Bill Simmons, on his HBO show last Wednesday, felt comfortable calling Suicide Squad a “bomb” before the movie even opened. If you haven’t been paying attention, you may be surprised to find out that it broke the August box office record this weekend, and is apace to become the third-highest grossing film of the year.
Simmons, then, could only be referring to the critical panning that the film has received. As of this writing, it stands at 26% on the Tomatometer. I’ve talked in theory about the critical group-think that sites like Rotten Tomatoes engender, but rarely have I experienced it.
However, on Sunday I went to watch this expected “bomb” and found not only a competent comic book film, but one that is pushing cinematic and cultural boundaries. The prevailing narrative on this film needs some pushback.
If you’re going to continue reading, the first thing you must acknowledge is the possibility that critics can get it wrong. Pauline Kael famously had to reverse course on Bonnie & Clyde, when it became clear that she was out of step with the youth culture.
I’m not saying Suicide Squad rises to the level of a cultural phenomenon like Bonnie & Clyde, but something is definitely happening that the critics are missing. Look at the age demographic split in the Cinema Scores:
CinemaScore crowds under 35 gave Suicide Squad an A- (76%), while 46% females gave it an A-. The pic also earned an A with the under 18 demo (28%). […]
But Suicide Squad‘s weaker grades were with the middle-age folks with 25-34 year olds (22%) and 35-49 year olds (17%) giving it a B. (Deadline)
The movie is also performing well with audiences of color, who we know are not very well represented among the plurality of older, white critics.
There is a great deal to enjoy just on a surface level with Suicide Squad. There were plenty of laughs in my audience, and even negative reviews have been citing the charismatic performances of Will Smith and Margot Robbie. (They often overlook the best performance, in my opinion. Cast someone other than Viola Davis as Amanda Waller, and the film would fall apart.) The smeary rainbow, pop-punk aesthetic carries from the opening titles to the brilliant character makeup designs to the sets to the visual effects.
I am not a personal fan of the heavily-tatted, graffiti-tagged style of underground art. (Is it the older white male critic part of me?) Yet I can appreciate when a major motion picture sticks to its guns and puts that style in the faces of the audiences. And this design sensibility carried through to the marketing of the film as well — which seems to have done its job spectacularly well, opening the film huge against exceedingly negative word of mouth.
This PG-13 movie also manages to get in several scenes portraying a sexual dominance/submission relationship (Harley Quinn / Joker) including a scene that hints at partner-swapping. Just as with the “surprise” popularity of 50 Shades of Grey, large swaths of the culture are baffled, if not completely overlooking the text, never mind the subtext.
These ideas of dominance and submission can also be seen in desire of The Enchantress to have humanity bow before her, and most clearly in the relationship of Amanda Waller to pretty much every character in the film. At one point she says she believes in leverage, not loyalty. Her idea of an unequal relationship is one based on non-consenting control. It’s a clear thematic opposite to Harley / Joker’s mutual suicide-pact pledge.
I don’t think anyone should go and write a PhD thesis about it, but it shows there are deeper levels at work beyond the pretty-ugly surface of the film.
Perhaps thanks to Kevin Feige as a mostly autonomous benevolent dictator, Disney Marvel does a great job having the films in their franchise achieve a broad consistency of tone from filmmaker to filmmaker.
The Warner Bros. DC films (save the Dark Knight trilogy) have been maligned for being more dour and serious in their approach. But it’s an obvious good idea to try to differentiate themselves in the marketplace from Disney Marvel. We already have Disney Marvel.
Sure, the powers at Warners haven’t yet gotten this tone to work with the character of Superman. But I can’t fault them for trying. And here, when the heroes are villain anti-heroes, it seems to work a lot better. There is a scene in a bar in this film that is surprisingly emotional, perhaps because it allows the characters to acknowledge some real demons in their pasts.
Much was made about the film being re-tooled in post production to match the tone of Deadpool or Squad‘s own popular initial teaser trailer, cut by the company Trailer Park. But after seeing the film, I’m inclined to believe the director, who said reshoots were done to add action, rather than quips.
If there is a Deadpool tone, it is with the Harley character. And that was already her character. I think this film has its own tone. It’s a blend of anarchy and morality, more dangerous than a Disney or Fox Marvel film, and far more emotionally sincere.
More likely any late edits reshaped a slow first half of the film into a more dynamic series of quick trailer-like character backstories, allowing the plot to kick in earlier and leaving room to add more action in the second and third acts. It may not be the type of movie storytelling we are accustomed to outside of Guy Ritchie movies, but it more than works in service of this film.
As with any film, reasonable people may differ in what they emphasize as qualities worthy of praise. I found the good parts of Suicide Squad quite worthy, and the bad parts easy to overlook. (There is nothing like the “Martha” moment in Batman v. Superman, for example.) Put aside reports of studio meddling or multiple editors and simply watch the final film as if it was intended to be the way it is. I found it to be a strong artistic statement wrapped in the costume of high-quality popcorn entertainment. I never asked or expected more from a superhero film, and in this case I was not disappointed!