Suicide Squad released this week to a savaging from the critical establishment. As a result, many of those involved with the film have moved to defend the movie in the press. Director David Ayer responded to the negative reviews with a quote from Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata – “I’d prefer to die on my feet than live on my knees” – seemingly suggesting that his film is a work of daring risk that critics simply don’t understand. He further clarified in a later tweet that the quote was his way of saying “I love the movie and believe in it. I made it for the fans.” One of the stars of the film, Cara Delevingne shares Ayers sentiments telling Reuters that “It doesn’t matter what critics say at the end of the day, it’s the fans we made the movie for”, adding that she believes critics “don’t like superhero movies”. She is massively wrong of course; The Dark Knight and Captain America: Civil War, to give two examples, are “certified fresh” by the same critical establishment that hates Suicide Squad. These sorts of comments work to try and create a disconnect between critics and filmgoers, which I believe is toxic and negative to the industry as a whole.
This is because every film ever made, whether Ayer and Delevingne like it or not, is made for the critics. In a perfect world, everyone would see a film and then make up their minds as to whether the picture is good or bad; and this should still be the case, no-one should take a critics opinion as verbatim. But in our imperfect world, it is impossible to see every film released each week and thus there is an opportunity cost to visiting the cinema. When faced with limited resources, in investing both time and money to see a specific film you therefore lose the opportunity to go see another film. In other words, if someone only has the free time to see one film a week it’s worth ensuring they see a film they will enjoy. This is why critical material is so important both to a consumer, and to the industry. A critic can, and most often will, see every film released each week; they can make an opinion based on the film text itself, as well as a comparative opinion with the other films in cinemas at any given time. To me, the point of film criticism is to find a couple of critics who share your general politics and taste in cinema (mine is Wittertainment) and use them as your metric to help spend the “opportunity cost” of your cinema trip that week. The team behind Suicide Squad are trying to dismiss this process, but in doing so are ignoring the inherent value of it at a consumer level.
Another reason to find these comments negative is it reeks of deflection. When faced with negative press the smart thing to do is ignore it, spend some time away from the spotlight and wait for it to blow over. Obviously a film director or star can’t admit to making a bad film whilst in the middle of a press tour, but this doesn’t mean they have to deliberately foster a mistrust of the critical establishment. It’s very clear that Warner Brothers have a massive amount of money riding on the film. Recent reports claim that the film needs a worldwide gross of around $800 million to break even, an incredible amount of money even before you factor in the film not getting released in China, the worlds second biggest movie market; to put this into context Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice grossed $870 million world wide even with a Chinese release. If you were an executive at Warner Brothers you’d be shitting yourself over the release of Suicide Squad, and would therefore do anything to discredit a negative critical reception that may harm box office gross. Those involved with the movie want to fashion some grand narrative that critics are out of touch with audiences, but really this is a smokescreen to hide their discrediting of critics as to protect profit margins.
The final issue I have with Ayer and Delevingne’s comments are they are blatantly disrespectful to the fans and paying audience of this movie. If you really wanted to respect the DC fanbase, instead of making a fun but flawed movie shouldn’t you make a film that is unquestionably good? I am firmly in the target audience of this movie given that I’m a twenty something male who loves films and collects Batman stuff; I have shelves full of collectibles, including the limited editions of the Nolan movies, and a specific love of anything Joker/Harley related. This film was made for people like me. Yet when I saw Suicide Squad I just thought it was alright, not as awful as BvS but certainly flawed. Don’t get me wrong there’s things to like in the text, specifically Viola Davis and the first good, charismatic Will Smith performance in years. But it has so many glaring technical flaws that you can’t ignore them. The editing is abysmal, it tries too hard to be stylistic and edgy but just makes the film discordant and hard to follow. But more than that, it fails entirely to meet the expectations I had of the film as a fan of the source material. A film like Suicide Squad you would expect to have a darkness to it tonally, or at least be darkly comic. Instead the audience is given a by-the-book, generic superhero film. Instead of building a darkness into the narrative or character progression, the film forces darkness through cinematography and costume design. Honestly the way the film is shot might be the worst part of Suicide Squad for me. It’s like watching the entire film through an instagram filter that makes the whole image look underdeveloped and underlit; just because your movie looks dark, it doesn’t make it dark in tone. Similar short cuts are taken with character design, in particular The Joker. We’re supposed to buy into the fact that this incarnation of the character is the darkest ever presented on screen but this is never developed in a narrative sense. Writing damaged on Jared Leto’s forehead is not a short cut to actually making an interesting character! If the Suicide Squad wants me to approach this from a specifically fanboy, rather than critical, position I’d even go as far to argue that the film fundamentally doesn’t understand the character of Harley Quinn and therefore she is under-utilised on screen. The relationship between The Joker and Harley is abusive and power is exchanged frequently, but here she is just his lackey and thus wasted in the plot. If anything, approaching Suicide Squad as a fan of the comics just made me hate it more.
If Ayer and Delevingne really wanted to make a film for the fans, they should have made an objectively good movie that could be championed by audiences and critics alike. But they didn’t, they made an enjoyable but massively flawed film and the critical backlash is entirely justified. The conscious decision to engineer a disconnect between critics and audiences is a cynical marketing ploy that is disrespectful to anyone with a love of cinema, and harmful on an industry level. If Warner Brothers are so desperate for the Justice League cinematic universe to be a hit with audiences, why are they so scared to make a film that critics will like too? If a negative critical reception is so dangerous to your revenue, surely it’s better to just make a film that is objectively solid rather than forcing a “grand critical conspiracy” to defend your film?