Monday, January 16, 2017

New(ish) Release: Suicide Squad (2016) and DCEU v MCU scorecard

Suicide Squad (2016)

Director: David Ayer

Three films into their mad dash to catch up to Marvel's Cinematic Universe, and DC and Warner Brothers are still stumbling along. Suicide Squad is another occasionally entertaining but ultimately uneven effort that doesn't stack up to far better superpeople flicks.

The tale is The Dirty Dozen with super villains. In the wake of events covered in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a shadowy government agency puts together a crew of super-powered but viciously dangerous and unstable criminals to act as a response team to potential large-scale, supernatural threats. The team includes expert marksman and assassin Deadshot (Will Smith), incredibly strong but ultra-violent reptilian Killer Croc, expert fighter and acrobat but unhinged madwoman Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), and several other oddball lunatics and killers. Their services are extorted from them through various promises and leverage enacted by government hardass Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), and they are sent into a city under siege from an unknown, catastrophe-level force of destruction. Hopping around in the chaos is The Joker, Quinn's lover and object of mutual obsession, who is hell-bent on freeing his lady love from bondage.

The movie is mostly a mess that relies on talented, big-name actors, flashy visuals, and a soundtrack featuring well-established hard rock classics. Even I'll admit that there are a few moments when these elements blend in just the rights ways to result in entertaining scenes and sequences. Top-flight actors like Smith, Davis, and Robbie are sometimes able to take a very tepid script and make it work in spots, but most of the dialogue fails to stand out in any way.

The greater issue is the story itself. Firstly, there are simply far too many previously-unknown characters introduced to allow the film to build any real interest in any one of them in particular. The movie tries, especially in the cases of Deadshot and Quinn, but the attempts to make them compelling feel rather clumsy and cliche. When you add in attempts to offer half-baked emotional backstories for third-tier villains like Diablo, Katana, Rick Flag, and others, then they all just water each other down so that none become particularly interesting. This greatens the shame of having so many good actors play the roles, as they do their best with what they're given. They just weren't given enough, including screen time. It's as if the filmmakers assumed that everyone coming to see the movie was already familiar with the characters. This means that a Batman comic fan is likely to appreciate this movie far more than an average movie fan looking to get some new, engaging super-characters to entertain them.

Seven of the eight members of the "Squad." Only about three
of them are allowed any real time to become interesting. The
others just take up space and muddle up the proceedings.
Then there's the larger story. Nevermind that it just rehashes one of the all-time great war movies. I'm willing to look past that, since the added element of super-powered whack-jobs does introduce enough spice to liven up an unoriginal concept. No, the major crime is that the tale itself is incredibly sloppy. Through multiple flashbacks and a convoluted narrative, we learn that the team has been assembled to stop the menace of...a member of their team. And the only reason that this member becomes a threat is because she was sent out by Amanda Waller, who created the team. Now that is just stupid. And the arch villain here - the ultra-powerful mystic figure The Enchantress - has a motivation that is as generic as it gets: she wants to take over the world with her dark, mystic power. Just what she wants to do with the world when she controls it is never made clear in any way. Even now, after several days to digest and consider the movie, I don't know that I could give an accurate synopsis of all of the relevant plot points. It's one thing if a movie has a complexity of layers that can be analyzed and uncovered over time. It's another when someone can't even tell you exactly how certain actions led to others.

Then there's the Joker - as iconic a villain as has ever come from the world of comic books, or even American popular culture, for that matter. More than a few writers have shown that the Joker can be made an immensely strong, magnetic, and even disturbing character. Yet somehow, the rendition of him in Suicide Squad is just as messy as the rest of the movie. Extremely talented actor Jared Leto seemed to be drawing a bit from Heath Ledger's legendary performance in The Dark Knight, while attempting to add his own touches to it through an annoying, hushed voice. Combine this with an overall shallow character design (the Joker seems to live only to look flashy, act crazy, and love Harley Quinn), and he was surprisingly boring.

So the movie unfortunately fails in a great number of ways. I do think that it is better than Batman v Superman, which had far greater and far more unforgivable weaknesses. At least Suicide Squad tried something a bit different, and it does contain a few amusing sequences and decent one-liners. It gets a major nod over the previous, humorless DCEU entry just for bringing some fun back into the proceedings. Still, I can't imagine that I'll be watching this one again.

DC Extended Universe vs Marvel Cinematic Universe - the first 3 films

Now that the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) is officially three films into its franchise, I find myself considering just how it stacks up to where the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) was back when it was still in its earliest stages.

Movie #1: Man of Steel (2013) vs. Iron Man (2008)

In terms of pure dollars, Man of Steel actually outperformed Iron Man by about $100 million. But both were massive commercial successes. Money aside, though, Iron Man is a clearly superior movie. It's easy to forget now, with the MCU a full-fledged herd of cash cows, that Iron Man was far from a sure thing back when it came out. But Jon Favreau and the creative team brought us a wonderfully entertaining movie that still holds up. The only gripe I have about it is that the final battle is a bit dull, but everything else about it is great.

Man of Steel had the benefit of coming out after the MCU had well and truly turned the superhero movie genre into the insanely profitable entertainment form it is now. Even ignoring that significant advantage, it is a far weaker film than Iron Man. Marvel's flagship film knew how to have fun with its comic book character, while imbuing him with enough character and drama to make it engaging. Man of Steel made an attempt to imbue DC's flagship character with a somber seriousness that robbed him of any fun. For me, this was a critical flaw that is still rearing its head.

Winner: Iron Man, in very convincing fashion.

Movie #2: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) vs. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

The Incredible Hulk has been, for much of the MCU's life, the red-headed step child of the Universe. Until the recent Civil War, there was virtually no acknowledgement of the events or supporting characters depicted in the film. It's not terribly hard to see why. In my opinion, this is still the weakest MCU film to date. While it's not bad, it suffers from a few too many tepid scenes. There's a lack of particularly funny dialogue, and the final battle is a merely average slugfest between large monsters. Even in terms of cinematic world-building, it's clear that the MCU was still an iffy prospect, at best, when The Incredible Hulk was made. It was a possibility, but only a slight one, as evidenced by a near-complete lack of anything connected to other MCU films, whether Iron Man or later movies. The only hint is a brief mid-credit scene with Tony Stark, but this was far from a firm promise at the time. All of this might lead to you think that the DCEU could easily outdo the MCU's second film. And yet...

Batman v Superman was a shiny, flashy mess. I've done two different posts on it, once when it first came out and another when I recently looked at a few recent DC movies. Perhaps the only way it compares favorably to the mediocre Incredible Hulk is that it serves as a clearer connector between other DCEU films. Even there, though, the movie was extremely ham-fisted with how it crammed those connections down our throats. This is actually something that one could accuse the MCU's next movie of doing, though Batman v Superman was brutally less deft at it.

Winner: Incredible Hulk, in a close one. It might be a bit dull, but to me that's better than being annoyingly and inexcusably sloppy and pretentious, which is what Batman v Superman is.

Movie #3: Suicide Squad (2016) vs. Iron Man 2 (2010)

A curious matchup, as they are such different movies, especially in the grander scheme of their film universes.

Iron Man 2 was the movie that first really and truly put the "Universe" in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was the first film that was made with its creators having a vision for a much larger, shared movie universe which would soon include Thor, Captain America, and culminate in The Avengers. With this grand plan in mind, Iron Man 2 was forced to include certain elements which weren't necessarily key to the overall plot with Tony Stark at its center. The introduction of eventual key players like Black Widow and Phil Coulson can feel a bit forced, but not terribly so. Aside from this, the movie is merely so-so, with two of the weaker/incoherent villians in MCU history, but also including some solid action sequences and humor.

When compared to Suicide Squad, Iron Man 2 edges it out. The weaknesses of Suicide Squad are more numerous and egregious, while those in Iron Man 2 don't offend nearly as much.

Winner: Iron Man 2

So DC still has a lot of ground to make up, in my view. However, the movie studios are unlikely to see it that way. When one looks at the box office returns for the first three films in each franchise, the DCEU actually blows away the MCU. However, this is not exactly a fair comparison, given the fact that it was the MCU that truly stoked the public's appetite for blockbuster superhero flicks into a raging inferno that the DCEU is using to keep itself very warm.

The only hope I have that the DCEU will actually make a few decent movies is that they have different writers and directors for their various films (expcept for the Justice League movies, which Zack Snyder will head up). My hope is that one or more of the new directors is able to create better movies for the mythic characters from DC lore that so many of us know and love. At this point, though, I'll take even the worst MCU movie over the best DCEU one.