Conventional wisdom about writing is conventionally wrong.
Marvel and DC have taken comic books for kids and turned them into an unstoppable machine, designed to entertain the masses while making massive profits.
When all the pieces fit together, it’s memorable and magical.
When they don’t, as in SUICIDE SQUAD, everybody notices. (Warning: this is packed full of spoilers.)
It’s like making chocolate chip cookies: Marvel and DC have well-known, well-liked ingredients that people have loved consuming for decades.
Mix it up, put them in the oven and serve them warm and hot. People are going to eat them. It’s not rocket science.
HOWEVER: your average person has eaten a lot of chocolate chip cookies, and seen a ton of these comic-book movies. They’ll know, right away, if Marvel burns the whole batch or DC forgets to add any chocolate chips at all.
I loved the trailers for SUICIDE SQUAD and saw it opening weekend.
Was it fun? Sure.
Did it blow my socks off? No.
Which is too bad. Could have easily made this a classic, especially with the premise and the characters.
So here are the top seven mistakes in the recipe for SUICIDE SQUID, along with how to fix them.
Most comic-book movies are thrillers: there’s a Bad Person Doing Bad Things—can they be stopped?
The first problem with SUICIDE SQUAD is a massive lack of urgency in Act 1. There’s no Evil Superman laying waste to Cleveland, no super villain with super powers that the Pentagon can’t touch.
Instead, we get a front-row seat as a government official fights a bureaucratic battle to bring together her super-team, the worst of the worst, for what seems like forever.
Why? In case somebody like Superman goes rogue.
This makes the movie feel a bit slow and pointless, with all of Act 1 dedicated to teaching us about the anti-heroes who’ll make up this team, just in case something happens. The movie includes flashbacks for what seems like every possible character, along with cheesy on-screen text talking about the character.
What this does is make the entirety of Act 1 feel frenetic but without a purpose.
How to fix it: show us a Bad Villain Doing Horribly Bad Things, which gives us a reason for the misfit villains to get out of prison.
Who does the villain eventually turn out to be, in Act 2?
Enchantress, a member of the super team of dangerous villains YOU JUST TURNED LOOSE.
Yeah. Not wicked smart.
SUICIDE SQUAD isn’t the only movie to do this.
Think back to AVENGERS 2: JAMES SPADER IS AN EVIL ROBOT, where Iron Man creates the villain.
That’s not a joke. Tony Stark really screws up. He creates Ultron after (a) making creating a bunch of robot-controlled Iron Man clones for when he’s busy doing billionaire playboy things, (b) figuring out the glowing space rock in Loki’s sphere is some kind of amazing AI-thing and (c) sticking the glowing space rock into his computer system. Surprise! Glowing space rock AI-thing makes an army of evil robots.
It gets even dumber in Act 3, when Tony Stark’s genius move to stop Ultron is to repeat his first mistake, despite smart heroes like Thor telling him not to possibly destroy the world a second time this week, seeing how the weekend is coming up and he’d like to see Jane again. Tony Stark puts his computer helper, Jarvis, into the robot body Ultron was making with the evil glowing space rock sticking in that new robot’s forehead. Yeah, not wicked smart.
There is one comic-book movie cliché about villains that, thankfully, SUICIDE SQUAD avoids: having a hero and villain who have the same sort of powers, or the same powers exactly.
This has only happened in IRON MAN, MAN OF STEEL, IRON MAN 2, CAPTAIN AMERICA, THOR and five-point-six bazillion other movies, including the upcoming DOCTOR STRANGE, where trailers show a magic-wielding Sherlock Holmes battling a nameless bad guy who also wields magic.
Yeah, they always do that. Stop, please.
It’s fashionable in Hollywood today to pack movies with every possible character and star. The idea is simple: if one superstar actor or character is good, then two is twice as good, three is 300 percent better—and 10 characters on the poster, well, that’s 1,000 percent better.
Movie posters for superhero movies once looked like this:
These days, we’re headed toward Expendables territory, with so many faces on the poster, even dedicated comic nerds are confused about half the characters.
The trouble with the More is More strategy is there’s a limited amount of screen time in a movie. Every character you add means taking time from the others.
Back to the recipe idea: sure, it’s a good twist on a chocolate chip cookie to add walnuts, or sprinkle in white chocolate chips.
Yet when you throw in M & M’s, almonds, Reese’s Pieces, raisins and a half-cup of Coa-Coa Puffs, the cookie leaves behind Delicious and takes an express train to Hot Mess.
How can we fix this?
Eliminate every possible character, especially when (a) they don’t play a key role in the story, (b) you can give their lines and role to somebody else and (c) more compelling characters could use the screen time to show some real conflict, because (d) most of these villains are too vanilla and nice. They’re not evil enough to be true anti-heroes.
Here are the main ingredients for SUICIDE SQUAD as filmed: Deadshot, Harley Quinn, the Joker, Batman, Killer Croc, Diablo, Captain Boomerang, Special Forces Commando Boyfriend of the Villain, Evil Bureaucratic Boss Who Shoots Her Own People, Katana, the Flash, Enchantress and the CGI Brother of Enchantress.
That’s 13 different characters, and we’re not even talking about the prison guard who Joker turns into a double agent and all the unnamed generals and Special Forces people running around. It’s too much, especially when most of them get their own on-the-nose flashback scene.
Who can we save for a later movie that can make DC a half-billion dollars while improving this one in the Blu-Ray director’s cut?
Slipknot, who shows up for about two seconds and immediately gets killed when he tries to escape.
Katana, which seems like a cool character. She just doesn’t have a real purpose. Flag says she’s there to protect him, except she never has to really keep the Worst of the Worst in line and serves as another warm body versus the horde of zombie-ish bad guys. No.
Captain Boomerang, who’s not fleshed out here. He’s an angry Australian with a boomerang, Crocodile Dundee with muscles and an attitude. Not exactly breaking any new ground.
Killer Croc, because he honestly doesn’t do anything that another character could do. In Act 3, he swims underwater, except the Special Forces dudes also swim the same route without any problem. Also, swimming really well is the same superpower as Aquaman, who defines lame.
Flash, because it’s a completely unnecessary cameo to advertise the existence of the Justice League movie.
The CGI brother of Enchantress, who is too obviously CGI to be scary, where she’s spooky enough for mild nightmares. Make her scarier by giving her the job of destroying tanks and helicopters instead of him.
That’s six characters we could knock out of this script and off the posters. Give fans what they want and hand their screen time to Harley, the Joker and Batman.
If you really want to boil down this story and strengthen the movie, combine the Special Forces Commando Boyfriend with the Evil Bureaucratic Boss Who Shoots Her Own People, and yes, I know they are different genders and ages. Doesn’t matter. If the person who forms the team is also the one in love with the member of the team who turns into the villain, it’s a better story.
The WONDER WOMAN trailer looks awesome. I could not love it more.
It’s too bad we already got introduced to her, as a side character, in BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN—where she didn’t have much to do.
Same story with those tiny cameos for Cyborg, Aquaman and the Flash, then every single character in SUICIDE SQUAD: you don’t start out caring about these characters, because you don’t knowthem yet.
This is the key area where Marvel has beat DC: they developed their characters, deeply, with solo films before doing big team-ups. Because they know introducing a ton of characters in a team-up movie doesn’t work.
Some critics say MAN OF STEEL is the best of the current crop of DC reboots, and they may be right. We should have seen a full-on Batman movie with Ben Affleck, and a solo Wonder Woman film, before they showed us BATMAN VS SUPERMAN.
Batman is the secret weapon in DC’s arsenal, the character with the greatest history and potential.
He’s in cameos for SUICIDE SQUAD in scenes that don’t really show us anything new or interesting. The mid-credits scene with Bruce Wayne also felt nonsensical: if Batman thinks these villains shouldn’t be out fighting the bad guys because he and his friends should do it, what where they doing just now as Enchantress started destroying Gotham and the world? Maybe they were all on a retreat to write the official Justice League mission statement.
Same thing with the Joker—Jared Leto is a great actor, and he’s not really given much to do here. Also: what’s up with the director’s tattoo fetish? It felt like some national tattoo chain paid the studio $2 million to go crazy with the ink on the Joker, Diablo, Harley and a bunch of side characters. Too much.
Give us a scene between Harley Quinn and Bruce Wayne, just the two of them, where they weren’t chasing and fighting each other. Harley as a psychiatrist talking to Bruce about a strange patient in Arkham.
Maybe put Harley and Bruce at a charity dinner as they did the waltz and had a verbal duel—that would have been amazing and a nice break from constant fights and CGI explosions.
You don’t need Batman in the cape and cowl. Check out a few minutes of amazingness from BATMAN BEGINS, all with Bruce Wayne, no batarang in sight. You can’t improve on this.
Also-also: I’m not alone in hating the new Batsuit, which makes the ripped Affleck look fat and weird. Come on. Sort it out with the suit and give us something awesome. If you absolutely have to hand a hero a stinky, lame suit, pick Aquaman.
Also-cubed: People say Jack Nicholson’s Joker was making fun of cocaine, Heath Ledger was showing us a Joker on heroin and Jared Leto is giving us a Joker on meth. There’s some truth to that. I have to say the meth version isn’t as scary or fun. The Joker needs to have some elegance behind his menace and insanity.
Christopher Nolan’s trilogy about Batman isn’t perfect. What he consistently does, though, is give real time for key scenes to develop. He knows you have to build up a mood, and that mood is more important than cramming more gunfire and characters into a movie.
Go back to the beginning of THE DARK KNIGHT, where the Joker robs a bank.
Including the opening credits and such, this opening scene is under five minutes. It’s a slow burn and it’s magnificent, something with real menace and moods. It’s a scene you won’t forget.
SUICIDE SQUAD never takes the time to do something like this. It comes closest with slower scenes with Deadshot and his daughter, and a few times with Harley Quinn, yet it never really embraces and hugs a scene by giving it enough time to develop and stay with you.
This movie is in a hurry, partially because it’s packed with so many characters.
How to fix it: if you cut side characters that don’t matter, there’s plenty of screen time to go deeper with Harley, the Joker and Batman, who are the three characters the audience really wants. I don’t see anybody marching in the street because Slipknot and Boomerang didn’t get enough time.
After they beat the villain Enchantress, the misfit villains think the woman who hosted the ancient witch is also dead. Flag wins the battle but loses his beloved girlfriend. OKAY, that’s the price of winning, and a good way to have a mixed, non-Hollywood ending.
But no, she’s not dead and everything is fine.
Then the Joker turns up—he’s not dead either!—and he breaks Harley out of prison.
It’s too easy.
How to fix it: let the girlfriend die and only HINT at the Joker being alive.
It would be epic for a standalone Harley film to start with the Joker letting Harley know he’s alive, and for her to break out of prison herself to find him. Because she’s not a helpless damsel in distress. She’s a great character who deserves far more screen time.
Critics have slayed this movie. I didn’t hate it. This film is a fun way to spend some time in a dark room with kernels of exploded corn.
It simply could have been much, much better.
DC has the same good ingredients as Marvel—characters we know and love, the budgets to hire the best stars and directors and special effects, a massive sea of proven storylines that comic books have explored and perfected since long before I was born.
The question is always about execution. Can you take those ingredients and cook up something different but delicious?
Marvel doesn’t always get it right. IRON MAN 2 and IRON MAN 3 are both uneven compared to the other films, and they can’t make a Hulk movie to save their lives. But they’ve got a far better track record of turning blah ingredients into movie magic.
Captain America is nothing compared to Batman in terms of a built-in fan base and potential as a character. Yet they took those bad ingredients, and an actor who doesn’t have the pedigree of Christian Bale or Ben Affleck, and made something great.
The Captain America films have been the best, hands down, of the whole Marvel bunch. WINTER SOLDIER and CIVIL WAR are especially good, quite different and brilliant than other superhero movies. CIVIL WAR gave us a villain who didn’t have powers and was trying to set the heroes against each other. WINTER SOLDIER was really about friendship.
Those films prove studios can, and should, experiment with different recipes for these comic book movies. Because we are looking at an avalanche of these movies for the next 30 years, and if they are all “a team of superheroes must unite to save the world from being destroyed by a CGI villain,” then audiences will quickly get bored eating the same old chocolate chip cookies.
We all know studios have massive armies of CGI people. Yes, you can blow things up, and it used to be exciting. Give us different twists on the recipe.
I’d pay to see a movie that’s just an average week in the life of Harley Quinn and the Joker—no sea of side characters, no CGI and no over-stuffed team of heroes trying to stop them.
A Harley-Joker movie would be insanely entertaining. You’d just die.
Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.