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Suicide Squad's harsh reviews show how hard it is to make a good comic into a good movie

Suicide Squad.
Suicide Squad.
Warner Bros.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Suicide Squad is not the movie that will make comics fans believe in DC and Warner Bros. again.

Many were hopeful that after the terminal grimness of Batman v Superman, the Dirty Dozen-esque anti-superhero flick based on the exciting, Dirty Dozen-esque comic book might bring back the fun to the DC Comic universe and restore its moxie. That hope has been crushed, dragged through shards of broken vodka bottles, and drowned with dirty water as the reviews have come pouring in.

Critics have called Suicide Squad, directed by David Ayer, "careless," "off-peak," and "muddled." And those are some of the kinder verdicts.

Meanwhile, DC Comics’ biggest supporters have responded by blaming an Info Wars-esque conspiracy against their beloved comic book team. Meltdowns have been had. Outrage has materialized. And here’s what you need to know about Suicide Squad, its popularity, and its fandom.

The Suicide Squad comic has a brilliant, crackling concept

(DC Comics)

The Suicide Squad is the name of an elite government team in the DC Comics universe that takes on top secret black ops with life-threatening stakes (ergo "suicide") that no one else would dare tackle.

The first incarnation of the Suicide Squad appears in a 1959 comic called The Brave and Bold. The team is charged with saving the world from a red tidal wave that incinerates everything it touches, and the issue ends with a giant reptile being sent into space on a rocket. Bonkers.

Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, and Will Smith will be reprising the Suicide Squad instituted by writer John Ostrander. In this iteration, the Suicide Squad is led by a woman named Amanda Waller (played by Viola Davis), who recruits super-powered villains that the government has already caught and jailed to carry out dangerous missions. By employing villains to do its dirty work, the government can’t be accused of putting anyone in harm’s way and can deny any involvement in missions that go south (there are a lot of character deaths in the Suicide Squad comic).

In both the Suicide Squad comic books and the Warner Bros./DC Comics cinematic universe, the Squad is important in that it allows these villains — who didn't seem all that menacing when superheroes were wrecking them and sending them to jail — to show off just how insane, cruel, and grim they truly are. The Squad's members aren't afraid to kill, or to showcase their sociopathic tendencies … like, say, idly watching while a teammate they may not particularly like takes a bullet in the back:

(DC Comics)

Suicide Squad allowed for a different, more fearless kind of storytelling and a way to rethink the traditional superhero team where it’s all for one and one for all. It’s every man for himself. That changes the way characters' relationships are built, and has the potential to change the way we think of villains.

The edginess of the comic hasn’t translated very well to the screen

(Warner Bros.)

The reviews are out for Suicide Squad and they are not very good. The movie is hovering around 34 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, basically the filmic equivalent of garbage ceviche. If you read the negative reviews, they seem to have one thing in common (besides the fact that all the reviewers had to sit through Suicide Squad): that its edginess, the shock value that worked so well in a comic book setting, felt uninspired.

"It’s ugly and boring, a toxic combination that means the film’s highly fetishized violence doesn’t even have the exciting tingle of the wicked or the taboo," Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson wrote. "Oh, how the movie wants to be both of those things."

New York Times film critic A.O. Scott echoed that assessment. "It chases after the nihilistic swagger of Deadpool and the anarchic whimsy of Guardians of the Galaxy but trips over its own feet," he wrote, adding, "…I’m left to wish that Mr. Ayer had done more with the moral ambiguities of the source material."

And there are many other reviews that sound just like these.

The takeaway is that that translating the tone of a comic book isn’t as easy as the folks at Marvel or as Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy make it seem. That you can’t just pluck a "cool" comic book from a pile without really understanding what makes it tick. That you can’t just copy the premise from the Suicide Squad comic books and have faith that its edginess and sizzle — its violence, its darkness, its spirit — will follow.

Suicide Squad didn’t find a way to bring any of its freshness — be it an interesting storyline or a team dynamic — that its comic had. Its harshest critics found that it just simply followed a formulaic path, when in reality, this movie was sold and started out as something that, like its comic book source material, was supposed to cut against the grain of traditional superhero storytelling.

Suicide Squad falls victim to one of the hardest parts of making a comic book movie

Back in May, when Captain America: Civil War came out, I interviewed Mark Millar, the writer who’s helming the Civil War comic book for Marvel. Millar has had a number of his comic books adapted into or optioned as films, and he explained a key challenge that comic book movies face:

"Comic books [are] very, very immediate — someone writes a comic and draws a comic, and it's out a few months later," he told me. "I think we tap into what's going on in the world a little better than any other medium. But nothing dates faster than a comic that's on the money."

Millar was talking about writing Civil War in 2006-2007, with George W. Bush and the Iraq War on his mind, and went on to describe how the film had to be updated (by changing the focus on politics) so that it would still resonate when it came out in 2016. Comic book creators understand this better than anyone — it’s why today’s stories about Iron Man or, yes, Suicide Squad are a lot different in tone and ambition than they were one, five, or 10 years ago.

But Millar’s insight also reveals what goes on in the audience for these stories.

Audiences, just like creators, aren’t fixed entities.

Each new event (good or bad) that happens in the world changes the way we think about art. Each new movie that comes out recalibrates the way we think about film. And in order to make a comic book movie, filmmakers have to realize that you can’t trot out the same formula and expect critics and audiences to enjoy them.

Like an eyebrow piercing or a Hot Topic shirt with a grungy Care Bear on it, what makes something fun and edgy in the '90s or early 2000s won’t pack the same oomph in 2016.

No one wants Suicide Squad to be a bad movie. In fact, if it flops, it hurts the entire superhero genre.

(Warner Bros.)

(Warner Bros.)

In the face of Suicide Squad’s poor reviews, angry fans have begun circulating a petition calling for the shutdown of the aforementioned review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes. That petition has garnered over 12,000 signatures.

This reaction is not unlike what happened this spring, when Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice received a spate of similarly negative reviews. At the time, some fans alleged that DC’s biggest competitor, Marvel, had paid off critics to trash the movie and accused those critics of harboring anti-DC/Warner Bros. sentiments.

Some fans of the original comic have a hard time believing that Suicide Squad could be a bad movie.

A glance at Reddit’s DC Cinematic forum, which became a hotbed of conspiracy theories and meltdowns during the dark days that followed Batman v Superman’s opening in March, reveals a more reasonable response to Suicide Squad’s negative reception. Quite a few people in the forum have attempted to explain the idiocy of a pro-Marvel, anti-DC conspiracy theory.

Because here’s the thing: No one — not critics, not casual viewers, not die-hard comics fans, not even Marvel — wants to see a bad movie.

Marvel loses nothing when DC/Warner Bros. produces a good movie.

In 2008, with Marvel’s Iron Man and Warner Bros.’s The Dark Knight, and in 2012, with The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises — both sets of movies received good reviews and performed well at the box office. Specifically, in 2012 The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises earned the top two domestic grosses of the year. There’s space for both to succeed.

I’d also argue that Marvel’s runaway success with 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy’s actually helped studios like DC and Fox; After all, it was the overwhelmingly positive audience response to Guardians that gave them the courage to go through with more unconventional superhero movies like Suicide Squad and the unbelievably successful Deadpool.

If Guardians hadn’t been such a huge box office champion, I fully believe studio execs would’ve been more reluctant to pour money into a similar-ish story like Suicide Squad or to go ahead with the irreverence of Deadpool. I also believe that if Guardians had failed, we would currently be seeing a lot more of the same old Avengers, Batman, and Superman stories — stories that execs know people like and studios reverting to the norm.

The only people who would benefit from Suicide Squad not being very good are those who feel Hollywood is overrun with superhero movies. If the movie flops, its failure becomes fuel for the argument that superhero fatigue is real, which will make studios think twice before taking on anything more ambitious.

Fortunately, Suicide Squad appears to be tracking at a $140 million box office opening — a really good number for such a critically shabby film. Perhaps it’ll even receive a sequel. And hopefully that one will be a better movie.

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