Sunday, August 7, 2016

Suicide Watch: Suicide Squad (2016)

As the lights came up, I turned and looked at my movie companion and heard myself say "that was the worst movie I've seen since Battlefield Earth".  But, that was unfair.  It's the worst movie I've seen since 1998's Godzilla,  but the issues with the movie are maybe more akin to Battlefield Earth.

Now, I don't say that lightly, and I obviously don't include "bad movie" fodder like The Room, Birdemic and other grasp-longer-than-reach independent efforts.  Rather, there's a special place in movie-going hell reserved for huge blockbuster movies with gigantic budgets for production and marketing that have been corporate committee'd to death.

I didn't show up at Suicide Squad wanting to dislike it.  I'm a grown-assed adult, and if I don't want to see a movie, I won't.  Heck, I could have skipped the movie with a refund before it rolled (and I thought about it after seeing the reviews).  The movie was sold out and people would take the seats.  I could have had a nice beer on the porch at the theater.

I am, of course, not a DC "hater" and am more than happy to discuss DC comics, associated media and lore at length.  In short, don't make me embarrass you, kid, when you come at me to explain the movie.

For decades I've read DC comics, watched TV shows - good and bad - read non-fiction histories of the characters and industries.  And, in this era I just want for DC to make a movie that isn't a trainwreck, and - while I've not seen BvS - that doesn't seem to be happening.

There's probably a competent movie somewhere in the footage and scripts that led to the product that is Suicide Squad (2016).  Director David Ayer has a respectable filmography as both writer and director, and on IMDB, he's listed as the sole writer and director, but...  well, it's Warner Bros.  I mean, they say a lot about being a "director's studio", but if you believe that the suits had nothing to do with how this movie wound up, I have some beachfront land in Arizona to sell you.

I have no doubt the folks who've already branded themselves as DC movie fans (and as carriers of true fandom for these characters) will like the movie as it follows a certain line of thinking that has so far appealed to that audience and basic issues with story and structure didn't deter them with Man of Steel, and from what I've heard about BvS, even more so.   It is in no way short of wanting to be hip and edgy like an Ed Hardy shirt or vape booth at the mall.

It's a movie that does not know the rule of "show, don't tell" - it doesn't trust the audience to follow a story, delivering character and action in literal bullet points.  Mostly, though, the film is presented in such a way that the errors and issues were so large and as consistent as gunfire throughout the movie, that it's impossible to stay with the movie rather than just cataloging the issues as they pop up, one after another.

At almost every single thing this movie attempts, it misses in big and small ways, with the unsurprising exception of the Will Smith as Deadshot storyline (Big Willie carries too much clout in Hollywood to not come out of this still intact, and the charm I'd nearly forgotten the man has on screen fills in a lot of gaps that the movie leaves there for virtually every other character).  Whether it's the much derided musical accompaniment, the nonsensical story bits left in place after the editors were done, the odd choice of villain and scope of the mission, or why everything in the movie felt like it needed to be doodled upon from the frame of the film to Margot Robbie's face to Will Smith's collar.

This movie is a @#$%ing mess.  And, no, it's not even really a "fun" or "enjoyable" mess at that.  Maybe "a distracting two hours where you'll ask yourself a lot of questions about why they made a lot of decisions the way they did."  That kind of mess.

The signs Suicide Squad was going to have issues started with extensive reshoots we're being told are standard for a movie of this scale - which is a little true, but not to the extent that was being rumored and seemingly in direct response to the critical battering Batman vs. Superman took for it's cheerless, depressive tone - and the subsequent second weekend drop-off of tickets sales in comparison to Deadpool's surprise box-office.  (It's worth noting that as of this writing, Suicide Squad is tracking below 30% at RottenTomatoes).

For whatever reason, upon her arrival at DC Entertainment, President of DCE Diane Nelson bought into Publisher Dan Didio's worldview that what DC's characters needed to compete in the comics marketplace was a darker turn (Identity Crisis, killer Wonder Dog, etc...) and that everyone live in a world of poorly scripted moral ambiguity (and, it seems, a top-down editorial approach that choked the idea of storytelling out of comics).  That same approach made it's way into 2013's Man of Steel and seemingly metastasized in Batman vs. Superman.*

What's oddest about the choice of content for the two movies after Man of Steel - which was, despite its issues, a straight-forward origin story for a single character - is that both Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad really should have been deep-cut or latter-era sort of stories, movies made well into DC's catalog of films when the world the characters inhabit would be better established and there would be more room to explore and challenge assumptions.   You kind of have to wonder what most of slow, terrified realization had to hit WB execs as they watched Captain America: Civil War and saw "oh, this has resonance because we know these characters and don't want to see them fight.  It's not just action figures smacking together saying mean things."

As DC got going as a movie brand, as they considered all of the literally hundreds of titles and characters in the DCU from over 80 years of making comics, why pick this series?  Why, Suicide Squad as a pre-Flash, pre-Wonder Woman, pre-Aquaman movie?

When Suicide Squad was revived as a non-military-fighting-dinosaurs title it was done so as part of DC's expansion and attempt at diversity in the Post-Crisis DCU in the same era that brought us The Dark Knight Returns.  The audience could handle more adult content, and John Ostrander and Kim Yale's concept of a military unit made up of villains from across the DC Universe had the context of decades of other books and appearances by these characters as foes for our heroes.  The series was fascinating not just in concept (even if the concept is more or less lifted directly from Escape From New York - what with the "bomb in the neck of the competent criminal" idea), it gave the characters we barely knew a chance to get fleshed out, and that didn't necessarily mean those characters were very nice people.  But their bosses, our government, turned out to be even more ruthless.

The 80's series lasted less than 6 years, and other attempts at a revival including a 2001 era run I liked and a run around 2007 or so I can't really recall other than buying a couple of issues, didn't last more than a year.  Dan Didio's New 52 put Suicide Squad front and center with fan-favorite Harley Quinn who was literally so popular she had her own variant cover month and is now considered more popular than Superman and Wonder Woman for moving merchandise.  But that New 52 series got canceled after less than three years.  It's not exactly a foundational cornerstone of the DCU.

So... why?

I have to assume it was for marketing the DC brand and product in the endgame to appeal to that "males between 18 and 25 who play video games" audience.  I mean, it's a "bad-ass" concept, but nearly context free, which causes a lot of story issues - which hasn't bugged those dudes so far.  In the end, the point of the movie is an entirely utilitarian message to the audience that "we're the dark universe that, despite the fact this movie stars a dude named 'Captain Boomerang', you can say is the edgier universe".

I mean, I'm guessing.  I don't sit in on those meetings, and I'm just a dude who reads comics, watches movies and generally follows what's going on with DC Entertainment as a company.  So I don't know anything, I just see the contours of what's occurring and take a guess based on past action of the parties involved and try to deduce what they're up to now.

But if I'm even partially correct, the insecurity at play from both studio and audience is operating on a cosmic scale fit for a DC cross-over series.

DC Entertainment had, of course, slated something like 20 movies for the next ten years to auto-magically build out their franchise empire in a rush to compete with/ ride-the-tails-of Marvel.  But, in a rush to land that sweet box-office lucre they saw with Avengers, they did nothing of Marvel's methodical testing of waters or organic building of a fan base.  "You liked Man of Steel?  Not really?  Great.  Here's a slate of 20 movies for the next decade.  SHOW UP."

When it became apparent the tone and ideas for DC's first few movies might be... not good... DC/WB had left themselves with some serious problems when it came to scheduling and how one changes course of a cruise ship asked to suddenly make a sharp right turn.  And, unsurprisingly, the re-shoots, the re-cutting, may have led to a point that, for this movie, the cure may be worse than the disease.  Those same problems are all frikkin' over Suicide Squad as a product and film.

So, let's get into it.

A lot happens in Suicide Squad.  And nearly nothing happens.  It has dozens of characters, at least three major arcs (one of them is kind of interesting and well managed), and feels like 10 pounds of shit going into a 5 pound bag.  Only the bag is kind of leaky, someone felt they needed to write "goddamn bag of shit" on the outside, and then someone added two or three more pounds of shit.

Let's start with the beginning, of which, this movie has three.  Over and over and over, the movie begins.

The start time for the showing I caught was 12:30, and with the heavily-loaded trailers, ads, etc.. typical of the Alamo Drafthouse, I'm pretty sure the movie started at 12:45.  By the time we had passed what I considered the third opening scene, it was now 1:20.  I checked my watch.

There's a set of scenes, graphics laden, which introduce some, but not all, of the characters and, with actual text on the screen like a Larry Hama-penned GI Joe Dossier card, explaining to the viewer what the deal is with each character.  It's intercut with a dinner scene with Viola Davis as the most satisfying live action Amanda Waller to date, but she's given the unenviable task of putting files on the table in a fancy restaurant as she talks to G-Men types (one of which is played by David Harbour of Stranger Things).  During this sequence I literally stopped to think "what must Viola Davis be thinking of all this...?" - pulling me right out of the film.

I have no idea, but I suspect this is the sequence that was added in reshoots.  It has more Batman, and that Flash cameo we're supposed to not know about.  It's almost childish in it's attempts to make sure you've got the materials you need to follow the movie as, god forbid, the movie does its own heavy lifting and uses the action to show who these characters are, what Waller is up to, etc...

Not knowing what was coming next, from here, I expected the movie to get going.  But.  No.  There's a scene that also could have been the first scene of the film wherein Waller goes in front of a conference room full of military types and explains what she plans to do.  There are shenanigans, but she gets her green light.  Now, I said - the movie will begin.

Nope.  Now we find our prisoners in Belle Reve Prison, the infamous home of Task Force X as any 80's comics dork will tell you.  Once more the movie finds a point where we might have started as Waller goes around stating who the characters are, what their deal is, and recruits them into her organization.

But I don't know what they expected.  Marvel spent movies upon movies building their world before Avengers.  We'd had hours to know the characters.  Here the work has to happen in a few moments, and they can't rely on archetypes to do their work when all of the characters are variations on the same archetype (note the marketing for the new Magnificent Seven which is just saying "the Assassin", "The Tracker", "The Warrior", etc...  Can't do that if it's "The Comic Book Bad Guy").  So, we get thirty minutes of intros.

I'm not always a slave to narrative economy, but the first two intros could easily have been widdled down into a line or two of the third intro, and we'd have been golden.  As I say, the movie refuses to show when it can happily tell us how bad-ass or crazy the characters are.  No surprises for us as characters reveal themselves through the action of the film.  It's videogame storytelling.

From here - when and where events occur gets a little muddy, but one of our members of Task Force X goes AWOL and becomes The Big Threat, setting up camp in the central train depot of a fictional Midway City.  We were about thirty minutes further into the movie before I figured out that the Squad was sent in - not to eliminate the threat, but just to retrieve someone from the evacuated city.  We'd seen the threat materialize, so it was a little weird that they held this information back from our protagonists...  I mean, I did run to the can when they first arrived on scene, because I've seen enough movies to know "when they first enter New York/ The Jungle/ etc..., you've got two minutes of them pointing guns at shadows before the threat shows up".  But I also think you usually state mission objectives before, you know, starting a mission.  Call me kooky.

We get some monsters and things are kind of ugly thanks to the fact that our rogue Squader is a super-villain of the highest DC order and that means world-ending malarkey has ensued thanks to her cosmic-level, ill-defined superpowers that DC excels at giving their Big Bads.  But it also means our villain lacks clear motivation, has an ill-explained scheme, no background to speak of, and strips down to a Vegas showgirl look (the actor is a Victoria's Secret model and spends many scenes making magic by sort of wriggling around in a magic bikini thing.  Your mileage will vary) and begin working some voodoo that is never explained, but is shooting lightning bolts, and I know I am not even close to the first person who will describe it as very much akin to Gozer the Gozarian - but it's hard not to see the comparison.

Now, at this point, one is left looking at the screen wondering "we're a pretty twitchy bunch of people, us Americans.  Why didn't the military send in drones to where our villain is trying to melt the world from and hit the building until it's cement dust?"  Maybe I missed it, but I don't think it's ever really addressed.  And it's this kind of sloppiness that was kind of mind-bending to see unfold.  If we have thirty minutes to start and start and start our movie, can't we at least set up a plausible reason any of this is happening?

Who shoots down the Squad's helicopter as they enter the city and why?  Who knows?!  Not this movie.  Why are the Squad's implants tied to a cell phone app when all it would take to escape would be shooting Flagg and Waller and walking away with their phones?  Who knows?!

Why is Katana there?  I mean, I get she's back-up for Flagg, but... she's a Japanese civilian, not American military.  Why is she anywhere near this movie other than the lack of female protagonists? (conveniently, this one mostly just speaks Japanese and doesn't talk).  Who are all those other guys around Flagg?  Why do their numbers arbitrarily increase and decrease?  No one can say!

I can tune out issues when a movie is otherwise operating in good faith, but as fast and furious as the weird inconsistencies and narrative issues cropped up, the more inclined I was to start trying to find the movie or movies they thought they were making at one point, and I was just not with the movie as a willing participant for so much of the film's runtime.

And, yes, the song choices are so on the nose and so oddly placed that they distract rather than add - which, frankly, was one of my issues with Snyder's Watchmen.**  I'd read about that and I expected it.  It's not that much less eye-rolling knowing it's coming, but it just feels a bit odd, even amateurish.
So, Jared Leto's Joker.

Sigh.  I know I'm going to be in the minority on this one, but that didn't work for me.  But anyone coming along in the wake of Heath Ledger's groundbreaking performance was going to suffer by comparison, and the script doesn't really help out our villain, either.  It's a kind of loud, dumb, derivative take on how the character operates and how Leto plays him - indicating rather than being.  There's nothing unsettling about him, nor humorous (and that was usually part of the gig, the gallows humor that Nicholson and Romero both nailed and Ledger made sing).  Weirdly, he just kind of comes off as a sort of...  dumb thug with a lot of posturing Leto does to let you know "I am dramatic!  Look at me acting cuh-razy!"  You just kind of wonder how he's not maybe the worst guy on a cell block somewhere, but it's hard to see how this guy isn't just run in by the local constabulary in easy-squeezy fashion.

To make matters worse SPOILERS Leto's final appearance as the Joker in fake riot gear is as fucking tone deaf as anything I've seen in a movie in years, given what occurred in Colorado during the release of Dark Knight Rises.   And don't think it didn't occur to me that was what WB thought was a funny gallows humor inside joke.  So, that's our option - they did this intentionally or they're that idiotic, they already forgot about the massacre their movie inspired. END SPOILERS

Most odd was that the entire Joker storyline becomes a plot that competes for and divides the attention rather than adds to the action.  Given the forgettable story happening in the A Plot, this B Plot feels like it should dovetail in ways that it really doesn't.  And I cannot help but think these characters and this take should have just been their own movie and let Suicide Squad be it's own thing and let this story breathe and maybe have a chance of succeeding.

For as much as she's been shoved to the front of the movie's promotion and the editors clearly were given orders to leave in every damn last one of her lines whether it was relevant or worked or not, by the time the movie ended, any magic I thought they could have wrung from Robbie as Harley was spent.  I weirdly grew to not care about the character over the course of the film and I couldn't put my finger exactly on why, aside from the fact that I didn't find her actually funny, which has been her deal for two decades.  And, really, she was eliciting about one audible laugh per every other gag in my screening.

And, of course, a shot or two is left in the film that go from making Harley Quinn an interesting character to victim, and it just makes the whole thing problematic rather than interesting.  Harley is also a gateway to the movie's weird relationship with women in general.  It's not exactly a  newsflash that Hollywood actioners may not always see women as people, but this one is going to make fodder for many-a-grad student's thesis on representation of women in the modern era of cinema.

In fact, I suspect part of why this material was picked was that (a) Harley is popular but WB maybe wisely didn't see her as carrying a film and (b) needed to give their large male audience a lot of dudes with whom they could identify in their next outing.  Doesn't explain why a Flash movie isn't in this slot.

In a best case, the movie would have had a split-personality tone fit for a fun, dark, sardonic take on the characters and their situation.  It could and should have been a black hearted romp through the darkest corner of the DCU.  And the Hot Topic crowd will see it that way and take to the social medias to defend it as such (because we don't get it, man).  Instead, it's just tonally indifferent, mostly tilting toward a surprisingly morbid and cheerless angle, with characters giving small smiles of grim resignation rather than taking terrifying delight in their work that might have made for some fun.  Harley goes for it and seemingly owns that idea, but the manic-pixie-dream-whacko thing loses its charm by the time we get through our first firefight and the whole thing feels oddly forced.   Evidence of a quirkier script is there, but nothing is made of things like "pink unicorn fetishes", and so it becomes just another bit of the pile of unfinished thoughts that comprise the movie overall.

In the end, I just felt like this was a movie made by people who had an idea of who their audience was, and it is not a flattering picture of that audience.  The lack of trust that they'd just follow the action and didn't need characters and ideas introduced over and over, that they see the same tattoos I see my local Subway sandwich artists deploying as edgy enough in which to slather the film, the costumes, etc...  just feels weirdly immature.  If this makes any sense - it feels like a movie made by people overestimating their intelligence making a movie where they've underestimated the intelligence of their audience.

That DC wants to do better is heartening.  That they're midstream in that change and this movie may have paid the price for wanting to change gears during post-production is unfortunate, but it's hard to say what was ever there to begin with.  I do know that what I did see was a pretty awful movie on nearly every level, and it's a bit heartbreaking for this old DC fan.

*  Some time between the release of Batman vs. Superman and about a month ago, Geoff Johns was escalated within DC Entertainment to the title of President, which means likely nothing good for DCE's other president, Diane Nelson, not Dan Didio over in the comics publishing wing.  Right now the comics line is under a revamp that started a couple months back with Rebirth, put in place by Johns, and already I'm back reading DC for the first time since early 2012.

Johns may have arrived as President too late to do much, storywise, for this movie, but there may be some light at the end of the tunnel for the DCU movies in a couple of movies.

**Using "The Times They Are a Changin'" during a montage of time and changes?  @#$% you, Snyder.  That's Film 1 B.S.


Simon MacDonald said...

I had high hopes for this movie initially. I mean the Ostrander run of Suicide Squad is ripe for movie material. As things progressed it really did seem like they they were having problems getting the story right which is a shame. I haven't seen the movie and I may never get around to it at this point. I was thinking about taking it in this weekend while on vacation but hearing so many reviews that seem to agree that it was a mess I took a pass. I feel much like BvS:DoJ the only way I'll end up watching this is on a cross country flight where I have nothing else to do.

The League said...

Yeah, that's why I ended up getting tickets. It's a mess, and it's incredibly frustrating watching it just lope along. You know what could have been, and they chose not to do that at all. And then the litany of bizarre story problems.

Simon MacDonald said...

The crazy thing is it made a boatload of money but if the drops offs between Friday and Saturday, 41% were alarming. If it follows up with a poor second weekend it might not end up making back it's money. Especially since it won't be released in China.

Movie economics are interesting to me but I've always been a numbers guy.

The League said...

That's been the pattern so far with the DC movies - lots of folks first weekend, then a drop off. Advertising is getting a population in the door, and that population feels at odds with reviews, it seems, so critical consensus be damned. But folks who want to know how a movie might be before they pay for it are less likely to charge the gate, I guess. And, yeah, if it's not going to China, then WB just kissed at at least $120 million good-bye. Toss in the lack of toys and limited merchandising (there's nothing for kids) and tie-in's with Pepsi cans or whatever, and BvS is gonna clean up in comparison if there's any pronounced drop off this coming weekend.

Simon MacDonald said...

And now that the second weekend is in the books the film has dropped 67% which is almost as bad as the 69% that BvS:DoJ dropped. So it seems like WB movies are following a predictable formula where the rabid fans show up in the first weekend but then the lack of quality hurts the movie and it drops precipitously immediately after that. At this point the movie is in danger of not actually making back the $750 million it needs to break even. Shocking that a movie would make over half a billion dollars but not be profitable.

So now that WB has been burned by 2 straight super hero movies do they start slow rolling their next releases in order to fix any issues they may have or do they keep to the schedule? Already hearing some bad news out of the WW movie as an insider (grain of salt) says it's just another great trailer and not a great movie.

The League said...

yeah, I have no idea what the calculus is for figuring out if a movie is going to make a profit or not. What seems to be true is that it's harder for WB to turn a profit on their pictures than it is for Marvel, and at least part of that has to be attributed to both advertising costs (which seemed steep if you go by how many TV ads I saw in prime time) and how many toys they sold (which would be limited to Hot Topic). And, of course, China isn't releasing Suicide Squad (legally) so I think their real problem is the international market for this particular movie - which i am sure they just assumed would happen. The Chinese love Will Smith! If they were in the mix, they'd likely be a few hundred million up.

My guess is there's been a mad scramble on at WB for a while, but who knows what decisions they'll make to right the ship? Man of Steel was their response to Green Lantern's bad performance. BvS was their response to the bad reviews of Man of Steel and drop-off on second week box office. I mean, I HOPE Geoff Johns' promotion will help, but if I were being asked what to do at WB right now, I'd say "we're not putting out 17 more superhero pictures just 'cause. We're going to figure this out before Aquaman loses us $200 million dollars."

Simon MacDonald said...

I'm sure there is a formula out there somewhere that describes how much a movie has to make to become profitable. I'll have to see if I can track that down. BvS:DoJ was released in China and made $95 million so I'm betting they were counting on the same if not more money coming in from that market as well.

Geoff Johns have more say in the movies should really help but only if they pump the breaks on all of these movies and do it right. I honestly can't see Aquaman being a success regardless but on the other hand things like Iron Man came out of nowhere and Ant Man is getting a sequel, so you never know.

The League said...

I will not be surprised if we hear that WB is "slowing down" their superhero movie efforts so they can "get it right". They kind of have to say those words to their shareholders. Because right now "blindly stumbling forward and repeating our mistakes" is not going to get them anywhere. In fact, with last week's rumor that a new Superman movie was in the offing - which was not what was supposed to be what came after Justice League, and with Johns having some say, I kind of wonder if a new, improved Superman movie isn't their signal as to their sincere efforts to course correct.

What concerns me is that I don't see how these movies make significantly more at the box office no matter the change in tone. With or without China, these movies are doing amazingly well - it's just the cost to get them to market. They have to be focusing on the merchandising angle or something, which TOTALLY makes sense if you're talking about Batman and Superman fer chrissake.

Simon MacDonald said...

Wow, I finally got around to seeing this movie and the best that I can say is that it is "incoherent". It didn't make a lot of sense. You can really see where the studio was pulling at the strings. I can kinda see where this could have been a good movie if they stuck with a singular vision.

The League said...

Had the movie been anything like the trailers, I think it would have been a wild, fun ride with a heavy dollop of anti-social mayhem. But, man, while you can see that's what someone was trying to do, it feels kind of the opposite of all that. And, as many, many critics have pointed out - if the concern was Superman going rogue, why they deployed a 110 pound model with a baseball bat and no ability to follow orders - no one in this DCU knows what they're doing. The script is a tattered mess.