Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
FLEMING: I will be the first to admit that I like a lot of movies and that I can find good things in even flawed films. So I’m going to make the startling admission that I might be the only journalist who liked Suicide Squad. Therefore, I am glad that after the critical pile-on that occurred, the movie still went out and crushed records and comes out a solid first entry in what could turn into a fun franchise for Warner Bros. I saw that film a few weeks ago and found it highly entertaining with strong performances particularly by Will Smith as the bad guy corps’ conscience, Margot Robbie as the psycho siren, Jared Leto as a Joker who seemed less clowny to me than Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger and actually seemed more of a human psycho villain and Viola Davis as the ruthless bureaucrat who brings them to heel.
The dark setting, the establishment of the mythology of each character and all the anarchy, it was a lot of reckless fun. I couldn’t have anticipated the critical beating that the film received immediately. It felt like once that narrative was established, a mass of critics went in feeling like they were supposed to dislike the film and maybe it fell to them to explore why, rather than grading it as escapist summer fare. I wouldn’t want to be a critic in this age; unless you take a position on Renee Zellweger’s facial reconfiguration like Variety’s Owen Gleiberman did recently that got him taken to the woodshed, nobody cares what you have to say; you are simply a drop of juice in establishing the Rotten Tomatoes pulpy critical consensus of positive or negative reviews that is fast becoming the only currency critics have anymore, especially with summer films. But DC and Warner Bros hasn’t done a good job, either, in pressing the case for the differences between its films versus the Marvel hit factory.
One very smart filmmaker who holds weight with me and has observed the attempt to crush Suicide Squad brought up a point worth considering: Say what you will about that film, but David Ayer will be the first to tell you that it reflects his vision. Same with Zack Snyder on Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. That is a difference from the Marvel movies. The auteur there is Kevin Feige, and who can argue with the results? Directors accept that and make the movie that Marvel wants them to. It has worked, time after time. That allows them to try new filmmakers like Jon Watts to take over the Spider-Man franchise even though his best known film, Cop Car, came out of Sundance last year and grossed a grand total of $128,000. When directors don’t match the Marvel vision, they don’t get very far. That was the case with Patty Jenkins, who directed Charlize Theron to an Oscar for her serial-killer turn in the indie Monster. She was signed for Thor 2 and abruptly dropped over “creative differences.” Meanwhile, the footage she showed from her upcoming DC film Wonder Woman was among the best received of any superhero stuff presented by either DC or Marvel. Warner Bros is empowering their directors more; and from Tim Burton to Christopher Nolan, there is a history of auteurs driving the DC train. Warner Bros did a superb job marketing Suicide Squad, but they haven’t really pressed that auteur narrative nearly as well. Ayer is an auteur, and whatever creative clashing went on to achieve the finished product, a guy who made police procedurals and the existential WWII tank movie Fury scored the biggest hit of his career with IP that had no pre-awareness before this film arrived.
BART: I don’t believe critics feel that they are “supposed” to dislike a superhero film or a summer tentpole. Nor do I believe major critics hope to influence box office. That’s not why they are became critics. On the other hand, “name” writers like yourself who work for important media outlets see these franchise films amid a whirlwind of hype — interviews with directors and stars, glitzy premieres, etc. It’s one thing to see a movie in a regular theater with a popcorn-eating paid audience and another to see it with an audience that is primed for adulation.
I don’t blame you for “liking” movies. I like seeing movies, too. It’s just sometimes I think we’re seeing different movies. Reviewing movies like Suicide Squad frustrates the major critics because they realize their critiques are irrelevant. Hence, if I were a critic (gratefully I am not), I would rate their corporate managers rather than the filmmakers. After all, these are corporate products first and foremost: They are intended as franchises, not films. As such I wouldn’t waste my time calling Suicide Squad “ugly trash” (Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal) or “a concept in search of a story” (Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times). Instead I would grade them against these criteria: Were production and post-production costs excessive? Were marketing allocations cost-effective? Is the campaign pitched too much toward comedy, not comic book action? Were studio planners too greedy in simultaneously pitching so many new characters for future franchises? Finally, were the release schedules too rigid not only for Suicide Squad but also for all the successor films under the DC portfolio?
In short, is the superhero business being managed effectively? I would assign mixed grades for Suicide Squad on these criteria. Corporate products that require grosses north of $600 million for break-even reflect a degree of management desperation, especially since most of the DC projects are new brands, not established franchises. The initial budget of Suicide Squad was well more than double that of Deadpool. According to reports, postproduction costs also surpassed expectations for two reasons. First, management delivered mixed signals on the final edit, especially in terms of the balance between action and comedy. Secondly, Ayer and his colleagues were, in Hollywood argot, “shooting a release date.” In the superhero business, there’s rarely much “give” on dates, irrespective of the complex technologies involved.
Suicide Squad reflects the professionalism of its production team. However, the management at Warner Bros seemed to exhibit their relative inexperience at this arcane and risky management exercise. The upshot: big numbers but maybe still a near miss.
FLEMING: A high-level production exec at another studio observed this Suicide Squad pile-on and made an interesting point. You guys, he said, are attacking all these summer tentpoles, oblivious to the fact of how inconsequential you are in films that were constructed to play globally and make three-quarters of their grosses in countries where the audiences want to be entertained and don’t really care what reviewers here think. He wasn’t being nasty, but it was a bit humbling to consider. That global construct is why these movies have to cost what they cost, and Peter, you comparing Suicide Squad’s budget to Deadpool is ridiculous. That film took forever to get made because nobody knew what they had there. It was a guilty pleasure at most, which is why Fox took forever to greenlight it. Its giant gross was a surprise to everybody. If Warner Bros hadn’t spent the money it did on Suicide Squad, with its VFX-heavy action scenes and finale, the film would have been dismissed in territories around the world where they prize that sort of thing.
I guess if you get into this superhero business you have to consider that with rare exceptions that include Deadpool and Chris Nolan’s Bat trilogy, you won’t win with critics unless you’re Marvel. But you most certainly can win as a business proposition, and that’s why you make superhero films. Batman V Superman cost $250 million and grossed $872 million worldwide, and Suicide Squad has grossed $265 million on a $170 million budget, and there is every indication it will climb to a comparable WW gross. Despite critics hating both films, Warner Bros has solidly set the groundwork for its superhero rollout, and if you looked at its director lineup at Comic-Con, you’d see they will be the first to have films directed by a woman (Jenkins’ Wonder Woman), African American (Rick Famuyiwa on 2018’s The Flash), and Asian (James Wan’s Aquaman). And then they have Ben Affleck, who directed Warner Bros’ Best Picture winner Argo, doing the next iteration of the Dark Knight series. These directors are being given a lot of latitude, much like Ayer was. The template is a messy universe where most of the action takes place at night, as opposed to the air freshened environs of the Marvel movies. It is very possible that all of these factors will lead to a day when it will become fashionable to laud the DC universe, and then the press narrative will change. Just watch.
BART: The major studios are more interested in creating “brands” than movies, so it’s interesting to follow signs of fan resentment encountered by the biggest of all brands: Harry Potter. Self-described Potterheads are protesting online that the latest iteration of the franchise, a book titled Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, wasn’t written by J.K. Rowling but by someone named Jack Thorne. Rowling’s name is featured prominently on the cover, though. “I frankly feel disgusted adding it to my collection,” reads a typical complaint.
So can a superstar writer get away with licensing out her name? The publisher, Scholastic, is laughing all the way to the bank. Its first printing released this week is 4.5 million copies. It sold 2 million hardcover copies in its first 48 hours, according to The New York Times. The biggest Harry Potter book sales were for the seventh book, which sold 8.3 million copies in its first 24 hours in 2007. But the new book isn’t even a novel. It’s basically a playscript “with input from Rowling” about an adult Harry Potter who sees his own children off to Hogwarts. The play itself opened in London to excellent reviews.
FLEMING: I’m not sure I see what the problem is here. People are snapping up a book, which is basically a play that Thorne wrote to continue the Potter story line while Rowling is busy continuing her Potter universe with the Eddie Redmayne starrer Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a spinoff crafted by the author herself that brings Potter director David Yates back to the mix. So Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is different than when deceased authors’ estates assign writers to continue storylines of beloved characters. This is has worked very well with the works of Robert B Parker, Robert Ludlum, Ian Fleming, Tom Clancy and others, but Thorne’s work seems more original, and I’m not sure why the Potterheads you describe are whining.
BART: The Rowling franchise shows signs of immortality, and Hollywood’s mouth is watering. That’s putting it mildly. NBC Universal this week laid down as much as $250 million for the TV rights on Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts – the biggest movie acquisition in the company’s history. The deal covers use of the Potterhead material in theme parks as well as on all of the NBC Universal networks.
FLEMING: We just went through a whole rant about the difficulty in creating globally branded IP, as Warner Bros is struggling to do with superheroes. The idea is you do the R&D and then you exploit the results through all your corporate portals, just the way that Universal did most recently with the Despicable Me films and The Minions. How short-sighted is it that Warner Bros creates a Potter franchise you describe as having immortal appeal, and then they sell it to a rival so that rival can prop up its own TV networks and theme parks? Maybe that cash looks good in the next quarterly earnings report, but shouldn’t Warner Bros have hung on to those rights and exploited them to fuel its own growth in those areas? Bob Iger would be spinning in his grave, if he wasn’t alive and kicking, and making much smarter use of Disney’s assets.