Where we’re at with superhero films
Superhero movies dominate the world. We’re 21 years after X-Men proved the genre could be a blockbuster draw, 13 years after Iron Man planted seeds for a shared ‘cinematic universe' to make certain Marvel titles part of an interconnected wider story, 9 years after The Avengers proved that model was a success and now 2 years after Avengers Endgame closed the chapter on 22 Marvel movies. Since Endgame the model of business that Marvel operates has become increasingly annoying, each new entry in their canon feels like an advert for the next, which has now expanded to include TV shows streaming on Disney+, which in turn are adverts for the next Marvel film, which in turn are adverts for the next Marvel TV show - repeat ad nauseam.
It’s a constant drip feed of content, ideal for the internet age where people want more, and they want it now. In the past, if you wanted to watch a Spider-Man film, you might have to watch previous entries in the Spider-Man film series, but it would stand on its own. Now to watch a Spider-Man film which is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you ideally want to have knowledge of the wider context of the Avengers and any other superheroes making a guest appearance or cameo, making the barrier for entry for a casual fan higher.
Remember the Suicide Squad film from 2016?
This is all to say that the current mold for a superhero film is one that reeks of corporate-mandated, overly focus-tested mediocrity. But perhaps more than any film in Marvel’s library, DC’s Suicide Squad from 2016 represents this the most. A terrible film which was the product of post-production twisting and tweaking, aiming to broaden its audience to appeal to those enjoying the light-hearted Marvel films, however it led to it being a hugely muddled and choppy film that didn’t really appeal to anyone. That film is a true misfire and what makes it all the more astonishing is that a similar post-production fiasco happened with DC’s attempt at their own crossover event film like The Avengers, Justice League, had many of the same issues.
Since Justice League bombed with fans and critics, there’s been some re-shaping of DC’s comic book films. Directors and writers are given more control over the end product, and it has led to certain ones feeling a bit more distinct than Marvel. Now, in what’s surely one of the fastest do-overs in film history, we have another Suicide Squad film. Titled THE Suicide Squad, released this year, written and directed by a Marvel alum, James Gunn.
James Gunn and Guardians of the Galaxy
I’ve been out of the loop with Marvel films since Spider-Man: Homecoming released in 2017, since by that point the consistent reaction I was having to any films in their cinematic universe was “that was fine, kind of average”. One film from Marvel I still enjoy however is James Gunn’s first Guardians of the Galaxy film. It follows the general Marvel formula, but has some genuine heart, funny moments and is generally a fun little space adventure film. Gunn went on to direct a second, which turned up the first’s eccentricities to occasionally unbearable levels, before he was fired from the production of the third instalment due to edgy tweets he had typed years and years ago. As far as twitter cancelling's go, this one was for particularly tame reasons. A man who got his start making deliberately provocative films with Troma entertainment made a few risqué jokes on Twitter? OK.
Disney buckled though and with his release he was snapped up by rival comic book movie empire, DC. Given the option to make a film based on whatever DC property he liked, he chose Suicide Squad. Which does definitely fit his wheelhouse of sardonic comic book inspired movies. Hilariously, the day after he was publicly hired to direct The Suicide Squad, Disney re-hired him back for the next Guardians of the Galaxy movie, upon seeing that being twitter cancelled doesn’t always mean that someone is then blacklisted or untouchable.
Thoughts on The Suicide Squad
The Suicide Squad
Director: James Gunn
Writer: James Gunn
Starring: Idris Elba, Margot Robbie, John Cena
Released in 2021
I actually really enjoyed this film for it’s first two acts, despite some issues. I really like that this is stand-alone. You can watch this without knowing anything about DC and its vast universe and still probably enjoy it. The general premise is good. A set of z-list comic book villains are put into a “Suicide Squad” to go do dangerous missions for the USA wherein their lives are expendable. James Gunn is clearly having fun with the extended cast here, there’s a false opening featuring a different suicide squad than the one we follow, who have a set of mostly laughable gimmicks, such as a man with detachable arms and “Javelin Man” who throws a javelin.
There’s some funny moments to be enjoyed here, though the humour is definitely hit or miss. Bouncing between some well written gags but then back to simple, juvenile vulgarity. The film’s tone is mostly well managed to be light-hearted but not overly self-aware and snarky like Deadpool for example. The actual core characters are all given enough of a spotlight to feel worthwhile and not just included as a snarky joke.
Idris Elba’s generic mercenary character is the pseudo-lead of the film, and he has a generic backstory where despite being a villain, he has a daughter who he cares about who is being used as leverage to make him work for the government. He’s an enjoyable presence, I particularly liked the friction he has with John Cena’s character, but as a lead character he’s not worth much. This film really follows the formula in use in Gunn’s original Guardians of the Galaxy, but it lacks the heart. In Guardians, Peter Quill was a good lead because he had a character arc with emotional payoff. Here, the third act emotional payoff is hard to take as anything other than misplaced schmaltz. The power of friendship and working together saves the day, hooray! It feels like a bit of whiplash after how cynical the previous two acts were in comparison, with all the vulgarity and gore. Though the absurd premise of the final act, being the squad going up against a massive intergalactic starfish, is a stupid fun visual.
The Suicide Squad should strive to be everything the Disney Marvel movies aren’t. James Gunn, having worked under their limitations and even been fired by them, should have used that energy to make something that actually goes against the grain. Yes there’s sex, drugs and rock n roll on offer here, as well as lots of gore, but formula-wise this is just another superhero film. It’s hidden well enough that even a cynic like me can be left pleased for a majority of the runtime, but the final act pulls back the curtain.
So The Suicide Squad deserves some credit, it’s better than most superhero films by virtue of the fact it feels like it’s got some character. You can feel James Gunn’s fingerprints all over it. It doesn’t feel overdetermined by a directorial committee of corporate IP holders. But this is the James Gunn who’s been chilling with Disney since 2014, so The Suicide Squad ends up feeling like a vulgar and gory remix of Guardians of the Galaxy, only lacking the heart that made that film worth sticking through the formulaic final act blockbuster nonsense. It’s worth a shot, something teenage me would’ve really enjoyed. But sadly, it’s not quite as exciting as the idea of James Gunn being let loose creatively on a comic-book property should be.