Suicide Squad: Are Shared Universes Hurting Movies?

After Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, 2016 has begun the DCEU with a stumble instead of a charge. Is this an industry trend?

This past weekend, Suicide Squad opened to roaring success. By enjoying a global same-day launch around the world, the DCEU movie that established two of Batman’s greatest rogues (Joker and Harley Quinn), and a whole slew of DC C-listers like Deadshot and Captain Boomerang, earned its fledgling shared universe an impressive $133.7 million in in the U.S., as well as $267 million worldwide. Presumably, there has been at least some back-slapping going on at the Warner Bros. lot in the aftermath.

Yet, if you simply listened to social media, comment sections, or especially critics, you’d be convinced there is something very wrong with Suicide Squad. And beyond the dismal reviews (it currently sits at 26 percent positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes), it has also been slapped with a “B+” by CinemaScore polling, which is equivalent to “it was…okay” from audiences. More troubling still, it is at a “B” with those over the age of 25, suggesting word of mouth might be less than stellar, a point further evidenced by the movie’s steep 40.6 percent drop in grosses from Friday to Saturday during its opening weekend. (We wrote more about the box office and critical reception to Suicide Squad right here.)

In other words, audiences old enough to rent a car seem only slightly more enthused with the third DCEU film than the picture’s harshest reviewers. Personally, this is a bit of a surprise, because while I found the movie to be a mess, I didn’t think it was a totally irredeemable one. And in the age of serialized storytelling dominating the multiplex, perhaps audiences could simply enjoy Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn and Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller at the expense of everything else?

As it turns out, perhaps not. Increasingly, 2016 is showing that moviegoers are still ravenous for superhero movies (if little else), but they’re also becoming increasingly aware of an issue that similarly hamstrung March’s Batman v Superman: obsessing over shared universes does not necessarily a good movie make.

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Hollywood has been scrambling in the wake of the dizzying success of Marvel Studios to emulate the formula that continues to earn Disney well over a billion dollars year in and year out. To date, the competitors’ early attempts have been checkered, but 2016 was supposed to be the moment where Marvel’s distinguished competition finally entered the fray in serious fashion. Sure, Christopher Nolan stunned audiences, critics, and even some Oscar voters with the ambitious heights scaled within The Dark Knight Trilogy, but he was also unapologetically embracing old school filmmaking that included actual 35mm and IMAX celluloid, in-camera action, and a strict adherence to classical storytelling… particularly by having a beginning, middle, and (to WB’s ultimate dismay) end.

Nolan closed off his sandbox with the billion-grossing The Dark Knight Rises, forcing the studio to start from scratch if they wanted to build a shared comic book movie universe of their own to compete with Marvel. In fact, during the very same year as Nolan’s finale, Marvel produced the even higher grossing The Avengers, announcing that a new era of superhero moviemaking and Hollywood franchising had dawned. Now, everything would strive to be interconnected, thereby building not just one franchise but a multi-headed hydra of potentially dozens of brand names, all feeding into each other until you end up like Marvel… with two or three movies a year dominating the pop culture landscape.

Unfortunately, none to date have successfully copied the formula without a massive case of the hiccups. And after the Nolan-produced but Zack Snyder directed Man of Steel failed to reach its intended box office target, Warners quickly opted to rush toward the “DCEU,” culminating in this year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, two movies meant, like Marvel Studios efforts, to lay the breadcrumbs for a dozen or so other movies.

Yet now that both movies are actually behind us, hindsight affords the realization that the results have been mixed at best. Batman v Superman is the consequence of a hasty decision made within weeks of Man of Steel’s release. Unhappy that the Superman reboot would not cross even $700 million worldwide, Zack Snyder and the studio rapidly took the idea for a Marvel-like easter egg of Bruce Wayne showing up during the last scene of Man of Steel and instantly changed that into the supposed Superman sequel. And not only was this Batman and Superman meeting, but like the clunky “Dawn of Justice” subtitle promises, it was meant to be a shortcut to 2017’s upcoming Justice League with Wonder Woman awkwardly forced into the film’s plot. There are also literal YouTube and CCTV cameos of the Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg present, which are, ironically, no more slapdash in their inclusion than the CCTV “origin” of Mr. Freeze in the toyetic-crazed Batman & Robin.

The result is a movie that does not really have a coherent plot per se, but a collection of scenes that rush through building Superman’s world with cameo-sized roles for his supporting cast like Perry White and Jimmy Olsen, the latter of whom is literally shot in the face during his one-minute of screen time in the theatrical cut. And then there is even more top-heavy plotting threatening to pull Snyder down into the abyss every time he has to set up the Justice League instead of his titular conflict.

In the end, the movie spends almost all of its running time ham-fistedly setting up other movies: we see Flash travel through time to talk to Bruce Wayne in a sequence only hardcore nerds understood; there’s a dream of Parademons and Apokolips that again makes no sense to the uninitiated; and the ending revolves around a throwaway introduction to Doomsday and the “Death of Superman,” presumably also setting up a resurrection storyline for another movie. As a result, the time devoted to Batman vs. Superman is perfunctory with the reasons causing Superman and Batman to fight being thinly glossed over (Lex Luthor kidnaps the mother of a demigod that can hear Lois Lane falling off a building from thousands of miles away?), and the cause for the deathmatch to end in a handshake being legendarily awful. Suffice it to say that “Martha” will be an iconic scene for all the wrong reasons.

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The movie’s numerous flaws likely contributed to its own “B” CinemaScore, which is slightly worse than Suicide Squad, as well as its legs of clay that slumped the movie. While Batman v Superman opened to $166 million in its opening weekend, it had steep drop-offs that resulted in a worldwide take of $872.67 million. A mediocre movie at best that sacrificed quality to build a shared universe like Marvel, it still quizzically fell far short of the $1 billion mark that Marvel’s “headliner” has crossed four of the five summers since 2012 (it’s also short of Nolan’s last two Batman movies).

As a result, WB apparently took the scathing criticisms to heart and paid for reshoots that cost over $20 million for Suicide Squad, purportedly to inject more humor into the film. The Hollywood Reporter also states that the original editor eventually left the project, being replaced by a slew of splicers with competing versions of the movie, including the handiwork of “Trailer Park,” a post-production house that is meant to cut promotional teasers and TV spots, as opposed to actual films. If you wondered why the first 10 minutes felt like a string of music videos, this could be a big influence.

Additionally, more crossover material with Batman v Superman and Justice League were added, including Zack Snyder shooting within the last month a Flash cameo from the set of Justice League for David Ayer’s film. How much of the finished, compromised vision is actually from Ayer’s vision remains a mystery, but there is little doubt even amongst Suicide Squad’s many fans that the film is a scattershot experience.

Perhaps Ayer would agree since he only had six weeks to write the screenplay. Then again, for this film to fit where it needs to in the shared universe, and with the new model at WB where there must be two DCEU movies a year, Suicide Squad had to be released this August. The details could be filled in later, including it would seem during post-production at the expense of dozens of millions of dollars.

But for all that money, the DCEU is left with a second movie that is only one faintly damning “+” higher in CinemaScore’s word of mouth meter than BvS (and that is mostly due to teenagers), and a film that is actually one percentage point less positive on Rotten Tomatoes. In the rush to make these shared universe films, there is no time to actually learn from each mistake or success. Instead, rushed reshoots lead to more expensive, but equally muddled results, and meanwhile Justice League is too far gone into production with Zack Snyder at the helm for any substantial changes to be made in the wake of BvS’ disappointing box office tally and atrocious audience/critical perception.

The shared universe model is moving too quickly for the studios to course correct, and it only stops when a serious snag is hit. In that vein, WB and DC are doing far better than Sony’s experience with building a “Spider-Man Shared Universe.” Having enjoyed the Spidey license for almost two decades, the studio that helped kick start the genre’s dominance in the zeitgeist with Sam Raimi’s very self-contained and complete Spider-Man (2002), greenlit the 2014 abomination that was The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

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After failing to emulate the style of Christopher Nolan through the use of a questionable reboot in The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), Sony also saw that Avengers money from the same summer and pushed through a sequel in two years that, like Batman v Superman, was more preoccupied with setting up spinoffs, prequels, and sidequels at the expense of the current plot. The result was tonal chaos and narrative anarchy as separate storylines involving multiple villains (Electro, Green Goblin, and the Rhino, to be specific) were layered on top of each other, as well as an espionage backstory for Peter’s dead parents. Within the jumbled mess of a film were seeds planted for a movie about Black Cat (enter Felicity Jones as Felicia Hardy) and the Sinister Six (the aforementioned villains, plus cameos for Doc Ock and Vulture weapons). The studio also had planned a Venom spin-off and at least briefly considered a pitch about a young Aunt May movie.

None of this mattered when The Amazing Spider-Man 2 made only $708 million at the box office. Also unfortunately, it was awful. Unaware if it was even setting up a third Spider-Man movie—deleted scenes included a removed Mary Jane Watson and Peter Parker’s father being really alive—or the Sinister Six movie. As it turns out, the point was moot when the film was so uneven that audiences elected for none of the above. Its meager reception led to Sony making a deal with Marvel Studios to reboot Spider-Man for them while making the creative decisions.

In other words, in less than a year they went from chasing Marvel to letting Marvel be in charge for a price. Is this the definition of success in modern Hollywood?

It seems to be since even after that clumsy failure at building a shared universe, and DCEU’s own uneven record, we continue to march toward more of these spectacles at a heart-pounding pace. In 2017, Universal launches its modern “Universal Monsters” universe that turns their copyrighted ghouls into modern action stars, beginning with The Mummy. Paramount also rebrands Transformers as a shared universe with Transformers: Last Knight in 2017 and then a Bumblebee movie in 2018. WB and Legendary Pictures are also building at a breakneck speed toward a CGI-heavy Godzilla vs. Kong in 2020, making the intervening Godzilla 2, which currently lacks a director but has a firm 2019 release date set in stone, more of a formality than an event.

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Even Disney’s own lauded relaunch of Star Wars as an annual event with The Force Awakens might have hit its first snag. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story needs to come out in 2016, because 2017 is Episode VIII’s year, and Disney’s bottom line is now dependent on a Star Wars movie on every fiscal calendar. So, no matter what, we are getting Rogue One in December. Behind-the-scenes choices, reminiscent of Suicide Squad’s own troubles, have led to Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) taking on a “supervising role” of both the five weeks of reshoots and the post-production edit of the film. Yet, this is the new normal when you’re keeping the one-a-year, interconnected strategy at play. Disney is at least allowing Gareth Edwards, the director of the film, to have “input” on the final edit of the movie.

No one knows how any of these future efforts will exactly end up, but maybe Marvel Studios’ greatest superpower is that they alone can make this filmmaking strategy work well?

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