Superhero movies are caught in an identity crisis, with Suicide Squad a case in point. The fate of that $175 million project will shed light on several issues: Do audiences want superhero noir or comic book fun? Do they want it dished up as R-rated badass bawdy or PG-13 sanitized? Some early industry viewers believe Suicide Squad may become a victim of the genre’s bipolar personality, not a triumph of it – a film that may open to mega numbers only to hit that second-week 70% thump experienced by Batman V Superman.
It’s been 27 years since Tim Burton redefined the superhero genre with his Michael Keaton-Jack Nicholson Batman, and 11 years since Christopher Nolan opted to further darken the Dark Knight. So does the genre need a rethink? I realize it’s risky (if not dopey) to get cerebral about comic book movies, but “serious” filmmakers like Nolan and David Ayer have chosen to pour their energies into the genre and, in interviews, to rationalize their creative decisions in an intellectual fog.
Are audiences left entertained or simply confused? Warner Bros arguably confounded the confusion by marketing Suicide Squad with Day-Glo posters featuring frolicking comic book characters. But what audiences will see on the screen is what critic Michael Phillips termed “a headache movie.” All of which raised speculation about the next Warner Bros-DC Comics effusions like Wonder Woman and Justice League. What model will they pursue, and will they suffer if they bill their efforts as more Deadpool than Dark Knight?
Film historians have long chronicled the rise and fall of genres. The Western survived for generations as a star vehicle framed in classical plots. Mel Brooks recognized the need for re-invention in the form of comedy Westerns. I personally handed the novel titled True Grit to John Wayne, thus giving birth to the geriatric Western.
Ticket buyers who have remained faithful to their superheroes may find themselves longing for the more traditional Dirty Dozen genre of action movie – a return to identifiable characters who confront true jeopardy and face off against realistic bad guys. The “good guys” in Suicide Squad are brands, not characters, created to promote corporate product.
Even the heavies in Suicide Squad seem too surreal to represent menace. Ayer, in an interview, argued that “using bad guys to do good things against other bad guys seems very close to the world we’re in today.” Maybe. In his new book Reading The Silver Screen, Thomas C. Foster asserts that “the key to movie magic is to draw us into the world that the film is creating, to convince us of the reality that the film presents.” To which I say to David Ayer, “I’m not persuaded.”
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