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Comic Book Movie Palate Cleansing

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It’s Thursday afternoon, it’s still more-or-less summer, and in this morning’s Jolt Jim Geraghty chose to review Suicide Squad. (Well, sufficient time has passed, people have made up their minds on the movie.)  Time for a break from the serious and consequential.  Geraghty, like many other reviewers, pans the movie.  He makes some good points.  I will not say this is a great movie myself.  A friend texted me after seeing it with a one word review, “Meh.”  I’d go with “Meh+.”  I don’t think the movie should be ignored, but I am not going to tell you it is a great movie going experience either.

The reviewers that are panning the movie are a generation or two behind me, but still a generation or two ahead of the target audience of the film.  The most enjoyable action movies I have seen in the last several years are the rarely discussed Gerard Butler vehicles Olympus Has Fallen and London Has Fallen.  Obviously they make money or sequels would not happen, but they are not blockbuster films.  They are throwbacks to the 1980’s action flicks and very different from the action films that dominate box offices these days.  The Butler movies are shinier.  The hero is more heroic and the villain more evil – fewer grey lines.

Blockbusters are made for young people. Adults, whether old, old like me or just adult like Geraghty can make a film successful, but it takes the youth to make a movie succeed hugely.  Today’s youth like there stories with a lot of grey lines and they like them dark, even when heroic.  This trend has been obvious in comics publishing for quite some time now.  Starting with the publication of The Watchmen comic book miniseries in the 1980’s, our heroes have grown successively darker and darker, and less heroic.  Suicide Squad actually may be the culmination of this trend – no longer is it about flawed heroes, but about heroic villains.

I think that many of the purely negative reviews for the Suicide Squad film are coming from people not quite attuned to this trend.  As I say, the movie has it’s faults, but I also think, and the box office attests, that it is hitting the mark pretty right on with blockbuster making audiences. So, specifics…

Geraghty complains:

Suicide Squad is the third film set in this DC Comics universe, and frankly, it’s far too early for this kind of story. We suddenly learn that super-powered criminals have been running around for a long time, a fact no one felt obligated to mention in Man of Steel or Batman vs. Superman. Everyone seemed stunned by the arrival of aliens in Man of Steel, but they had gotten used to a psychotic clown-faced crime lord, an alligator man living in the sewers and eating people, a hitman who can kill targets with ricochets and a thief who uses boomerangs as weapons.

You’re missing the point about Superman, Jim.  Aliens may be new, but what is new and unique about Superman is not that he wears a cape and battles bad guys – it’s his purity.  In Batman v Superman, Batman admits to being a criminal in his vigilante practices.  Batman knows he is tainted, even by his heroic actions.  Superman is something quite different.  With Supes the battles are different on power levels for sure, but also because of how clear the battle lines are.  Superman is clearly good – who the heck knows with Batman.  Perhaps the saddest thing of all is that the world does not trust Supes because he is so apparently good.

Geraghty does have a legitimate complaint about the structure of the Suicide Squad.  If you have read the Suicide Squad comics, at their best, they really are Harley Quinn and Deadshot stories.  The movie does not give us enough of these two characters.  Frankly Geraghty’s complaint about the other characters being entirely disposable is dead on to the comic book – they are.  (Including Joker) Everyone that is not Harley and Deadshot exists purely to drive their story forward – the problem in the movie is not enough of those two, not too little of the others.  Waller is Deus Ex Machina so they can set new disposable characters up around Harley and Deadshot.   That is the film’s primary weakness.  Harley and Deadshot are two of the most fascinating characters in comics – very evil, very, very evil, and yet in search of redemption.  (BTW, the comic book has on occasion lost its way making itself about the team or the plot line instead of about developing Harley and Deadshot -so the fact that the film does it is not really surprising.)

The film is a pretty good adaptation of the comic book material, at least as these things go.  Printed material, even graphic printed material, can develop a character much better than a film will ever be able to.  Suicide Squad also suffers from the same thing Batman/Superman did which is too much stage setting for the next movie at the cost of the story being told.  When Marvel started this game, they were not sure it would succeed sufficiently to warrant sequels so they poured more into the movie at hand.  The Marvel movies have started to suffer as they have started to work very hard to use this movie to build audience for the next movie.  DC is starting this game in the middle, and suffering the same consequences.  Given the box office, a sequel to Suicide Squad is coming.  Now that Batman/Superman is out on video I have watched it several times – it has grown on me.  (The 1/2 hour longer “Ultimate Version” really does hold together much better than the theatrical version)  I think Suicide Squad will do the same thing.  The great DC movie has not been made yet, but its seeds are apparent in Suicide Squad.

In the end I don’t think the problems with Suicide Squad are in the movie, I think they are in the culture.  Not only in a culture that likes its heroes less heroic, but in a culture where the point of these stories is not these stories, but the next story.  It is in an audience that really wants to disappear into these fictional worlds rather than use them to temporarily escape from the current one.  Take the movie for what it is.  Fix the culture.

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