Bad movies have been around as long as movies themselves, just like a bad version of anything has been around since that same thing; it just goes part and parcel with stuff existing, I suppose. But while undeniably effective when intending to express a simple idea, the word "bad" begins to flounder the more you ask of it — specifically, once the conversation moves past the "if" portion of the proceedings (i.e. "Is it bad, bro?") and enters the arena of "how" (i.e. "How bad is it, bro?")
So for someone like myself, who prefers drilling down into what works in a movie or doesn't, along with not just if I liked it but why, the word "bad," by itself, is simply insufficient once we get beyond the first five seconds of a discussion about one. And this very thing occurred to me quite frequently last weekend, when practically everyone I knew either posted or let me know personally that the movie Suicide Squad was not-so-hot. And my response to this was always "How so?"
Because for me, there's one of two categories a "bad movie" can occupy: those that are bad because they're poorly-executed, and those that are bad because they're disappointing. So which one was Suicide Squad then? I'll be getting to that, of course, but first I think it's important to define some key terms here.
(Note: While all this most definitely applies to movies in general, for the purposes of consistency and simplicity, I will only be dealing with comic book movies for this piece.)
So What's the Difference, Exactly?
The difference between a poorly-executed movie and a disappointing one is that, while the former never really grabs our attention, captures our interest, or provokes any kind of palpable reaction from us, the latter often does one, two, or even all three of those things... before squandering the audience investment generated by them. The ways in which that squandering transpires varies from disappointing film to disappointing film, of course, but it usually comes down to one of three ways: 1) the promising narrative strands unravel before the film can get to the end (e.g. 2015's Fantastic Four reboot), 2) the filmmakers are unable to successfully stick the landing at the end (e.g. How Captain America: The First Avenger literally couldn't land the plane for reasons that were never made apparent), or 3) the effectively built up to ending doesn't actually pay off what was set up.
Case in point for #3: V For Vendetta, while by no means perfect leading up to the ending, was still a well crafted film in terms of creating a world and characters that both reflected and established its featured themes and tone; its sociopolitical vision was clear and consistent throughout, in all phases. The movie had something both obvious and specific to say about the seemingly reflexive human desire for freedom in the face of a tyrannical authority — an authority that is only ever made possible through the mass cultivation of fear — and it made sure the narrative structure built up to expressing that something.
And then the ending happened.
The visuals at play here are legitimately stunning when you keep in mind what this movie was supposed to be about. I mean, here you have the symbolic slaves to a stifling autocratic regime dressed the same and pointing in one direction because they were all told to by someone else facing off against the noble, freedom-seeking revolutionaries... who're also all dressed the same and pointing in one direction because they were told to by someone else. So apparently, after all its anti-dictator and pro-liberty set up work, the finale of the movie ended up telling its audience that "freedom" is really just about getting someone new to tell us what to do.
It's difficult to put into words how much this frustrated me when I first saw it; I was actually made physically angry. In my mind, at the time, either the ending was an elaborate prank on the part of the filmmakers or an unforgivably misguided way to close the story out, given everything they'd strongly/repeatedly established before. I thus left the theater both upset and bewildered, wondering just how exactly this was allowed to happen and/or how nobody caught it at any point along the way. (I think I was even muttering to myself.)
Now compare this intense reaction to V For Vendetta with that of something like X-Men Origins: Wolverine, where the movie never generated much interest in me, failed to ever bring what little it had going for it together to any notable degree, and ended with an unnecessary extravaganza of ineffectual schlock that I, to this day, only care about because of how much it screwed up the character of Deadpool (though that's obviously been tempered more than somewhat by that character's most recent film). But other than that, there's just nothing else there for me to engage with; it's all one big shoulder-shrugging "Meh."
So although I greatly disliked both movies, the manner in which I disliked them and the reasons why were strikingly dissimilar. And when examining and/or discussing movies outside of what we merely prefer (which is 100% subjective, in all cases, so there's never really anything to critique there) that difference becomes fairly important. (More on this in a bit.)
A Perfect Illustration
The most helpful guide in sketching out the difference between both kinds of bad is when two films within the same genre and that feature the same characters/world each manage to be one and the other. And there is no better example of this, in my opinion, than the last two live-action films centered around the character of Superman exclusively: 2006's Superman Returns went one way by fancying itself a long delayed sequel to 1980's Superman II, while 2013's Man of Steel instead elected to reboot this fictional reality (and most of the individual parts that make it up) entirely.
However, both would still end up being considered subpar efforts by legions of fans for, interestingly enough, vastly different reasons. While many criticized Superman Returns for its lack of both inventiveness and excitement, others would later take Man of Steel to task for its muddled, overly-complicated plot and unorthodox approach to Superman's character.
And then there were those, like me, who did both.
Superman Returns = Disappointment
Chief amongst these, the decision on the part of the filmmakers to build off the two Richard Donner Superman films was not just a complimentary gesture to the iconic status of those classic movies; it was also a stroke of creative genius, from a narrative perspective. Putting together a story in which Superman comes back to our planet after having left us for awhile, that also takes full advantage of the Superman we, as an audience, had culturally imprinted upon us years back, directly linked the narrative reality to our actual reality flawlessly, considering the release of the movie would also mark the return of that quintessential Superman into our popular culture.
And the opportunity this maneuver presented was, to me at least, quite obvious: it re-introduced the Superman of that earlier time and place to our new/different modern reality, which would, by itself, set up the entire narrative conflict for the whole movie in one stroke. How would this icon of yesteryear now operate in a much more complex and savvy world? How would we respond to him after having first felt abandoned and then having to evolve on our own? Would we resent him? Would he resent us? This idea was an absolute treasure trove of possibilities, which got right to the core of who he was and what purpose he served for us, both as a symbol and as a man.
But instead of really running with this idea, and using it to address Superman's shifting place in our world, the movie focused this grand conflict on just his relationship with (a woefully miscast) Lois Lane. While all that was appropriately arduous and messy, the people of Earth, however, seemed entirely unchanged after his time away, and the fictional reality presented was not tailored to modern times at all. It was such an unbelievably wasted opportunity.
Superman should've had to re-earn our trust, and learned to adapt to this new reality without compromising who he was. Instead of being the sole player in this game, Lois Lane should've instead served as the most acute centerpiece of it, and the conflict should've been even further developed by a now far more powerful and advantageously situated Luthor for Superman to contend with (i.e. this onetime criminal should've astutely stepped into the gaping void created by Superman's departure, taking full advantage of what this mother of all power vacuums would surely offer). There were so many interesting possibilities that should've been explored for an audience that was so primed to explore them but, in the end, all we got was the same old stuff. That's what made it so disappointing.
(Oh, and Superman having a kid who commits murder sure didn't help matters either.)
Man of Steel = Poorly Executed
Man of Steel, on the other hand, just sought to be different simply for the sake of being different, it seemed. Instead of having a clear vision for the character — rooted in a specific narrative goal — it was apparent early on that the filmmakers instead offered us a Superman that was only there to serve as a tonal/thematic departure from tradition, as well as a generalized response to the many criticisms slung at him throughout the years.
In his excellent review, internet critic Samuel Gavin laid it out perfectly when he said the following:
"It comes off to me like there were a list of essentials the studio needed the film to contain. It needed Chris Nolan's name, so that it would attract a large audience. It needed to look and feel like the Dark Knight Trilogy, so that it would attract a large audience. Superman will punch everyone and everything this time around, so that it would attract a large audience. And since people constantly complain that Superman isn't relatable enough, the film will focus on Superman as an outcast based on his alien origins, and having the weight of the world on his shoulders, so that it would attract a large audience."
"And this leads to a lot of things: 'Man of Steel' tries to appeal to too many people, and in the end doesn't really have much to offer. It's not a film that knows what it wants to be as much as a film that knows what it doesn't want to be. It doesn't want to be the Richard Donner Superman. It doesn't want to be the 'Superman Returns' Superman. And it doesn't even want to be the comic book Superman. So what we end up with is a really uneven film."
"When you try to appeal to the sci-fi fans by giving us a good twenty minutes on another planet, then try to appeal to the people looking for substance and deeper meaning with characters giving all these speeches, and then try to appeal to the masses with the action sequences, it doesn't run at a coherent pace, it doesn't fit together. It doesn't have any time to pay off the setups or set up the payoffs. It just doesn't work."
There really isn't much more for me to add here, except that I agree with this assessment whole-heartedly. While so much of the furor around the movie over the last few years has been focused on whether or not people appreciated Zack Snyder's vision of Superman, my response to this, on some level, has always been "What vision? All I saw was a Superman who didn't act or ever even seem like Superman for no evident, consequential reason at all."
If I had the impression, at any point in the film, that this version of Superman was made different from the classic interpretation for a specific set of reasons that manifested themselves in a precise narrative vision, however, then I would've immediately shifted my assessment over to the "disappointing" section without issue (since I unabashedly adore the classic interpretation, but can still appreciate the importance of trying new things). But that absence of clarity and exactness only made for what was simply a poorly-executed film (from a storytelling perspective, that is).
So Why Does This Matter?
It matters for two reasons: 1) As I said before, a disappointing movie has to have at least a few things going right for it, in order for us to be letdown when they don't come together and, whenever even a handful of elements are able to work, it indicates at least some amount of vision, effort, and competence at play (which poorly-executed movies often have none of), and 2) the state of feeling disappointed, even to the slightest degree, means that we were affected by the movie in the first place — which we're likely to remember later on — and that alone is an achievement when it comes to narrative filmmaking (while poorly-executed movies usually bore us and/or overwhelm us with a barrage of meaningless imagery, before we go on to forget them entirely).
So when I finally sat down to watch Suicide Squad this week, that was the question I was asking myself: If this was, in fact, as bad as I'd been led to believe, would I be made disappointed or bored? And the answer turned out to be a little bit of both. On the one hand, the movie didn't engage me much at all because there wasn't a gripping story to be found or fully realized characters for me to invest in but, on the other, I also saw pieces — both seeds and even a few saplings — of interesting ideas that could've been made into something substantial if given the attention and proper care. In other words, I'm quite certain there was another movie somewhere in there that I might've really enjoyed.
Now, the trendy narrative with all this has become that the failure of the film to really grab movie fans (outside of DC's already ardent loyalists, of course) can be directly traced back to studio interference — i.e. that if the suits just hadn't with all that gosh darned meddling then director David Ayer would've assuredly delivered a great movie. But I'd advise you all to not so easily allow that alluring narrative to fully seduce you because, while studio suits will always make for compelling bad guys in the hearts and minds of those artistically inclined, there have been plenty of cases in which a director's personal vision sank a movie's reception. 2007's Spider-Man 3 is a great example of this; due to his previous successes, Sam Raimi had earned some serious creative control by this point — far more than Ayer, at least — and that still resulted in an excessively eccentric, over-the-top disappointment.
But that last word there was "disappointment," and this speaks directly to my ultimate point: Yes, bad movies will always exist, but those that are bad because a filmmaker of both intention and vision made — and was allowed to make — a few big, bad swings are almost always of the disappointing variety, while those that come from a lack of meaningful individual design and/or having too many cooks in the kitchen typically land within the realm of the poorly-executed.
And again, as stated above, being disappointed by a film is ultimately so, so much better, if for no other reason than it engages us on a human level.
This being the case, while it is indeed possible that, had Ayer been left alone, he still might've constructed a film worthy of being pummeled by critics and audiences alike, it nonetheless would've been preferable to what we all ended up watching. Because much like the antiheroes of that very movie who stopped a truly evil being from destroying the world, some kinds of bad are just better than others.