“Suicide Squad” is a movie so spectacularly awful that it’s tempting to see it as a malignant singularity. But in the context of a summer that’s produced a nearly unbroken string of lackluster-at-best blockbusters, it looks more like a perfect storm, the product of everything that’s wrong with studio filmmaking happening at the same time. Like the movie’s “Team X,” which gathers together the world’s most notorious criminals, “Suicide Squad” is the worst of the worst — but it’s not alone, and that makes it indicative of a larger problem.
As Kim Masters points out in her account of the movie’s troubled production in The Hollywood Reporter, the tempestuous backstory “barely stands out in today’s landscape.” Perhaps more alarming than Warner Bros.’ last-ditch attempts to salvage “Suicide Squad” are all the similarly uninspired summer tentpoles that apparently failed to set off alarm bells. “Independence Day: Resurgence,” “X-Men: Apocalypse,” “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” “The Legend of Tarzan,” “Jason Bourne,” “Warcraft“: This is what plays at the multiplex in Hell.
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What’s different this summer is that audiences as well as critics are giving big summer movies a pass: Of the year’s Top 10 domestic grossers, only three were released after Memorial Day, and none later than the middle of June. “Star Trek Beyond” and “Ghostbusters” may have some life left in them, and “Suicide Squad” would be guaranteed a big opening weekend if the movie were nothing but two hours of Margot Robbie in hot pants, but after that, there’s not much in the way of bright spots on the horizon. Help us, “Pete’s Dragon”: you’re our only hope.
Perhaps audiences saturated in the apocalyptic rhetoric of the presidential campaign don’t feel like watching yet another movie about the end of the world, which might explain why children’s movies about talking animals comprise fully half of 2016’s biggest movies. (Four of the other five are comic book movies, and one is “Central Intelligence,” Hollywood’s latest excuse to be surprised that people of color buy movie tickets.) But look at the string of duds through the bile-green lens of “Suicide Squad,” and the problem isn’t just that people aren’t in the mood. It’s an industry that now treats movies as extensions of intellectual property, not just first, but second and third; that neither knows how to create new stars or to use the ones it’s got; one that’s all but abandoned the middle ground where filmmakers aren’t hamstrung by budget limitations but aren’t spending so much that the studio can’t leave them alone.
Watch “Jason Bourne” or “Apocalypse” or “The Legend of Tarzan,” and you’re struck by their sense of purpose — or rather, their lack of one. They are the worst arguments for their own existence. “Bourne” has some memorable scenes, and “Legend” has half an idea about rewriting a colonialist fantasy for the post-colonial era, but the reasons they were made lie in quarterly earnings reports and licensing agreements, not artistic expression or even the desire to tell an involving story. The phrase that keeps coming back to me is from Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” when Arthur Dent asks why his house is being bulldozed to make room for a new highway: “It’s a bypass. You’ve got to build bypasses.”
Plenty of great, or at least solidly entertaining, movies have been made for less noble reasons: “Captain America: Civil War” is no less a product of corporate imperatives than “Suicide Squad” — “The Sony deal closed, so can we get Spider-Man in here somewhere?” — but they’re filled with enough grace that the pandering isn’t a big deal. There’s nothing wrong with giving people what they want, but you have to understand why they want it, and try to give it to them in a way they don’t expect. It’s more exciting to unwrap a present when it doesn’t look like a bicycle covered in wrapping paper.
With a pre-existing fanbase who will see just about anything with a familiar logo upfront, these movies aren’t even products to be sold so much as imperatives to be obeyed. They’re not made for people; they’re made for robots. As Mark Harris pointed out in his 2014 essay, “The Birdcage,” Warner Bros.’ Kevin Tsujihara is the first person to ascend to the position of studio chief with no experience in filmmaking: His background is in “brand extension and ancillary divisions,” and according to Masters’ “Suicide Squad’ article, what really upset him about “Batman v Superman’s” reception was “the damage to the brand.”
When branding is all you care about, branding is all you get: Actors striking fetching poses and rattling off trailer-ready lines rather than building actual characters; a company that specializes in two-minute trailers consulting on a feature-length film; movies like toy chests so stuffed full of action figures they won’t close. Something else you get: People staying home, or lining up to see movies starring Helen Mirren and Sally Field, or weirdo allegories about loneliness in which Paul Dano rides Daniel Radcliffe’s farting corpse like a jetski.
Tsujihari is right to worry about brand fatigue, but the brand that’s in danger is event movies as a whole, the ones studios count on people feeling like they need to see no matter what.
As the producer Keith Calder wrote on Twitter, “Bad movies piss in the pool that we’re all trying to convince audiences to return to. A bad movie is a hostile act against the film industry.” There will always be people young, foolish, or bored enough to see what marketing tells them to see, but taking them for granted is the best way to assure that their numbers will dwindle.