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Suicide Squad shows why Marvel’s movie universe works and DC’s does not

Suicide Squad is a dull, inept mess — a charmless and incoherent muddle of a film that left me rooting only for it to end. But it’s more than just a bad movie. It’s a bad sign for the entire DC Comics movie universe.

Warner Brothers, which owns DC Comics and the rights to its characters, has made no secret of its desire to develop a sprawling superhero franchise along the lines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. DC and Marvel have historically been rivals, and like Marvel, Warner Brothers has announced a slate of interconnected films and release dates running all the way through the end of the decade.

The directors of the DC films have played up the cinematic rivalry, with Batman v Superman director Zack Snyder dismissing Marvel films as "flavor of the week" and Suicide Squad director David Ayer joining the crowd in a chant of "fuck Marvel" at an early screening of the film. (He later apologized.)

There’s a clear contrast between the two franchises and their approaches to superhero films, but not one that DC should be courting. Suicide Squad is the third film in the DC extended universe, and it arrives less than six months after Snyder’s superhero slugfest, which was also poorly received. Taken together, the two films reveal the stunning capability gap between Marvel and DC in terms of how they have approached building their respective mega-franchises.

Unlike the Marvel movies, the DC films barely make an effort to stay true to their comic-book origins

The most obvious difference between the Marvel and DC movie universes is the pace of the rollout. Marvel built its franchise much more slowly, starting with several movies focused strictly on individual characters before bringing them all together: The studio launched the MCU with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk in 2008, followed up with standalone films for Captain America and Thor in 2011, and waited until 2012, four years after the first film in the universe, to bring them all together in The Avengers.

The crossover event, in other words, was the culmination of several movies’ worth of stories and several years' worth of successful films. That meant audiences already knew the characters, and Marvel already knew what worked in their movies and what didn’t.

The DC universe, in contrast, launched with Man of Steel in 2013, and then immediately rushed toward a crossover film with Batman v Superman, followed by a team-based film featuring a group of villain characters mostly unknown to the general public. Instead of building toward a big event, DC started with a big event that wasn’t properly set up — and then followed up by attempting to introduce a slew of new characters all at once, in a single film.

Marvel, of course, built its universe around lesser known properties, too — Iron Man and Captain America were considered B-list characters when their films first came out. But the Marvel movies faithfully captured the spirit of those characters and the fun and adventurous vibe of the Marvel Comics world. They felt like comics come to life.

This quality has always been a crucial part of the Marvel Comics approach. As producer Kevin Feige, the mastermind who oversees the Marvel movie universe, told Deadline Hollywood earlier this year, "We’ve always said if there’s any ‘secret’ it’s respect the source material, understand the source material and then, any adaptation you make from the source material should be done only to enhance whatever the original pure spirit of the source material was."

The trio of DC universe films we’ve seen so far have come across more like challenges to their source material — and at times have seemed intentionally disrespectful.

The shared idea that connects the films is the potential consequences of god-like super-people: The conflict in Batman v Superman was sparked by the massive urban destruction caused by the final battle in Man of Steel, and the team in Suicide Squad is put together by a government agent who fears what might happen if an evil Superman who doesn’t share America’s values ever arrives. In other words, these movies are literally driven by fear and terror of superheroes.

And the heroes they give us are rather fearsome: In massive deviations from comic book lore, both Superman and Batman murder people. Batman’s casual approach to killing, in particular, goes against essentially everything the character has stood for. The Suicide Squad is a team full of villains, led by a crack-shot assassin that the movie attempts to humanize in a handful of laughable scenes where he’s shown as loving his school-aged daughter.

There are moments of visual fidelity in both Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad; the former recreates panels from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and the latter briefly stages a version of the cover to the first issue of Batman: Harley Quinn. But visual fidelity is not the same as tonal fidelity or faithfulness of spirit: Unlike the Marvel movies, which so effortlessly capture the essential sensibility of the Marvel’s printed comics, none of the characters in any of the DC films is a truly faithful rendering of his or her comic-book persona.

DC has a serious problem when it comes to character introductions

Both Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman, meanwhile, are beset by truly muddled stories and narrative structures. Batman v Superman veers off into an incredibly confusing Bruce Wayne fever dream that doesn’t make sense even if you are enough of a comic book obsessive to recognize the swarm of parademons it features, while Suicide Squad stutters through an endless stream of mostly useless, occasionally confusing flashbacks, as if the order of scenes in the movie was determined by a card shuffle.

Marvel has occasionally had issues with narrative logic as well — the semi-inexplicable sequence from Age of Ultron in which Thor goes into a cave to hallucinate about future Marvel movies being the prime example — but has generally maintained a baseline level of narrative cohesion. The stories don’t always make perfect sense, but they are exceedingly straightforward and easy to follow.

Even the superhero cameos in this year’s DC movies barely make sense. Both Batman and the Flash appear in Suicide Squad, but they don’t serve any purpose except to advertise that they exist in this world. They don’t tell us anything about the characters or advance the plot. Wonder Woman’s more-of-a-cameo-appearance in Batman v Superman suffers from the same problem: She’s a cipher with nothing to do.

Marvel, in contrast, has made its many crossover cameos into miniature art forms. Thor: The Dark World is one of Marvel’s lesser films, but it contains a great bit in which the villainous Loki briefly appears as Captain America; It’s a clever gag that reveals Loki’s trickster personality while having some fun with Cap’s ultra-heroic persona.

And that brings us to the DC Universe’s biggest problem: Every DC movie so far is flat-out terrible at introducing its characters. For early franchise-builders, that is by far the most important task: Show us who the characters are, why they matter, and why we should care. Man of Steel, the best of the bunch, presents Superman as a fearsome alien god-force, distant and difficult to relate to, and barely defines its supporting characters.

Batman v Superman introduces the Justice League by showing Bruce Wayne clicking on some stolen video files: a security-cam clip of the Flash, a short underwater video of Aquaman, a home-movie diary that provides a little bit of background on Cyborg. But we don’t see the characters interacting with each other or with their worlds, or making choices that illustrate their personalities. We don’t get a sense of their essential qualities and characteristics. They show up, barely, because DC has already ordered a Justice League movie, and Batman v Superman needs to remind viewers that it’s coming.

The same goes for the Joker in Suicide Squad: There’s a brief flashback to a backstory that suggests a more interesting film than any of the ones DC has made so far, but mostly the character feels adrift and poorly defined. He’s only there to advertise his presence in the DC universe.

That’s a consistent problem for DC’s movies. At best, they assume you already know who its most prominent characters — Superman and Batman and Lex Luthor and the Joker and various other supporting players — are, and will respond accordingly. The DC movies don’t do the necessary work to define, or even redefine, those characters.

To be clear, this isn't an inherent problem with the material. Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy did a masterful job of setting up its iconic characters: The bank heist that opens The Dark Knight is a thrilling setpiece that also serves as a statement of purpose for both the Joker and the movie. The Justice League Unlimited cartoon series introduced dozens of heroes and villains, many of them fairly obscure, in compact 22-minutes episodes that captured their characters better than any of the DC universe's movies so far.

Meanwhile, Marvel’s approach is to always require its heroes to act out their essential characteristics. There is no scene in which Captain America fails to demonstrate his strength and honor and decency, no sequence in which Iron Man does not show off how smart and stylish and witty he is, no moment in which the Hulk does not come across as a genius torn by powerful inner conflict. Marvel knows exactly what makes these characters work, what makes them who they are, what viewers want from them — and ensures that every single scene reflects this accordingly.

The essential problem with Suicide Squad and with the DC movie universe so far is that it doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about its characters and what makes them the sort of beloved pop culture icons that movie studios can build multibillion dollar franchises around: DC’s movies take their characters — and their viewers — for granted.

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