The Success of Suicide Squad – and the State of the Summer Blockbuster

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Anybody fortunate enough to be involved in film criticism will have been posed with this very question countless times across the past two weeks: “is Suicide Squad any good?” Much like Christmas Day with the family, the conversation turned to The Force Awakens, and next thing you know, it’s Boxing Day.

People are desperate to know whether these films, which they have such a vested interest in – born, often out of nostalgia for original films or comics, are going to be a hit, or if they’re going to be a miss. Suicide Squad is pretty much all we’ve been talking about since its release last week, and chances are, it will remain that way for a short while longer. It’s this particular breed of movie that is now associated with how we perceive the summer blockbuster to be.

So while you couldn’t be blamed for thinking that perhaps there are too many superhero movies congesting each and every summer, when you realise how many people still care for them – which is reflected in the box office – you realise they there is very much a place for them. It’s a market dictated by the audience, and they’re going to keep being made while audiences evidently want them to be.

Suicide Squad has been the subject of an intense level of scrutiny across the past week, from both fans and critics alike. David Ayer’s film has been criticised for being sexist; Jared Leto has been criticised for his portrayal of the Joker; and for most people, it’s just the general lack of narrative structure that is causing frustration. And yet it just broke an August record for an opening weekend – by a staggering $40m.

But is that really surprising? Ironically, just as the sun comes out, people flock to the cinema to watch the biggest blockbusters. This year Finding Dory takes the top spot at the box office, which was released in June across the United States. If you analyse the rest of the top 10 you’ll notice that reboots, remakes and sequels are prevalent. From Civil War to The Jungle Book, Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad, X-Men: Apocalypse and Kung Fu Panda 3. That’s what is bringing in the money – originality is all well and good, but harder to craft a campaign around, without that pre-established audience.

But how do this year’s summer blockbusters fair in terms of quality? Finding Dory, unsurprisingly, marks a more than accomplished return for Pixar: a safe fixture every summer, but others haven’t been quite so engaging. Independence Day: Resurgence was immensely underwhelming, as was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows. Warcraft was a big heap of crap, and the less said about The Legend of Tarzan the better. Star Trek Beyond and Jason Bourne were far more absorbing, but seem, regrettably, to represent more of an exception rather than the rule this year.

But what we can gather, and learn, is that for the most part, and particularly when it comes to superhero films, quality can be somewhat irrelevant – for half of the year’s top ten so far fall into that very category. The other five all being family-orientated animations, as is the case most years. Parents have got to think of a way to keep their kids happy during the summer break, after all.

So critics may preach how flawed a piece of cinema is, but people aren’t going to stop seeing them. Which, while demeaning to a critic’s profession in some regards, given you want their opinions to carry weight, it can be a positive. Because you want these films to open up discussion, and whether we like a film or dislike a film, it’s good that we’re still talking about it.

When comparing this year’s blockbusters to those in the last few years, to gather some sense of context, what we can basically conclude is that for every hit, there’s always going to be a couple of misses. So while we immersed ourselves in the glorious world of Inside Out and laughed, consistently, at Ant-Man, we had to sit through Terminator: Genisys, Pixels and Fantastic Four. But that inconsistency is all part of it. And while we strive to make remarkable, striking pieces of cinema that will be accessible and loved by millions, it’s idealistic to think that can be the case; and to enjoy a great blockbuster on the silver screen, it can be important to appreciate what doesn’t work, just to know what does.

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About Stefan Pape

Stefan Pape is a film critic and interviewer who spends most of his time in dark rooms, sipping on filter coffee and becoming perilously embroiled in the lives of others. He adores the work of Billy Wilder and Woody Allen, and won’t have a bad word said against Paul Giamatti.

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