It’s been 5 months since Suicide Squad was released and I’m still thinking about the movie; mainly, why the hell did I spend my hard-earned money on it? The disastrous comic book movie, which was hailed as the saviour to DC’s continuing extended universe failures, was certainly seen by many – and presumably enjoyed by some of those souls – and made over $745m at the box office, but I struggle to think of a film with such high hopes that failed so miserably. After careful consideration, I’m even ready to declare it to be the single worst film I’ve ever seen, which will allow Madonna to breathe a sigh of relief since the previous holder of that title was her hysterically inept propaganda piece W/E.
Dan Olson’s brutally precise Folding Ideas video essay on the editing of Suicide Squad highlights the myriad of ways the film fails on the most basic levels of creative and business decision making, but barely scratches the surface of the film’s awfulness: The non-existent characterization of its too-large ensemble; the murky cinematography that confuses grey for stylish; music cues so painfully obvious even Alvin and the Chipmunks rolled their eyes; gratuitous violence against women played for laughs in no fewer than two scenes; a patched together threat that’s yet another beam of light shooting into the sky like every other action movie; Jared Leto as a Juggalo Ace Ventura; and a script so heinous I entirely believe the rumour it was churned out in 6 weeks.
Internet discussions are prone to hyperbole and heightened emotion. There’s something about hearing the phrase “This is the worst thing ever” that inspires eye-rolling more than actual belief in the statement. It’s a claim that’s been attached to everything from no-budget B movies to the most acclaimed masterpieces of cinema. I’ve seen pretty much every film, book, album and other such pieces of pop culture frequently labelled as notable be dismissed as The Worst by at least one person. It’s never going to be a topic that can be judged on objective terms because human nature and art don’t work that way. Tastes differ, styles change, expectations are set at varying levels depending on your preferences and hopes.
DC spent an alleged $175m on Suicide Squad, although unofficial reporting has it closer to $200m, and promotional and marketing costs doesn’t come cheap. From a Hollywood industry point-of-view, the film probably made its money back, and certainly won’t be claimed otherwise by the studio, but the publicity surrounding its pre-release – reshoots, rumoured script troubles, apparently terrible screening reactions, and the ever present rumour that the final cut is composed partly of one made by a trailer house – mire that success in a kind of failure it can’t escape. Reviews may not mean much in the short term for financial gain, but it’s certainly made an impact on how the DC universe moves forward.
To truly be the worst of something, there must be expectations to begin with, and with expectations come costs, both financial and emotional. I, someone who abhorred Man of Steel and skipped out on Batman V Superman because even I have my limits, had real excitement for Suicide Squad upon its announcement. Even as that anticipation dwindled, thanks to a muddled ad campaign, Jared Leto’s pseudo-method bullshit and the bloodshed of reviews, I held onto a sliver of hope that maybe I could still enjoy the film on some level. Having that modicum of hope blown up like Zack Snyder’s ideal cityscape didn’t exactly hurt, but I felt the absence of that hope. Clearly DC’s expectations were not met with this film on a basic level: They wanted universal Marvel-style praise, not a faux-battle between critics and fans. They certainly didn’t want behind-the-scenes turmoil as covered by the Hollywood Reporter, nor numerous fan conspiracies over what went wrong with the entire operation.
That aforementioned cost is another sign of lofty expectations that tars the film further as a failure in my eyes. Asylum make terrible movies on shoestring budgets but nobody expects them to be anything less than mediocre. The sea of low-cost indie dramas that fill up many a film festival may very well be uniformly terrible, but they’ll be seen by very few and aren’t intended to be sold to the public as a universal product of enjoyment. When a blockbuster fails on a legendary scale – think Cutthroat Island or Mars Needs Moms or Heaven’s Gate, which bankrupted United Artists – it’s because it was made for millions of dollars and for millions of people.
Contrast Suicide Squad with W/E, Madonna’s ill-conceived romantic biopic of the love affair between Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, contrasted with the life of the fictional Wallie Winthrope, who finds herself enamoured with their near-mythic relationship. I doubt many thought of the film as much beyond a vanity project at best, but it had a mid-sized budget behind it as well as the hand of Harvey Weinstein. It was something I actively rooted for due to my interest in the subject matter, the film-maker and a desire to support women directors. Elements of the film are notable – impeccable costumes, a gorgeous score and top notch performance from Andrea Riseborough – and that only serves to highlight how truly terrible everything else is: Messy camera-work; pointlessly convoluted dueling stories; a maddeningly inconsistent tone; a script seemingly composed of lines taken from a cliché generator; basic historical facts ignored or messed up; the straight-up rewriting of history to excuse the central pair’s support of Hitler and the Nazi Party; and one memorably awful scene where Wallis and Edward throw a laudanum fueled jitterbug party scored to Pretty Vacant by the Sex Pistols. While Suicide Squad fails as a blockbuster, W/E fails as an auteur exercise. Both set expectations neither were equipped to reach, and it’s that blinding ineptitude that exacerbates their statuses as bad films. Being the worst is contextual.
The excuse I heard constantly while Suicide Squad’s negative reviews were flooding the internet, and one that the poor actors in the film had to parrot until the light died in their eyes, was “We made it for the fans”. It’s a vague, pointless statement that really doesn’t mean much beyond dismissing critics in the only way that’s reasonably polite. That’s all well and good but when people like me who are ostensibly DC fans – and fans of certain characters in the film like Harley Quinn – have their own criticisms and issues dismissed in this way, there’s a particularly insidious message that shines through. You didn’t like the two scenes where women are punched in the face by men for a joke? Well we made the film for the fans. The discomfiting objectification of the central female protagonist reeked of lazy film-making and misogyny to you? But the film is for the fans. The Asian character being reduced to a near silent stereotype? Shut up, this is for the fans. Geek culture does enough proselyting about how people like me aren’t real fans without an incompetent film industry and a multi-million dollar train-wreck helmed by a clueless hat-for-fire doing the same thing. It doesn’t do much to assure me that the final product will be any good or that the series going forward can learn from its mistakes.
While I understand that, logically speaking, there must be some people in the world who enjoyed Suicide Squad, it’s that cavern of difference between me and them that somehow cements the film’s status in my mind as truly the worst film I’ve ever seen. It’s also understandable that there are people who may enjoy the film because of its badness. With nigh on unlimited access to the world’s delights at our fingertips, the field of So-Bad-It’s-Good entertainment has opened up to a bigger audience than before, and we can share the camp joys with everyone. Why do you think I’ve seen The Room at no fewer than 3 midnight screenings?
But again, this just strengthens my claim against Suicide Squad, because Suicide Squad wasn’t even fun to laugh at in its crumbling state. It was just sad. I saw every dollar on screen and it still looked cheap; I noted the countless basic failings of film-making, particularly the script, and found no joy in its obvious incompetence. I cringed at the misogyny, finding no camp value in Margot Robbie’s straining to save a character who’s painted as the Fighting Fuck Toy. The supposedly comedic moments didn’t make me laugh, and even the accidentally silly stuff, like everything Enchantress does, did little to raise a smile. I saw the outline of a good idea and watched it be stuffed to the gunnels with every possible means of failure. It’s an ugly movie with a hasty neon paintjob; an exercise in coolness trying so hard to be edgy when its softer than butter; a toxic mess of fetishized violence and misogyny that doesn’t even have the decency to be competently shot.
Suicide Squad is movie whose success nobody truly benefits from: Studios get their money and actors get a modicum of clout in an evolving industry that prizes franchises over A List names, but its apparent financial success only encourages studios to replicate its flimsy formula beat for beat to inevitably diminishing returns. Hollywood’s learning curve is already dizzyingly steep at the best of times, and change happens years after audiences’ tastes do, so Suicide Squad’s impact will be noticeable in ways Warner Brothers and DC may hope we won’t see. This wasn’t just about expectations or money or quality; this is about the future. Suicide Squad was a disaster, but it’s one the industry will want to make again, and the quality of those clones will be as frivolous to them as that of the source.
Suicide Squad is the worst film I have ever seen because it’s going to happen again.
Thankfully, Madonna’s directorial career probably won’t.