The endless slate of comic book movies…
In the last three years, Marvel have released 10 films and DC Comics have released 3. These are just the big players and they’re not going away. Marvel have a solid slate with 10 more films coming out by 2019. DC, a touch behind and trying to catch up, have 8 more coming out by 2020.
When Warner Bros. released the first trailer for Suicide Squad at the beginning of this year, I saw it on YouTube and decided I wouldn’t pay to see it. With a total of 18 comic book based films coming out over the next 4 years, I decided enough was enough.
Now don’t get me wrong. It’s not because I don’t like comics or comic based films. I love them, but more often than not, I come out disappointed.
There’ve been too many times I’ve left the theatre wishing I hadn’t spent my hard earned money to see the movie. I walked out of Batman v Superman kicking myself, ready to poke my eyeballs out.
Judging from the Suicide Squad trailers and Warner Bros aggressive marketing strategy I got a feeling the film would fail, not monetarily but in the one way that really matters.
When the film came out, the movie took a beating from critics. The film currently has a 26% approval rating from critics on rottentomatoes.com.
Then something interesting happened. Opinion of Suicide Squad from both film critics and audiences started to synchronise. Both camps raged about sloppy editing, a messy, incoherent plot, lack of story content and shallow characters.
Critics and audiences don’t normally agree to this level or cite the same issues with a movie. Both camps were in agreement on why Suicide Squad fails to engage viewers. 4 out of 5 of my friends despised the film, even the die-hard comic book fans, which was a shock.
The Suicide Squad controversy
David Ayer, the director of the film, fought back against the criticism.
Prefiero morir de pie que vivir de rodillas – Emiliano Zapata
— David Ayer (@DavidAyerMovies) August 2, 2016
Zapata quote is my way of saying I love the movie and believe in it. Made it for the fans. Best experience of my life.
— David Ayer (@DavidAyerMovies) August 2, 2016
Shortly afterwards, the actors came out expressing similar sentiments. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Joel Kinnaman stated his frustrations.
“Of course you want critical acclaim, of course, but what matters is what the fans think. We’re really proud of this film, we loved making it, everybody on the film has become really close friends and this is like a work of love and I hope the fans like it.”
Jay Hernandez expressed his disappointment in the negative reaction to the film.
“I think it sucks — obviously, we worked hard and tried to give the fans what they wanted.”
As the film continued to take a savage critical beatdown, reports hit the web on how David Ayer was only given 6 weeks to write the screenplay and then pushed into production. The film’s mediocre performance was blamed on the lack of time to prepare and David Ayer’s inexperience with tentpole pictures.
I ended up feeling a little sorry for him. Making a film of this kind is hard work. If the stories are true, I gotta give David Ayer two thumbs up for even trying under such circumstances.
Then there was the controversial letter from a former employee of Warner Bros. Studios. In the letter, she expressed her outrage at the movie. She compared making films with making donuts and accused CEO Kevin Tsujihara of disastrous business decisions. Decisions that resulted in the 10% downsizing of the legendary studio.
It's time to wake up and make the f*cking donuts, Kevin. #suicidesquad #gracielaw Click To Tweet
“If I worked at a donut stand, and I kept f*cking up donuts, I’d be fired. Even if I made a tiny decent one every now and then, it doesn’t matter. I’m gonna get fired. I love that studio, and you’re allowing it to sink. It’s not about making movies for ‘the fans’ and not ‘the critics.’ It’s not even about ‘ruining childhoods.’ It’s about protecting livelihoods. It’s time to wake up and make the f*cking donuts, Kevin.”
The sh*tstorm was fascinating. So fascinating, I changed my mind. I wanted to see Suicide Squad for what it really was. I decided when I could get my hands on a copy of Suicide Squad, I’d pop the DVD in my player, and see what the fuss was about.
Suicide Squad plays like an early draft
Critics and audiences alike have complained about the editing of Suicide Squad, but I think it’s more to do with the screenwriting than the actual editing of footage captured. You can’t edit what you don’t capture with a camera.
You can capture footage willy-nilly, but on a film of this magnitude (175 million USD), sets, special effects, actors, cameramen, electricians, sound recordists, mixers and thousands of other people need to be prepared.
Scenes need to be written down or storyboarded so they can be budgeted before all the other movie magic happens.
There needs to be some form of preparation. Usually on a film of this size, improvisation during shooting is minimal to stop the budget from spiralling out of control.
Incoherent story? Endless exposition? From the look of it, the reports about poor David Ayer’s 6 week script preparation time are true.
I had to turn off Suicide Squad after 40 minutes.
I had to turn off Suicide Squad after 40 minutes. #suicidesquad #fail Click To Tweet
I couldn’t handle it anymore. My wife was screaming at the screen, dismissing the film as “stupid” and “all over the place.” 10 minutes in, she blurted “I’ve lost interest, please turn it off!”
When I see a hot mess like this, I can’t engage. Because I’m not caught up in the story, my mind wanders. I ask why the movie doesn’t work. What can I learn?
If you’re a screenwriter, this is a fascinating disaster and a great piece for analysis. So many of the basic principles of screenwriting are ignored.
I’m not a guru and know many who are better screenwriters than myself, however, I’m confident you only need to watch the first act of this film to see why Suicide Squad fails to engage.
To die-hard fans of the film, no offence, but the general consensus IS that the movie sucks.
Below are some textbook reasons why this movie didn’t work for audiences — simply from watching the first 40 minutes.
The inciting incident is way too late
The inciting incident is the first major event of any story. It’s the big moment that upsets the balance of life for the main character or characters. It’s the reason why the story happens and is almost always in the trailers.
In Jaws, a killer shark rips a girl to pieces.
In Kramer vs Kramer, Dustin Hoffman’s wife announces her intention to divorce him, walks out the door leaving him to raise his son by himself.
In Toy Story, Woody the Cowboy’s position as “favourite toy” is threatened when Andy, his owner, is gifted with a Buzz Lightyear.
In District 9, Vikus is infected with an alien serum.
In The Dark Knight, the Joker robs a Gotham bank loaded with mobster money, which sets all of Gotham’s gangs against our hero, Batman.
In Armageddon, astronomists catch a monstrous asteroid heading towards Earth.
With each of these inciting incidents, they happen as close to the beginning of the movie as the story allows. They’re powerful and dramatic. They demand immediate action from the protagonists of each story.
With Jaws, Chief Brody must stop the beaches from opening so more people don’t get eaten by the killer shark.
Kramer vs Kramer sees Dustin Hoffman needing to look after his son for the first time with no idea how to be a father.
Armageddon is self-explanatory.
In Suicide Squad, the Enchantress (a demonic witch) and her brother ruminate over the nasty things they’re going to do to the city about half an hour into the movie. And it’s not for another 5 minutes before they actually do anything. To have the bad guys planning their evil little deeds is great dramatic irony, but geez, the movie’s kept the audience waiting forever!
This inciting incident in principle is way, way too late. If the attack had happened at the beginning of the film, it would have created an urgency in the audience to see the team formed.
This inciting incident in principle is way, way too late. #suicidesquad #fail Click To Tweet
It would also give a logical reason as to why the nasty intelligence officer Amanda Waller, wants to form the Suicide Squad.
The Waller character cites incidents from Batman v Superman as the reason for the forming of the team. However, when dramatic events are spoken about and not shown, audiences are going to have an awful time trying to engage.
LESSON: The inciting incident must happen on screen and as close to the beginning of the story as possible to build emotional engagement with the audience.
Unclear focal characters
The two biggest stars of this show are clearly Will Smith and Margot Robbie. They’re in all the trailers. Their names are at the top of the posters. They were the leads on all the talk shows promoting the movie. Of all the actors in this film, they also command the biggest quotes.
Suicide Squad starts with a minute and a half focused on Will Smith and another minute and a half focused on Margot Robbie before it becomes…Waller’s story.
For the next 20 minutes, the story is told from her point of view. Via voiceover she divulges the details of each member of the team she wants to put together to her fellow agents.
Within this 20 minutes, the people who we thought were going to be the “heroes” of the story aren’t driving the story.
They’re being talked about by Waller. Waller is the one with a goal. She’s pitching her idea of the Suicide Squad to get buy-in from the powers that be.
So who are we meant to connect with? Will Smith? Margot Robbie? Viola Davis? Diablo the flame man? Killer Croc? Kinnaman?
People complained about the editing being messy, but when you spend 175 million USD to shoot a sloppy early draft, no amount of editing in the post-production phase is going to fix your movie.
LESSON: The lack of clarity on who the focal characters are makes it difficult for any deeper emotional engagement between the characters and audience to grow. We need to see the focal character(s) taking action, trying to achieve their goals. Which leads to —
Exposition, exposition, exposition
The first 20 mins, has Waller sitting at a table in a fancy restaurant explaining who the Suicide Squad are. “Deadshot is an expert marksman — Harley Quinn is a psycho — Diablo shoots flames out of his body — Killer Croc is a croc man.”
Again, we have no one to connect with. The movie doesn’t show characters in action, trying to achieve goals. Strangely, the only character trying to achieve a goal is Waller. She’s trying to win a pitch. It’s the kind of corporate meeting I fall asleep in.
Through Waller, the movie tells us who the Suicide Squad are, but doesn’t show them in action. This is the weakest way to get an audience involved in the story because when all you do is tell, there’s no conflict.
When there’s no conflict, there’s no drama. And when there’s no drama? Audiences get bored.
When there’s no conflict, there’s no drama. Audiences get bored. #suicidesquad Click To Tweet
Even in this first 20 minutes nobody stops Waller to point out the absurdity of the entire concept (which could have resulted in even a little bit of much needed drama).
LESSON: Don’t TELL your audience what your characters are doing. Put your audience in the point of view of the characters, then SHOW them doing it. The audience will get involved if you show them chasing down their goals and succeeding or failing.
The concept makes no sense!
Waller cites the incidents of Batman v Superman as the reason for putting the Suicide Squad together.
The question posed — “What if another Superman pops up and tries to kill the President? We need a special task force to fight this evil Superman.” It makes sense to form a team of talented criminals with superpowers to fight another superpowered being.
The issue is, most of the team doesn’t have superpowers.
Will Smith’s character is a super-duper sharp shooter. He can’t fly or shoot laser beams from his eyes. Margot Robbie is a sexy psycho. No super powers there. Captain Boomerang is good — at throwing boomerangs. Killer Croc has severe dermatitis.
The only guy on the team who has anything that can be remotely construed as a superpower is Diablo.
A single dropkick from Superman would have killed all these guys. The concept MAKES ZERO SENSE.
LESSON: Your concept needs to be logically watertight for audiences to suspend their disbelief and get caught up in your ride.
This hilarious video below points out the absurdity of Suicide Squad.
The villain is LAMEThe villain is LAME. #suicidesquad #fail Click To Tweet
For a film of this kind to be successful, a powerful, smart, scheming, motivated antagonist is the key.
This villain needs to have a plan. This villain needs to actively carry out their plan. And that plan needs to come into conflict with the goals and desires of our protagonists, in this case, the Suicide Squad.
Conflict is drama.
With many action-adventure stories, the villain’s action at the beginning of the story is also the inciting incident.
In Suicide Squad, the villain doesn’t turn up until around 40 mins into the movie. Because the villain turns up late, the audience has been waiting 40 minutes for something interesting to happen.
This is 40 painful minutes with zero drama, zero conflict, zero excitement and zero intrigue. 40 minutes of “this is the sharp shooter guy. This is the psycho. This is the flame guy. This is the croc guy.”
When I think about great films in this genre I think of the ones with great villains.
Joker from The Dark Knight. Syndrome from The Incredibles. Agent Smith from The Matrix. Hans Gruber from Die Hard. Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs. Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. Even Blofeld from earlier James Bond pictures.
All these villains were smart, had plans and took action to meet their personal objectives. Two days after seeing Suicide Squad, I can’t remember the name of the demon witch’s generic CGI demon brother. Just another run-of-the-mill, lame-ass baddie with empty motivations.
LESSON: For a story to be engaging, villains need to be smart. They need to be just as smart, if not smarter than the heroes to pose the question — will our heroes save the day? Will they be able to stop this seemingly unstoppable force? This is the tension the audience have paid to see!Suicide Squad fails to engage. #suicidesquad #fail Click To Tweet
Suicide Squad fails to engage. It was so boring 40 minutes in, I had to turn the movie off.
Are you a fan of comic book films? A fan of the Marvel or DC movie universes? Did you love or hate Suicide Squad?
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