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Suicide Squad and the Dangers of Critical Consensus

If the critics are to be believed, David Ayer’s 2016 film Suicide Squad represents one of cinema’s greatest failures in terms of artistic vision and commercial appeal. Its record-breaking opening and its 6.2-out-of-ten rating on IMDB (as of 19 September 2017) notwithstanding, moviegoers’ discourse about the film often mimics the film’s critical reception—a 40 out of 100 on Metacritic and a rather stunning 25% on Rotten Tomatoes. On the latter site’s sampling of critical quotes, we find gems such as the following:

  • “To say that the movie loses the plot would not be strictly accurate, for that would imply that there was a plot to lose.”—Anthony Lane, The New Yorker
  • “This is what happens when the comic book fanboys have taken over the asylum. It is damaged goods from the get-go, the kind of film grown in a petri dish in Hollywood.”— Colin Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune
  • “Sometimes it’s good to be bad. In Suicide Squad‘s case, bad is just plain bad. It gives villainy a bad name.”— Adam Graham, Detroit News
  • Suicide Squad had the potential to be an awesome superhero summer blockbuster, but feels more like a rushed unification of underwhelming action, a disappointing story, and stale character development.”—Chris Sawin, com
  • “Taken from a popular DC comic series… helmed by a star quality director… peppered with a highly skilled, all-star cast … What could go wrong? Nearly everything.”—Leonard Maltin, Leonard Maltin’s Picks (All quotes taken from “Suicide Squad (2016), com)

To be sure, some of this criticism is warranted. When graded on the scale of truly great films to truly awful ones—say, Citizen Kane to The Room, or Casablanca to The Castle of Fu Manchu—Ayer’s movie falls squarely in the mediocre range. If we grade it on a sliding scale in which summer popcorn entertainment gets more of a pass for “not pretending to be any more than what it is,” the film scores a bit higher. Entertainment Weekly’s grade of B- (well above average, far from perfect) seems fairer than, say, Maltin’s claim that nearly everything goes wrong. Many things in the film go right, especially for its comics-fan target audience. Having read John Ostrander’s run on the comics title in the late 80s and early 90s, I felt more excited for this movie than I did for any other summer movie this year, even the superior Captain America: Civil War and the Ghostbusters reboot. This pre-fab investment in the film biases me; I probably came more prepared to like the movie more than the general audience or younger comics fans who have had less time to pine for an adaptation. It should therefore come as no surprise that I enjoyed Suicide Squad.

That does not mean that I am blind to its flaws, of which there are many. Nor am I taking issue with thoughtful critics who provide strong reasoning and textual evidence in their negative reviews. Honest, robust, and passionate criticism is essential to art and entertainment.

I admit to wishing, though, that so much of published criticism didn’t seem petty and mean-spirited, as if some critics are looking for any excuse to excoriate an artist’s work in snappy soundbites aimed more at entertaining than in improving the substance of the art. I am, in fact, unsure of how such criticism, masturbatory and self-important as it seems, differs from the very audience-baiting, cash-grab cynicism that these same critics often bemoan. An article written by Eve Peyser for Gizmodo is titled, “Suicide Squad Sets Box Office Record Because We Don’t Deserve Better Movies.” The only criticism of the film in this short post consists of linking to a Deadspin article about the movie and a claim that Suicide Squad is a “deeply mediocre film” (Peyser par. 2) Fair enough, but I would have been much more interested in reading Ms. Peyser’s thoughtful critique of the movie, rather than a simple statement that she hated it and that others probably did, too. Her thesis, as noted in the title, seems to be that we are to blame for bad movies because we keep paying to see them. That is an idea worth exploring, though to do so, we need to establish a commonly accepted definition of “bad movie” and prove that Suicide Squad fits the definition. Such an essay would require more time and space than was devoted to Peyser’s short post, but it would have been a much more interesting and substantive addition to our discourse about the film, its quality or lack thereof, and what our gravitating to it says about us.

To be clear, I am not taking issue with Peyser’s post, which also doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is—a short opinion piece making a provocative statement in order to increase site traffic and generate discussion about a major pop culture moment. What distresses me about American discourse on art and popular culture is that whenever critics overwhelmingly love or hate a film and then phrase their admiration or displeasure in language that is less than measured or thoughtful, their opinions take on the power of fact through sheer force. In simpler terms, once enough critics have passionately declared that Suicide Squad is bad, their opinions become our discourse. We all talk about the film as if it is factually bad to the extent that many fans and writers feel no need to justify their opinion—this in spite of the actual facts that critical consensus often changes over time and that one person’s waste of talent and budget is another person’s fun, thought-provoking entertainment.

The Big Lebowski was a critical and box office bomb, but it has since become a beloved touchstone for its own subculture, and not in the ironic, we’re-in-on-the-joke way that Plan 9 from Outer Space or The Room has become a cult favorite. Citizen Kane, often called the greatest film ever made, received mixed critical reviews upon its release. Conversely, Oscar winners like The English Patient and Crash have lost both critical and popular momentum over time. Donnie Darko has become a cult classic, even though it did woeful box office and puzzled many critics. Often, it is only with time and consideration that we can recognize a formerly overlooked classic or a work we initially rated too highly.

This phenomenon is not limited to cinema. Moby-Dick was a failure it its day and is now considered one of the great American novels. The most popular poets of the American nineteenth century have given way to Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. John Donne has gone in and out of style over the centuries. In spite of all this, we—both professional critics and audience members—often speak about a film as if its fate has been decided definitively, for all time. And for every thoughtful critic like a Leonard Maltin or Peter Travers or Lisa Schwarzbaum, there are a thousand trolls filling comments sections and Twitter feeds with recycled criticism and pure human ugliness instead of original thought.

For those who believe that Suicide Squad is flawed or just plain awful, all I ask is that you show your work. I ask the same of the film’s defenders. I ask that we wait until we experience a text for ourselves before we decide with whom we agree. And for the love of all that’s good and true, let us leave behind the flame wars and the name-calling and just talk to each other.

I’ll start. I’ve said that I enjoyed the movie as a biased comics fan, though I am not blind to its flaws. I loved the performances by Viola Davis, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Will Smith, and Jay Hernandez. Jai Courtney disappeared into his role of Captain Boomerang. I found the characterizations and development of Harley Quinn, El Diablo, and Deadshot to be intriguing and fun. The movie had the best soundtrack you could ask for, and many of the visual effects were strong. I appreciate Ayer’s decision to scrap King Shark for Killer Croc, a character who could be rendered by a living actor and makeup. And what we saw of Leto’s Joker whetted my appetite for more.

As for some flaws, here, in what I hope is conciliatory and thoughtful language, are some problems I had the picture. These points contain spoilers, so if you have not seen the film, beware.

  • Other than the aforementioned Harley, Diablo, and Deadshot, most of the major characters were underdeveloped. Much of this problem can likely be attributed to having so many major players in one film—eight or nine Squad members, plus Rick Flag’s SEAL team, plus Amanda Waller and her flunkies, plus various military personnel and prison guards, plus the Joker and his henchmen. That’s a bunch, folks. This leads to several other problems, noted below.
  • One major plot point we’re supposed to buy is that Rick Flag is in love with June Moone, a.k.a. the Enchantress, and his love for her is what keeps him under Waller’s thumb. However, we don’t see that love develop on screen, and the characters share so little screen time together that it’s tough to buy even after the fact. Ayer chooses to address this point by having Waller say, “We put the two of them together, and they fell in love just like we hoped, and now I own Flag.” The logic behind this plan makes no sense, and we are given nothing on which to base an investment in this relationship, even though many of the film’s attempts to connect with the audience’s emotions hinge on said investment.
  • Speaking of Waller, those unfamiliar with the comics will likely find her to be, as Deadshot describes her, a gangsta, but as for her methods and motivation, we don’t have a clue. We know she’s worried about the threat of metahumans—that the “next Superman” will be a villain—but we have no idea why she believes that only other villains can fight such a threat. Perhaps we’re supposed to infer that she believes only bad guys can be controlled, but if so, this film’s plot pretty much scraps that notion, since the antagonist comes straight from the team itself. In fact, as the credits’ Easter Egg shows, she already had files on heroes—files that she gives to Bruce Wayne. If she knew of trustworthy good guys, why depend so much on bad ones that you have to threaten and bribe? Why couldn’t she try to form the Justice League, other than the fact that such an act would ruin the plot of the upcoming film?
  • Killer Croc is given almost nothing to do until the end of the film and has no scenes that would require an actor of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s caliber. He is unrecognizable under the makeup. Croc’s lack of both development and necessity makes the waste of a good actor almost as awful as what the film does with Adam Beach. It’s fine to kill a character to establish that, yes, the neck bombs keeping the Squad in line are real, and Waller or Flag are willing to use them. But why bother with hiring such a strong actor to do so little?
  • Katana is criminally underdeveloped, which makes her big emotional scene fall flat. It’s hard to care about the fate of a character we have spent no time with and know very little about.
  • Why does Deadshot almost never wear his trademark helmet and glowing eyepiece—except that it would rob us seeing Will Smith’s face?
  • Much has been made of how the lead-up to the movie spent so much time on the Joker and Leto’s method-acting craziness, only to give us very little of what was shot. Even Leto has spoken out against how much of his performance ended up on the cutting room floor. I would not want to see the Joker overshadow the main storyline, but it seems unfair to both fans and Leto to give us so little footage, most of which is only marginally connected to the plot.
  • Speaking of the plot, there are holes. Waller and Flag talk about how fighting the Enchantress’s transformed lackeys is useless, but then the Squad fights them and takes them out handily. What was Waller and Flag’s conversation based on, and why were they so wrong, and how did they feel about it? Why did June Moone bring forth the Enchantress in that hotel room, which allowed the villain to escape? Why does it take the Enchantress days to build her machine, and how is destroying military hardware the same thing as destroying all humanity? How does an ancient witch know how to make an intricate machine, anyway? Why didn’t Waller just have her retrieve all the secret information from every country instead of just Iran’s, and what were the generals going to do with that information? Why wasn’t the Enchantress’s big bad brother released at the same time she was? Flag kills the Enchantress by crushing her heart; why didn’t Waller do that in the first place, especially after just poking holes in it didn’t work? Why does Killer Croc never seem to get rattled? Why does finding out that Flag hid letters from his daughter cause Deadshot to complete the mission instead of just, you know, shooting Flag in the head? And so forth and so on.
  • Sound editing—when the Enchantress is speaking English in the final scenes, I could barely understand a word she said. Since these are the climactic scenes, it seems kind of important.
  • Many critics have said that the movie becomes too conventional in the last two acts. I think part of what they mean is that these unrepentant, scum-of-the-Earth bad guys start acting like good guys and doing good-guy stuff. The Captain Boomerang of the comics would never have come back to the team after being given an out; Jai Courtney’s character does, with no real explanation except that he’s apparently been affected by team spirit, the sense of which is then undercut when we learn that he is serving three consecutive life sentences and is therefore unlikely to get any benefits from his work. (For that matter, his trick boomerangs are so underused here that the audience might be forgiven for thinking they are ordinary.) Deadshot, Diablo, Harley, and even Captain Boomerang seem to form genuine bonds and become invested in each other’s fates, just as good guys would, even though they constantly talk about how awful they are. Complications and complexities are fine, even necessary and desirable, but you probably shouldn’t talk constantly about how you’re a vicious killer without a conscience and then undercut that concept with your every act. It would have been better if the Squad had continued as an anti-team, one that worked together out of mutual selfishness instead of an increasing sense of duty to each other. In the absence of that, what separates them from the Justice League, other than their criminal pasts?
  • We are never really certain about the nature of the Enchantress’s henchmen—what they can do, why they look the way they do, what purpose they serve other than distraction.
  • Why does the Joker look like a pimp?

Again, if you’re a comics fan, you might overlook some of these flaws. You know about Waller’s motivation and personality, and so when the film doesn’t show us, you can fill in the blanks yourself. As a stand-alone movie, though, Suicide Squad should have done better than that, especially since so many of the characters and events have been altered.

Given all of that, I can understand why many critics and viewers found the film to be mediocre or worse. And if you overlook the film’s flaws because all you want from it is to turn off your brain and go along for the ride, well, fine. What we should not do is let an apparent critical consensus at one moment in time take on the characteristics of fact, so that we ignore why a film might be good or bad and simply yell at each other about how good/bad it is. We cannot let unsupported statements of opinion stand in for substantive criticism. To do so teaches us nothing about the text or ourselves; it only widens the divide between camps, until, like the Suicide Squad itself often does, we turn our slings and arrows inward and leave each other bloody and battered but not enlightened.

Works Cited

Peyser, Eve. “Suicide Squad Sets Box Office Record Because We Don’t Deserve Better Movies.” Gizmodo.com, Gizmodo Media Group, 7 August 2016. http://io9.gizmodo.com/suicide-squad-sets-box-office-record-because-we-dont-de-1784950994. Accessed 28 November 2016.

Suicide Squad (2016).” IMDB.com, IMDB, 2016, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1386697/. Accessed 28 November 2016.

Suicide Squad (2016).” RottenTomatoes.com, Fandango, 2016, https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/suicide_squad_2016/. Accessed 28 November 2016.