The Trailers: Special Edition
Consistency matters in a movie franchise. Audiences like to know what they’re getting and so do lazy critics, who can copy and paste from their reviews of earlier entries. Those of us who grace you, the little people, with the benefit of our enlightened reason and forensic intellect, grow tired of saying that Marvel movies are fun but insubstantial, confected and not interested in being films in their own right. But we’re REALLY tired of saying that Warner Bros., who were caught unawares by Kevin Feige’s juggernaut like the Americans at Pearl Harbour, have royally fucked up their DC extended universe in their rush to catch up.
Someone told them that Marvel’s froth and DC’s dark, brooding and psychological, and consequently a cinematic caricature has been created, spearheaded by glum merchant Zack Snyder; a series of movies, beginning with Man of Steel and continued with Suicide Squad primer, Batman V Superman, that prescribe a strict diet of nihilism, violence and mass death, imaginatively positioned within the locus of popular entertainment. Snyder’s movies have underperformed at the box office and the sense is growing that the brand is in trouble – the kind of trouble that in simpler times you’d fix with a reboot, but is somewhat harder when you’re committed to movies through to 2020, with several already in various stages of production.
David Ayer’s Suicide Squad was shooting when Snyder’s BvS opened to critical derision back in March. It now holds the record for the lowest domestic box office gross relative to its opening weekend, or multiplier in analyst parlance. Snyder had made a bleak, self-important movie with his signature light-touch approach to characterisation. Ayer, by all accounts, was planning to make something rather similar, but the suits, fearing a reprise would kill their DC dream, became closely involved in the film’s progress. Reshoots were reported, apparently to inject humour (its presence in the finished film feels about as natural as getting one of Jared Leto’s used condoms as a gift), and a movie that started out with the editor of Nightcrawler, John Gilroy (credited), allegedly ended with that of The Green Hornet, Michael Tronick, brother of Elec.
Trailer Park, the company that framed expectations with those irreverent teasers cut to Queen, et al., were also reported to be involved. It’s little wonder then, that the finished film, if it is finished, is so uneven; truncated in plot, distended when it comes to incident; a basket case the Joker would intuitively understand. Editors have killed this flick, inflicting grievous bodily harm on the franchise in the process.
Squad may be about a reluctant platoon of deranged misfits; a band of bastards recruited on a play or pay deal to do the government’s dirty work, but it’s a safe bet the movie wasn’t supposed to be schizoid. Trailer Park, used to cutting scenes to pop tunes, may have contrived to do that often here, but contrary to what they believed and hoped, you can’t hang an entire movie on that, you need a story, and Ayer’s film – if it is his film, doesn’t have a tale to tell. Instead it’s a curious and perhaps unprecedented one act movie, bookended by an introduction and epilogue; a loon-a-tune orgy of otherworldly destruction and miscreant posturing, that opts for vignettes in flashbacks and an odd, movie-halting bar scene, around one hour and forty minutes in, that attempts to add shade to characters who aren’t given the time or space to develop in-story. It’s an approach that hints at an entirely different film, perhaps now only existing in old script drafts, or an early cut sealed in a vault, that could have repackaged the same elements a number of different ways to better affect. That assumes a script once existed that had a conventional three act structure, or something like it. On this evidence, who knows?
What we can say is that Suicide Squad is a hot mess. It plays like a first draft screenplay with not one but two introductions for the pair of characters it hopes to use as a through line (though it can’t decide which). So we meet Deadshot and Harley Quinn twice, and have one expository introduction into the group’s proposed remit in consecutive scenes. Ayer, it seems, couldn’t work out which served his purpose better, so split the dialogue over both. From there the movie jarringly cuts to its main threat to civilization as we know it, with the villains getting to know each other in parallel. This, in effect, makes Suicide Squad one long third act, a move that robs us of our chance to see the group brutalized and bonded prior to their unleashing.
The character driven and patient way to do this is the Full Metal Jacket method – first half getting to know the characters, understanding their backgrounds, strengths, limitations, call to inhumanity, all under the watchful eye of a hostile military – second half, war. In Ayer’s case aping Kubrick might have paid real dividends with his band of grotesques. We might be invested in whether they’d cut and run under fire, or had families to return to, or demented lovers on the outside inclined to liberate them, if we’d seen a collective identity forged under tortuous duress. But such an approach, goes the thinking informing this movie, would have bored audiences. They wanted to see an extended edition of those irreverent trailers. And that, with a fuck you to audiences reared on traditional storytelling values, is what you get.
Ultimately, Suicide Squad doesn’t know what it’s about, who it’s about, or how to pleat its many disparate threads. Buried in the final edit are retrospective attempts at adding levity and distinctiveness to its characters – a line here, a caption there. But much of it is mean spirited action that shorn of nuance or human interest, bores rather than entertains.
In two hours the only moment of intrigue as a strange scene in which an evil witch shows us Harley Quinn’s idyll – a life of dull domesticity with an apparently reformed and conformist Joker, suited and ready for a day at the office. The revelation that Quinn, an anarchist and psychotic, craves a life of sterile homemaking with the man she loves, the snapshot gleaned from the vantage point of her kitchen, is either chauvinist flannel or a wry send up of the type of woman who’s drawn to dangerous men, like those who wrote to Ted Bundy, Peter Sutcliffe and the like, proposing marriage, imagining they could change them for the better. Harley’s a former shrink after all. The best scene in the movie or the worst? That’s the problem with Suicide Squad. Its makers fucked it up so bad it could be either, both.