Suicide Squad, Blockbuster Movies, and Story Troubles

Blockbusters often rely on spectacle to hit big, but Hollywood’s obsession with event movies is hurting the stories it tells...

In the summer of 1989, Batman became just about inescapable. Tim Burton’s movie was a huge hit in cinemas, and all of a sudden, the black-out-of-yellow bat logo was emblazoned on just about everything: T-shirts, lunchboxes, billboard posters, you name it. In later interviews, Burton himself would concede that Batman had become not such a movie as an event – a pop cultural artifact whose images and sounds had spread so far, and so fast, that it had become something more than just a piece of fun, escapist entertainment.

It’s more than a quarter of a century since the release of Batman, but Hollywood’s thirst for making movies that match its scale and impact – or so they hope – that the pursuit has become all-consuming. You may have already read plenty of editorials and think-pieces about the collapse of the mid-budget movies – the thrillers, the action flicks, the rom-coms – that were once the American film industry’s bread-and-butter. In their search for big hits, studios are instead releasing fewer movies per year but spending more money on the projects they do choose to back.

As a result, the past decade in particular has seen the growth of major franchise movies with budgets of at least $100 million and, increasingly, far more. As Forbes’ Scott Mendelson points out, we’ve reached a point in modern history where event movies from the likes of Marvel and DC Warner are pretty much ubiquitous. There are now so many of these films that they’re no longer confined to a sprinkling over the summer or a handful at Christmas; we’re now getting movies such as Captain America: Civil War, Finding Dory, or Star Trek Beyond pretty much every week, with even months once considered the graveyard of big-screen entertainment filled up by huge releases. Warner-DC’s Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice came out in the grey month of March.

Again, Mendelson suggests that this profusion of the grand and the spectacular may be having a knock-on effect on audience interest. Such movies as Ghostbusters, Star Trek Beyond, and Jason Bourne all based on recognizable, popular properties – opened well but dropped precipitously the following weekend. Now, we’ve all read our fair share of articles about superhero fatigue, but I’d suggest that there may be a bigger problem with the current crop of summer movies than their specific genre. The real problem with Hollywood’s 2016 output, I’d venture, is that we’ve been inundated with would-be event movies.

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First, let’s define exactly what an event movie is, at least in loose terms. An event movie is designed from the ground up to be big, broad and international. Its imagery and underlying themes should be eye-catching and easily graspable in something as short as a 30-second TV spot or a movie trailer. Its appeal should be enough to attract the mythical “four quadrants” – the under 25s and over 25s of both genders – and, better yet, be marketable in the increasingly lucrative overseas market. Whether the event movie’s based on a comic book, novel, videogame or line of toys, it should have plenty of opportunities for the creation of merchandising and sequels.

While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with studios aiming for these goals – Iron Man, The Dark Knight, and Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes are all examples of great movies that fall at least partly within the “event” category – problems arise when movies are forced to fit the shape and scale of a major blockbuster. The simple fact is, not every story or even franchise needs to be told on a vast canvas, and forcing a movie to fit this format can soon lead to disaster. 

Take last year’s Fantastic Four as a recent example; following the success of the 2012 film Chronicle, the young director Josh Trank was invited to pitch his take on the popular superhero franchise to Fox. He came up with a concept that, as he himself described it, was a Cronenberg-esque body-horror take on Fantastic Four – about as far removed as you’re likely to get from the colorful movies Fox put out a decade earlier.

While arguments that the Fantastic Four property doesn’t suit this kind of adult, downbeat treatment aren’t without foundation, the fact remains that Fox gave Trank the greenlight based on this darker pitch. Trank had imagined a kind of low-key sci-fi horror drama about a quartet of scientists cursed by extraordinary powers. Much of his story – at least in the first half – took place within the confines of a lab. But somewhere in the course of Fantastic Four’s production, Fox began to have doubts. Stories began to emerge from the set about Trank’s behavior, some of which may or may not be true – but above and beyond any doubts Fox may have had about the director, they also evidently had second thoughts about the essentials of his original pitch.

We know this because Fantastic Four was delayed and put through a set of reshoots, which remodelled the film’s second half and grafted in a more typical superhero ending: Dr Doom standing in a shimmering vortex, surrounded by the wreckage of cars and shattered concrete as the young heroes take turns using their powers to bring him down. Fox may have hoped that adding these scenes would give the film the kind of spectacle and uplift typically laid out by Marvel, but the evidently rushed effects left them sticking out like a sore thumb. The wig applied to poor Kate Mara (who played superhero Sue Storm) was so derided that it briefly became a star in its own right, and the movie was widely ignored by cinema-goers. By attempting to refashion a small-scale, intimate sci-fi drama as a quasi event movie on the scale of an Iron Man or Thor, Fox fell between two stools. 

This summer’s Suicide Squad offers a less catastrophic example of the event movie effect. As laid out by its trailers, David Ayer’s comic book anti-hero movie sounded terrific: a group of supervillains are taken out of jail and forced into service as Task Force X, a top-secret squad of expendable soldiers. Visually, it had style and attitude; its concept suggested a collision of Escape From New York and The Dirty Dozen.

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Ultimately, what we got was less direct and misshapen than we’d initially hoped. From Suicide Squads promotion, it wasn’t immediately obvious who the villains were; a casual viewer might have thought the squad were wading into battle against a bunch of goons under the control of Jared Leto’s chrome-toothed gangster, the Joker. In the finished film, the Joker’s role amounted to little more than an extended cameo; the true villain of the piece was the demonic Enchantress, a being apparently intent on spawning a zombie army and destroying humanity in a blaze of white light.

Now, only Ayer, who wrote as well as directed, currently knows whether pitting the Suicide Squad against a supernatural enemy was his original intention, or whether it was an idea forced on him by someone higher up at Warner-DC. Wherever the concept came from, it seems flawed in the extreme; sending a former mental health professional with a baseball bat to fight a six-millennia-old demon is akin to using a drawing pin to burst the hull of a battleship. 

Having a more grounded first mission for the Suicide Squad – rescue a city from a mere mortal like the Joker, say – would’ve made a more plausible match for their abilities. As comic book writer, Den Of Geek author, and filmmaker James Peaty points out, “A final act of [the squad] breaking into a prison would have been far more interesting than the ending we got.”

In other words, Suicide Squad might have been better served had it been made at a slightly lower budget level and not pressed into service as a $150 million plus event movie. Despite its flaws, this year’s Deadpool is a case of a film made at a low enough level to get away with more creative risks – an untested comic book hero, an R-rating – and also feature an ending that isn’t about saving the world yet again. The trouble is, studios don’t want small-ish action movies; they want scale and spectacle.

“The reality is that contemporary Hollywood isn’t actually interested in making anything other than four quadrant blockbuster franchises,” Peaty continues. “The studios – or the corporations that own those old studios – exist in a global marketplace and the only American films that overseas audiences seem to really want to see in large numbers are big, visual blockbusters.”

Similarly, studios also want their movies to have all kinds of franchise potential, whether that means open endings for sequels or character cameos designed to set up spin-offs or, to use that increasingly popular phrase, a cinematic universe. The difficulty screenwriters are faced, when they’re asked to throw all these things into their scripts, is that they’re seldom in service of a compelling – or even coherent – story. 

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“In a sense, the individual films are suffering as the studios are constantly ‘playing the result’ of what’s to come rather than delivering a satisfying experience in and of itself,” Peaty says “When that works – as in the case of Marvel Studios – then the financial rewards are there for all to see, but when it goes wrong…well, you get Green Lantern, Terminator Genisys, The Amazing Spider-Man 2… and the inevitable reboot.”

The irony is that the blockbuster that started it all – Steven Spielberg’s classic Jaws – would probably be too modest to even get a greenlight in today’s Hollywood landscape. It’s set on a small island and details the efforts of three men – two of whom are middle-aged – to kill a man-eating shark. Their mission isn’t to save the world. Millions of people aren’t killed by a blinding white light. Remarkably few buildings are destroyed in Jaws, yet its slow dramatic build-up means that a sinking boat has at least as much impact as a city razed by an angry superbeing.

As long as international audiences want event movies, Hollywood will continue to make them. But not every story can take in vast supernatural threats and destruction on a grand scale, and while the return on these kinds of movies may remain healthy for years to come, a fixation on explosions and ever greater spectacle runs the risk of harming what we love the most about movies: the stories themselves.