a team. The Guardians are true anti-heroes; they are self-deprecating, and they each know what they want individually until their higher group calling comes along and intercedes. With the Suicide Squad, you’re aware from the beginning that they are all eager to escape but that’s where the character motivation ends.
One of the reasons the movie has so much difficulty bringing the group dynamic together is because the Squad are completely unsuited to the task for which they’ve been formed. In the comic book, they are a super-black op group, tasked with doing what the US government cannot. This makes their nefarious natures and villainous tactics particularly relevant. In the cinematic version, though, they alter the Squad’s function to be a weapon against “the next Superman”. But what are a group armed with baseball bats and boomerangs going to do against an evil meta-human? The film’s final battle clearly displays this fallacy and we see that El Diablo is the only member with actual super-powers (another interesting backstory completely wasted).
Had the group and their function been constructed A) in response to some real threat, rather than a hypothetical one that conveniently shows up as soon as the team is formed, and B) against a different level of foe, the members could have put their individual skills to work, finding a greater sense of team and societal contribution in the process (aka character development).
Beyond the level of threat, the movie suffers from the Squad’s central mission making no actual sense. Soon after their formation they are tasked with entering a hostile “terrorist” situation in Midway City and rescuing a secret target. In an oddly squared circle, their target turns out to be Amanda Waller, their boss whose secret government site turns out to be right in the center of the battle zone (plot convenience). It’s more a matter of happenstance that they end up fighting the Enchantress and Incubus. This lack of directive results in a lot of mid-movie wandering and vague fight scenes and a particularly anti-climactic beginning of the third act.
Suicide in the DCEU: Villains, Villains Everywhere (But not a one to fear)
The DCEU has a problem with villains. They began strong with General Zod, a well-formed antagonist in Man of Steel, playing on the alien vs human dichotomy in Superman’s nature, a theme they then fumble in BvS. After him, though, Snyder and Ayer provided us with flat caricatures of antagonists and messy mounds of CGI. Doomsday was shit (nearly literally), Lex Luthor was incoherent. In SS, the Enchantress and Incubus are more of the same – super-beings set on world domination and/or destruction (we know not why) with undefined but nearly omnipotent powers. It’s an internal threat, a member of the new team gone rogue, but with a rushed backstory and a Rick Flag-June Moone relationship that is paper thin the audience has no reason to care.
Given their difficulty with villains, the DCEU folks stacked the cards against themselves with a movie where the villains become the heroes. This issue is compounded by adding a secondary antagonist who, like half of the members of the cast, makes no substantive impact on the film’s plot. Jared Leto’s Joker was perhaps 2016’s most anticipated character, colorfully displayed in every preview, lighting up social media with lurid tales of method acting and dead pig deliveries. Going in I knew that he wouldn’t be but after seeing it I had to wonder, why not make him the main villain? Given the previously mentioned problems of the Squad fighting supernatural foes, why not go darker and have Mr. J, already risen to King of Gotham’s underworld, executing some vile plot? Harley’s moral dilemmas would be given an actual catalyst, the who’s-really-the-good-guy subplots could be more filled out, and you wouldn’t have one of Batman’s most iconic villains randomly popping in and out, dying in a helicopter crash, and re-emerging without explanation. While I’m on the subject, there are three helicopter crashes in this movie where the main characters simply get up and walk away; why crash them at all? And in the first crash, as the Squad arrives in Midway City, it isn’t even explained who shot them out of the sky! They just roll around a bunch and then hop out as if nothing had happened. But I digress…
I know there was an editing battle and many of the Joker scenes were cut. Perhaps there is a more complete picture of the Clown Prince of Crime on the cutting room floor. But in a film literally full of villains there are none that pose a believable risk, and the greatest one is completely wasted.
Suicide in the DCEU: Get Thee to a Nunnery
I have several other gripes that I’ve not mentioned here. If, for instance, Waller has a file folder on good meta-humans which she then gives to Bruce Wayne, why doesn’t she assemble them instead of the group of villains? Also, DCEU, if you’re going to elect to now do post-credits scenes, you have to give us info we don’t already have, that’s what makes them cool. We already know that Batman is forming a super-team!
But those are small details, ones for which I am more than willing to suspend my disbelief. The real problem with this latest installment of the DCEU is that they seem to have forgotten after Man of Steel how to tell real, compelling stories with these admittedly fantastic characters. Suicide Squad is like a costume that is stitched together badly; it doesn’t really fit, and you can tell the tailor didn’t have a good handle on the material, but I like the sleeves. For the fanboys out there who will simply label me a hater, I say this: I want the DCEU to succeed and it does not need to feel the same as the MCU. But this is the new era of superhero movies, grounded in sound storytelling principles and in plots derived from character motivations (not the other way around). These are indeed superheroes and we fans want to see them do awesome and abnormal things, but they are also people so their choices and desires must be rooted in emotions the audience can relate to. Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t. Learn well these lessons, o noble DCEU, or suffer the fate of Ophelia.
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