There is a phenomenon growing in the backrooms of the big Hollywood studios. In the world of the multi-million-dollar blockbuster, we live—as the Chinese curse goes—in interesting times. What marks these times? A distinct effort on the part of the big studios to avoid schlock and to make solid films, only to undo those efforts in post-production after the films have been shot.
Such is the plight of Suicide Squad, directed by David Ayer. The film, based on a comic book series set in the DC Comics universe, follows a sort of Dirty Dozen formula, with a team of criminal supervillains-turned anti-heroes. It’s a good premise and puts a unique spin on the superhero ensemble already made immensely popular with Marvel’s Avengers series and Twentieth Century Fox’s X-Men franchise. The trailers for this latest entry into the DC “Cinematic Universe” looked promising. The fact that it was directed by David Ayer, an active Christian in the film industry, gave the somewhat dark-themed film even more potential, at least for this viewer. Ayer’s 2014 war film Fury depicted Christian spirituality amid a gritty, violent landscape of war, and working with Ayer on the set of that film influenced one of its stars, Shia LaBeouf, to convert to Christianity. Ayer tackling a story about villains becoming anti-heroes was an intriguing prospect.
What is the result? Well, the film is frustrating. The first half-hour is a mess, an erratic, unfocused hodge-podge that blitzes through the introduction of each villain on the team of “heroes.” With Superman out of the picture, government bureaucrat Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) wants to put together a team as a line of defense against the next super-powered alien being, who may come along with somewhat less benevolent goals. Waller convinces her superiors to green-light her “suicide squad,” despite skepticism about her ability to control such characters, only after she loses control of one of the proposed team’s main assets, a powerful witch entity called Enchantress (Cara Delevinge), and inadvertently triggers the main crisis of the film.
After this wobbly start, the film does pick up a bit and we get the sense that there was probably a pretty good, character-driven story here at one point. This phase of the film features the moral change of Will Smith’s character Deadshot, a conscienceless assassin but also, paradoxically, a loving father. Smith’s character should have been the focus of the entire film, and his transformation should have been the real crux of the story. The potential of the film’s concept compared to other superhero-ensemble movies is that here you get to see bad guys become the good guys, with all the emotions and rationales that come with that change. A story crafted around Smith’s Deadshot would have had more pay-off in this respect, but what there is of Deadshot’s story arc in the film makes for its biggest strength.
Other strong notes include Margot Robbie’s performance as Harley Quinn and Jay Hernandez’s El Diablo—a character whose moral transformation has already taken place and who spends most of the film unwilling to use his superpowers because of the evil they once inflicted. The film’s strengths notwithstanding, whatever vision Ayer had originally intended for this story and its characters got lost in the unevenness of how it all unfolds.
Two cuts of Suicide Squad exist: Ayer’s and the studio’s. The post-production process for the movie is an interesting case study of the aforementioned phenomena currently effecting major, big-budget blockbusters. Studio meddling is nothing new. It’s expected. But the emerging trend is for studios to hire directors and writers with a more creative vision, despite not having CVs filled with blockbuster successes, only to tinker with and re-cut their films beyond recognition in post-production.
One of the first notable instances of the studio hunt for freshman creators was 2014’s Godzilla remake. The script was by a somewhat unproven screenwriter and the film was directed by Gareth Edwards, who, prior to being handed the reins on such a recognizable pop-culture intellectual property, had only directed a low-budget science-fiction film called Monsters. Then there was last year’s Jurassic World, directed by Colin Trevorrow. Before taking on this soft-reboot/sequel to the original Spielberg film from 1993, Trevorrow had only directed a short film, a documentary, and the low-budget Duplass Brothers’ indie film Safety Not Guaranteed. Something was now afoot. Studios, known to play it safe as investment-return overseers, were beginning to take creative risks. Both Godzilla and Jurassic World were successes and taking risks on less experienced but creatively inspired filmmakers received a boost. Then came 2015’s Fantastic Four.
Directed by Josh Trank—who debuted as a director with the successful lower-budget Chronicle—this re-imagined Fantastic Four was basically unwatchable and the film performed poorly, critically and financially. Trank had wrestled with the studio, Fox, to get the cut of the film he wanted, and took to Twitter to complain, implying his vision for the film would have been superior. Was it so? Who knows, but the studio revamping in post-production after hiring a creative, if comparatively unknown, director is now an emerging pattern and precisely what gripped Ayer’s efforts with Suicide Squad.
My hunch is that Star Wars: The Force Awakens might signal the end of the trend. Unlike Fantastic Four, The Force Awakens performed beyond outstandingly: critically, financially, and in the court of public opinion. But while it may be enjoyable, the film relied heavily on nostalgia, and took few, if any, risks in its storytelling. It was written and directed by a hitter with a high average and proven record, J.J. Abrams, and was infused with the same fun and levity that has worked well for Lucasfilm’s parent studio, Disney, with its other child—Marvel Studios and its Avengers franchise.
In the case of Suicide Squad, reshoots were mandated by the studio and the film was rumored to have been tampered with to make it more “fun.” Batman v Superman, which tried to match the dark, serious tone of the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight films, was lambasted by critics as being overwrought (especially as compared to the Avengers films), and it seems that the scramble to rework Suicide Squad was likely a consequence of Batman v Superman’s poor reception. The studio’s fingerprints are all over the first 30 minutes or so of Suicide Squad, as it appears to have been hacked up and stitched back together to play out more tongue-and-cheek. The film, though critically ridiculed, has been quite a financial success. The lesson? Fun, Avengers-style romps sell. Studios might hire more creative, less experienced filmmakers for these big franchise films, but they’ll reshoot and re-edit the work to fit the mold anyway.
Rogue One, the next Star Wars film, set to be released later this year, was sent back for reshoots after the tone of the finished product was deemed too much like a war film and too unlike previous Star Wars films. But that was the charter of the new Star Wars series of films, of which Rogue One is the first installment: to experiment with genre and tone within the context of the Star Wars universe. But the Rogue One script was greenlit prior to The Force Awaken’s theatrical release and subsequent monumental success. Filming took place prior as well. The reshoots were only ordered after. Who is Rogue One’s director? None other than Godzilla’s Gareth Edwards.
What does this portend for the future of the blockbuster? We will have to see. But it might all rest on Star Wars: Episode VIII’s writer/director Rian Johnson, who began his career with a fantastic little Indie flick called Brick and whom Disney tapped to take control of one of the most lucrative movie franchises in history. If Episode VIII breaks formula, dares to tread into some new territory, and avoids significant studio-mandated reshoots designed to fit a model—and if it is successful, critically and financially—we may well be entering a new age of creative risk-taking that could open up further possibilities down the line for up-and-coming filmmakers. If it undergoes the kind of post-production tweaking of other recent blockbusters, including Suicide Squad, we might be slipping back into business as usual.
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