Whenever a movie aimed at nerds comes out and takes a critical beating, there’s a script that gets followed. It’s not “for critics,” it’s “for the fans.” Most of the time this is a bit insincere; shouldn’t a movie attempt to make more fans, after all? But in the case of Suicide Squad, it’s a genuinely accurate statement. In some ways it’s the most expensive fan film ever made, and that might be the whole problem.
The comics that inspired Suicide Squad are, and remain, unique. It’s difficult to blend real-world political concerns and superheroes effectively, because you inevitably run into questions like “Why doesn’t Superman just capture ISIS?” Inspired by a long-forgotten adventure comic DC had published in the ’60s, John Ostrander answered that question starting in 1987 with a comic book criticizing American foreign policy at the time. Suicide Squad lingered on the truth that in geopolitics, there is no greater good for a Superman to serve, just messy, complex problems that are often impossible to truly solve. It was as much about the ugly realities of defending a nation’s interests and how that can be abused as it was about superhero fights.
And for fans of the comics, a lot of that gritty, ugly stuff is brought to the screen, reworked for the era of Snowden and WikiLeaks. Viola Davis nails Waller from the comics, who really will kill anyone if it means completing the mission, or saving her own neck. Jai Courtney’s Boomerang offers the spineless cowardice Boomerang is notable for in the comics, and his getting Slipknot killed in the first act could be straight from one of Ostrander’s own scripts. Deadshot is a hitman who really does only love one person in the entire world. In many ways, watching the Suicide Squad is like reading an issue of the comic.
But is this a good thing? One of the hallmarks of DC’s recent movies, for better or worse, is that they don’t try to temper the comics or make them “palatable” for a non-comics reading audience. In fact, they won’t even fill in the blanks for completely new audience members; you’d be forgiven, in Suicide Squad, for wondering just what the heck that scene with Harley jumping into a vat of acid was all about (as for Captain Boomerang’s obsession with pink unicorns, you’ll have to ask David Ayer). Critics and fans found Man of Steel‘s massive property damage (and potential loss of human life) off-putting, but in the comics, Superman gets punched through buildings all the time. Batman V. Superman arrived littered with unanswered questions in the background and nods to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.
What’s odd is that DC already delivered a tight, effective thriller starring the Suicide Squad in 2014, one that both pleased fans and allowed new viewers in. Batman: Assault on Arkham is an animated movie spun off of the recent Batman: Arkham video game franchise. Every objection critics raised to the live action movie just isn’t present. It’s got a tight plot, it clearly and effectively explains the concept without requiring any comics backstory, and it gives the characters just enough room to breathe without losing momentum.
Warner Bros. has little financial incentive to change course. Batman V. Superman, however much people want to try and massage the numbers, made a fortune at the box office, and Suicide Squad looks primed to follow suit. But to really fulfill the promise of ideas like the Suicide Squad, DC needs to cater to more than just their fan base. There aren’t an enormous number of fans to please in the first place, and time and competing franchises tend to wear down even the biggest fan base. Besides, the goal of any movie should be to leave people wanting more, not wondering what they’d just watched.