Although DC had shown every sign of confidence in #SuicideSquad - commissioning a sequel and signing Margot Robbie up for launching a spin-off - the late embargo on reviews caused some concerns. With the embargo lifted, the critics have begun to have their say, and the responses have been mixed. Some of the critics have singled out director David Ayer, and he gave a simple response:
The key part of that is the line "Made it for the fans". It's the second time we've heard that argument this year, with the same argument used for #BatmanVSuperman: Dawn of Justice. On the face of it, it's a smart way of casting aside criticism of the film - but it carries some real dangers...
1. Can't Critics Be Fans Too?
It's a matter of record that some parts of the film industry have a real sense of snobbery towards superheroes. Birdman director Alejandro Iñárritu famously described Hollywood's latest superhero focus as "cultural genocide." Introducing the 2015 Oscars ceremony, musician and actor Jack Black described superhero films in cutting terms:
"Opening with lots of zeroes, all we get are superheroes: Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, Jediman, Sequelman, Prequelman — formulaic scripts!"
Thankfully, on the whole the critics don't seem to be part of that snobbish picture. The first reactions to Captain America: Civil War, for example, were very positive indeed. If you run through critical reviews of superhero films - ranging from 1989's classic Batman to 1998's Blade, and on to the recent surge in Marvel popularity - you very definitely get the sense that there are many critics who are real fans of superhero films.
Personally, I view the idea of "made for the fans" as insulting - both to the critics, and to the fans. It sets up a false dichotomy, where critics can't be fans, and where fans aren't expected to be critical. That latter point is one that fans don't seem to have realized; it implies that fans are lacking in critical faculty, and will accept anything, no matter how poor in quality, because it's "made" with them in mind.
2. This Risks Alienating Your Audience
I was first introduced to superheroes through the 1990s X-Men animated series, but from an early age I was invested in both Marvel and DC. I literally never missed an episode of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, and I'm currently enjoying rewatching Smallville. I remember my shock when news of Superman's death hit the international news (in those pre-Internet days), and I remember actually crying as I read the issue where he finally died. I'm currently reading DC's "Rebirth" arc with delight, and am seriously excited about the comics' current direction.
Personally, I view Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as a disappointing film, filled to overflowing with grand and beautiful imagery, but with real problems in pacing, plot, and characterization. Apparently, in spite of my bona fide love of DC, that means the film was never made with me in mind in the first place. Likewise, if I don't enjoy Suicide Squad (I dearly, dearly hope to, as the trailers have been gorgeous), that's because the film wasn't made for me - it means I'm not a 'true fan'.
Do DC realize how dangerous that implication is? If Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice wasn't made for me, and neither is Suicide Squad, then why should I be excited about Wonder Woman? If the first two movies in the DC Extended Universe aren't made for me, why should I go and see the third?
DC Film cannot afford to isolate large segments of the audience by telling them, "This film wasn't made for you anyway, so who cares if you didn't enjoy it?"
3. Every Release Becomes An Argument
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was possibly the most controversial superhero film of all time, even before it was released. When the critics began to give their responses to the film, many DC fans were furious. The accusations were harsh, and the debate became very, very nasty.
Review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes was singled out for criticism. History is repeating itself for Suicide Squad; right now, there's a petition to shut down Rotten Tomatoes for its anti-DC bias. As I type, it has over 12,000 supporters. The best comment has come from Drew Morton, who observed:
"I'm signing so I can smugly tell you that Rotten Tomatoes is owned by Warner Brothers, who also owns DC Comics."
My fellow Creator Redmond Bacon (no relation) has explained elsewhere why this petition is misguided; that's not my purpose here. Rather, I'd point out that - by arguing their films aren't intended for the critics, but for the "fans" - DC is encouraging some fans to lash out in fury, and even to buy in to conspiracy theories (such as the idea Disney is paying for negative reviews). Some fans got so furious over Batman v Superman that they sent death threats to critics.
Trying to limit the damage of negative reviews, DC Film has tended to set review embargoes to only a few days before the films are released. The result has been that, for both Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, the controversy has been at its fiercest at the very same time the film has hit the box office. Any studio wants the release of their film to be celebrated; twice now, the release of a DC movie has been the cause of intense argument, often distanced from reality. The danger is that this damages the brand in the long term.
DC would be wise to ensure their cast and crew drop the line "made for fans". Not every film is going to be loved, and this saying is frankly a cop-out, a way of avoiding engaging with the critics' comments. It's insulting to both critics and fans, implying the critics can't be fans and the fans can't be critical, while alienating anyone who doesn't believe the film lives up to the hype. Worse still, it feeds into an atmosphere where fans lash out in anger rather than simply enjoy the film.
I want DC Film to flourish. In spite of the critical reviews, I remain optimistic for Suicide Squad; some of the actors are tremendous (Margot Robbie and Will Smith spring to mind), and the trailers have been fantastic. I'll be watching Suicide Squad this weekend, and dearly hoping that this film will be everything I want it to be. If it is, though, there's one thing I won't be saying.
"This one's for the fans."
Are you looking forward to Suicide Squad? Let me know in the comments!