There’s an old adage that applies to the dilemma DC Comics currently faces. You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.
In the case of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and now “Suicide Squad,” it can be argued that DC and Warner Bros. have pretty skillfully pulled the wool over the eyes of a lot of people. “Batman v Superman’s” marketing material promised a clash of comic-book leviathans, despite the fact that the titular standoff comprises very little screen time in what is essentially a very long throat clearing for Justice League movies to come.
In the case of “Suicide Squad,” Day-Glo posters and pop music-infused trailers touted a wry, fun-filled and thrillingly amoral romp, similar to the fourth-wall breaking hit “Deadpool.” What audiences got instead was a down-beat, rain-drenched “Dirty Dozen” knock-off that was a model of narrative incoherence. Still, the trailers and posters were masterful, and they succeeded in doing what movie marketing is supposed to do — get people through the door. “Suicide Squad” earned a staggering $267 million globally in its first week, the kind of blockbuster result that would have other studios erecting shrines to metahumans. It’s a testament to just how much is riding on “Suicide Squad” that its massive opening is still raising troubling questions.
“The question is will any of these films have staying power?” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “Will these films be remembered in five or ten years?”
The problem is that audiences won’t always be as susceptible to catchy tag lines and infectious teasers. At some point, they’re going to stop showing up for spinoffs and origin stories featuring the various members of the Justice League, unless the movies themselves get a lot better.
Right now, quality control is a nagging problem for DC and, by extension, Warner Bros. The studio has a clear case of Marvel envy. It wants its own interconnected, superhero cinematic universe, and it wants it yesterday. “Batman v Superman” and “Suicide Squad” are part of a sprawling and ambitious initiative intended to launch two comic-book adaptations annually. Next year brings “Justice League” and a Wonder Woman standalone film, and DC and Warner Bros. have already signed up directors for films based on the Flash and Aquaman. To continue drawing crowds, these initial comic-book adventures need to engender enough goodwill so that audiences won’t just turn up to see films featuring heavy hitters such as Batman and Superman. They’ll also be first in line for spinoffs centered on lesser-known characters such as Cyborg and Shazam. After all, the DC films aren’t merely movies, they’re giant corporate happenings, intended to not only spawn sequels, but to also trigger toylines, merchandising tie-ins and theme park rides. Execution is critical.
But both “Suicide Squad” and “Batman v Superman” have suffered devastating critical rebukes, with reviewers branding the films as sloppily made and joyless. The studio is quick to point out that audiences have been kinder. “Batman v Superman” got a B CinemaScore, while “Suicide Squad” performed even better, earning a B+. In the case of “Suicide Squad,” younger crowds, which drive the box office for popcorn fare, were more receptive to the film. Consumers under the age of 18 handed “Suicide Squad” an A rating.
“There’s a major disconnect with what the critics are saying and the audience is seeing,” said Jeff Goldstein, executive vice president of distribution at Warner Bros. “We’re resonating with a younger audience. The younger the audience, the higher the score.”
There are signs, however, that the bad reviews eventually catch up with these movies. “Batman v Superman” plunged nearly 70% in its second weekend, and “Suicide Squad’s” opening appears to be front-loaded. It dropped 41% between Friday and Saturday, a much more precipitous decline than recent superhero hits such as “Captain America: Civil War” or “Deadpool.”
“The fanboys and fangirls propel superhero movies to a great opening weekend with their unbridled enthusiasm,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore. “The question for the longterm, though, is will moviegoers’ opinions align with critics? That’s the most important judge.”
Some people clearly like “Suicide Squad” and despite the bad notices, “Batman v Superman” did end up with nearly $900 million globally. Creatively, however, Warner Bros. does not appear to be satisfied with how these initial films have turned out. The studio has already overhauled DC’s film team. Last spring, the studio elevated two longtime executives, Jon Berg and Geoff Johns, to oversee the Warners’ DC-focused films. Berg is a key ally of Ben Affleck, the Batman star who is also taking a more hands-on approach by executive producing “Justice League.” Affleck is widely admired on the Warners lot for his filmmaking abilities, having nabbed a best picture Oscar for “Argo.” Johns is seen as a keeper of the DC mythology, a comics nerd who was critical to overseeing the brand’s television forays. DC has had more success on the small screen, attracting fans to the likes of “Green Arrow” and “Supergirl.” As part of the shakeup, DC minimized the role of Charles Roven, a producer on “Suicide Squad” and “Batman v Superman,” on future films.
By centralizing power, DC is borrowing a page from Marvel, which employs a host of different directors, but has charged Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige with guiding the creative direction of its film universe. It’s a departure from the studio’s initial approach. The studio enjoys a reputation for being very filmmaker-driven, and the idea was that the DC films would be a less corporatized version of what Marvel achieved with its movies. To that end, the studio tapped filmmakers with strong visions, such as Zack Snyder (“Watchmen”), David Ayer (“Fury”), James Wan (“The Conjuring”) and Patty Jenkins (“Monster”). Now their authority may be curtailed, as it reportedly was with Ayer and “Suicide Squad,” with the studio offering up competing cuts of the film.
“They know they have a long way to go if they want to catch up with Marvel, and they’re rushing things a bit,” said Bock. “These films are coming out half-baked.”
Is it any wonder? If a recent story in the Hollywood Reporter is to be believed (and sources say it is), then the production of “Suicide Squad” was a study in chaos. Ayer slammed a script together in less than two months and mid-way through production Warner executives suddenly decided that the story of a band of super villain mercenaries needed to be funnier. That, in turn, led to expensive additional photography after the film had wrapped. The result was a Frankenstein monster and a stylistic mish-mash that was unlikely to please anyone but the most avid of Harley Quinn loyalists.
Insiders caution that the new DC regime wasn’t in place until “Suicide Squad” was far along in its production. Berg and Johns didn’t have sufficient time to correct the film’s tonal issues and gaping plot holes. Now all eyes turn to next summer’s “Wonder Woman,” which both men will have had far more influence in shaping. That film needs to prove once and for all that DC can make good movies, not just successful ones.