When Donald Trump nominated his campaign finance manager Steve Mnuchin for Secretary of the Treasury last month, many media outlets wryly noted that Mnuchin produced one of 2016’s most divisive movies, Suicide Squad. In a year when reality one-upped satire into oblivion, putting a member of Suicide Squad‘s production team in the presidential cabinet ranked among Trump’s most trenchant acts of unintentional self-parody.
Numerous critics had already linked the tiresome critics vs. fans controversy that came to define the press cycle for Suicide Squad to the rise of Trumpism. Now, Suicide Squad‘s apparent victory at the box office — it has grossed nearly three quarters of a billion dollars worldwide — had a direct link to Trump’s ascension.
In this way, Suicide Squad — a movie that makes the case for horrible people from outside the system saving the world, because the federal government is supposedly worse — might be 2016’s most emblematic blockbuster. Not the best, not the worst, not even the most important, just the Trumpiest.
One of the (many) weird phenomena that came to define culture in 2016 was how box office numbers were weaponized to assert dominance of one ideology over another. Suicide Squad opened one month after the soft opening for Paul Feig’s flawed Ghostbusters reboot, which for some had been transformed into a proxy referendum on feminism, suddenly a hot-button issue again in an election year. For Suicide Squad, the issue became another of Trump’s pet causes, the legitimacy of the mainstream media.
Before Suicide Squad even opened, there was a petition to shut down Rotten Tomatoes for the crime of aggregating negative reviews of a film that most fans hadn’t yet seen. Soon, Pizzagate-style conspiracy theories were conjured to explain the bad reviews, with trolls spreading rumors that the nation’s top film critics were in the pocket of Big Marvel. Reviewers critical of Suicide Squad, like journalists investigating Trump, were singled out and harassed. Unsurprisingly, many critics took the abuse personally — not just as the inevitable backlash from a rabid fanbase but as an affront to their very profession. “In many ways, [Suicide Squad] was the fans’ high-water mark of Trumpian intolerance,” Variety declared.
But when Suicide Squad opened strong, it was the same mainstream media that rushed to frame the film’s boffo box office as a public act of defiance against film critics, as if critics had somehow organized to “stop” Suicide Squad and failed. While the vast majority of critics are content to facilitate conversation about movies — not dictate what people watch — a slobs vs. snobs narrative borrowed from a million ’80s teens comedies seemed to overpower our culture and politics this year, eventually reducing everything down to a simple pissing match between embittered constituencies.
With Suicide Squad, the slobs stuck it to the snobs. And the media, in spite of being implicated and even victimized by this narrative, also helped to perpetuate it. “How many things will the elites get wrong?” The Atlantic wondered. “The ascent of Donald Trump, the vote for Brexit, and now this?”
Before I continue, allow me to extend a fig leaf to Suicide Squad fans: It’s not my intention to merely beat up again on this movie. I actually agree, kind of, that Suicide Squad was treated too harshly by critics. When I saw Suicide Squad on its opening day, and again this past weekend, I reached the same conclusion: Overall, it’s an incoherent mess, with a third act that’s all but unwatchable. But the first 45 minutes or so aren’t bad, and there are moments (like when Will Smith takes target practice while Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” bangs on the soundtrack) when Suicide Squad briefly takes flight. And while the film’s ostensible villain (some witchy CGI whatchamacallit named The Enchantress, played by Cara Delevingne) is a complete nonentity, the movie’s actual villain (the rogue intelligence agent Amanda Waller played by Viola Davis) is genuinely evil and badass, the best part of the movie by a mile.
(One of the more problematic aspects of Suicide Squad is how it affirms the wisdom of corporate interference in the work of an auteur. The lighter, Deadpool-ier sections of Suicide Squad in the first half were reportedly sanctioned by the studio, while the film’s more turgid second half seems like a purer representation of director David Ayer’s vision. So, compliments to the meddling suits, I guess?)
Suicide Squad is hardly a misunderstood masterpiece, but it didn’t quite deserve the beating it got, either. The media bubble is real, and it’s not totally unreasonable for “regular” filmgoers to bristle when critical opinions about a movie seem a little too uniform. As a person who works in media and follows a lot of people who work in media on Twitter, I’ve seen firsthand how certain takes gather a kind of momentum, though this process is harder to quantify than a Rotten Tomatoes score.
I don’t think it’s a matter of people pretending to like something they hate, or hate something they love. And I definitely don’t believe there’s an overarching agenda dictated by politics or payola from Disney. It’s more that some opinions seem to get adjusted a few degrees to the left or right once it becomes clear that a film has been marked for greatness or destruction. Anyone who didn’t respond favorably to Suicide Squad had permission to unload every clever putdown in her arsenal with extreme prejudice, in a way that wouldn’t be allowed for a pan of, say, Moonlight. Some films require extreme thoughtfulness in order to justify a “dissenting” opinion, while other films seemingly inspire only jokes and vitriolic reviews that preach to the critical choir and, inadvertently, alienate some readers.
If media bias exists for movies like Suicide Squad, it’s this feeding-frenzy mentality for films that are unofficially deemed “acceptable” to hate, which leads to piling on and unnecessary hyperbole. It’s yet another way in which the attention economy kills nuance. Put another way: “This film was mediocre, but still has its moments” is not an opinion that has ever gone viral.
Now that I’ve conceded all of that, let’s be honest with ourselves: Suicide Squad did not deserve the passionate defense it received from scores of misguided fans. It is loud, pushy, shallow, uncouth, transparently craven, and ultimately soulless corporate product. If Suicide Squad‘s success was interpreted by some as a “f*ck you” gesture against the critical establishment, in the end its success only rewarded the status quo.
This is what is most galling about Suicide Squad. If anyone is looking out for average viewers, it’s the people who might talk you out of spending your hard-earned money on a bad film, not the people who want to take your money before you find out how bad their wares are. Somehow, Suicide Squad — the epitome of the corrupt mainstream entertainment complex, a movie inspired solely by the marketplace — was transformed into a populist cause by reactionaries who bristled at the condescension of media elites, even as some of those same Hollywood big shots were quietly praying that Suicide Squad wouldn’t bankrupt them. In the end, Suicide Squad changed nothing. It will only facilitate the creation of more Suicide Squads. Like I said, Trumpy.