Suicide Squad, the next installment in DC’s extended universe landed in theaters across the country earlier this year. And while the arrival of this highly anticipated film about a ragtag group of misfit villains should have been a cause of celebration for fans of superhero movies in general — and a moment of redemption for long-suffering fans of DC — reviews of the film have been anything but congratulatory. In fact, the critics have been downright savage.
Here’s the opening line to San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle’s review of Suicide Squad: “If you know someone you really can’t stand — not someone you dislike, not someone who rubs you the wrong way, but someone you really loathe and detest — send that person a ticket for Suicide Squad.” Ouch. The Cheat Sheet’s own Nick Cannata-Bowman was a little less harsh in his review of Suicide Squad, calling it “a series of moments designed to feel iconic, but lacking in things like thematic weight and character development.” Even fairly sympathetic reviews, like this one from San Jose Mercury News’ Tony Hicks, called it a “semi-delightful mess.”
Keep in mind that this is the same film that generated unprecedented levels of fan excitement when the perfectly scored first trailer (set to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”) debuted earlier this year. That trailer (along with the several that followed) helped make Suicide Squad the most tweeted about movie of the summer blockbuster season. Anticipation for Suicide Squad was further heightened when Zack Snyder’s humorless Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice failed to live up to most fans’ expectations. Any DC fans who may have been put off by the unrelenting bleakness of Batman v Superman had what appeared to be a zany, quip-filled Dirty Dozen-inspired group of anti-heroes to look forward to in Suicide Squad. Or so we thought. Instead, we got what the critics at Rotten Tomatoes are calling a “disappointing end result” hobbled by “a muddled plot, thinly written characters, and choppy directing.” So what happened?
Well, according to a new report from The Hollywood Reporter, Batman v Superman happened. Per insider sources cited by THR, executives at Warner Bros. were “blindsided and deeply rattled by the tepid response to BvS.” This anxiety led the studio to bring in additional editors (although John Gilroy is still officially credited as the sole editor) to help develop a more “fun” version that the first trailer promised. In the meantime, director David Ayer was still pursuing his “more somber version,” reported THR. However, after costly reshoots that reportedly added millions of dollars to the budget, the studio’s “fun” version with “jazzed-up graphics” won out over Ayer’s version after performing better with test audiences.
Since we still haven’t seen David Ayer’s original version of Suicide Squad, it’s impossible to say if it would have been better. (Perhaps it will show up on a DVD release à la Batman v Superman: Ultimate Edition?) Ayer’s version could very well have been as good as End of Watch or Fury (two of his best directorial efforts to date) or it could have been like Sabotage – another film that, like BvS, has been described by at least one critic as “bleak.” If we do get a director’s cut in a home release that is superior to the version currently playing in theaters, it would mark the second time that Warner Bros. executives have taken the reins from one of their superhero movie directors and made the final product worse. While the Ultimate Edition of Batman v Superman has its own set of problems (such as a yawn-inducing 182-minute runtime), many critics felt Zack Snyder’s cut was a definite improvement over the theatrical version, especially when it came to character development.
Ironically, lack of character development is one of the major criticisms being leveled at the studio-approved version of Suicide Squad. In other words, in a clumsy effort to inject some “fun” into what was originally intended to be a movie with a darker tone, the studio may have inadvertently recreated some of the same issues that plagued the theatrical version of BvS. Of course, this problem is not exclusive to DC movies, or even the superhero movie genre as a whole. According to THR, the studio was so bowled over by the overwhelmingly positive response to the first trailer that they brought in the company that made the trailer – Trailer Park – to help with the editing of the final cut of the movie.
While it’s understandable that the studio would want to incorporate some of the music video-style elements found in the trailer into the movie, the fact remains that a trailer is a completely different animal from a full-length movie. A trailer is supposed to be all style and flash because its primary purpose is to get you hyped for an upcoming movie. And while most superhero movie fans will “ooh” and “ahh” over a film’s visual eye candy, all that spectacle still needs to be anchored with some meat-and-potatoes character development and plot. Without that substance, moviegoers will leave the theater feeling like they just paid to watch a two-hour extended version of a trailer they already saw for free.
It’s hard to say where DC should go from here. While it would be easy to point a finger at the studio executives who interfered with Ayer’s creative vision for the film, it should be noted that Marvel/Disney probably constrains its directors even more than DC – to the extent that it has driven away creative directors such as Ava DuVernay and Joss Whedon. That being said, Marvel has clearly developed a formula that works well, and it has had more hits than misses when it comes to the films in its sprawling and interconnected cinematic universe. In this sense, perhaps what Warner/DC needs more than anything else is to commit to a strategy: Either come up with an overarching vision for the DC Extended Universe and stick to it, or give directors the freedom to pursue their individual creative visions for each movie in the DCEU. At this point, anything’s better than the half-baked mess that the DCEU is starting to look like.
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