Chris takes us on his new column's inaugural voyage.
While you may find fun tidbits or new ways to interpret a good movie, bad movies can spark endless discussion about what could have been done to save it from the disaster.
Particularly those “near misses”—the flicks that looked so damn good as a trailer, and even as a concept, but fell so damn flat in execution.
Terry and I talk about these things endlessly. So we thought me might put our script-doctor know-how to good use, and start a column about how to fix bad movies.
The rules? We can’t re-write the entire script. We’ve got to keep as much of the core functions of the movie intact without tearing it down and starting from scratch. Because, well, that would be too easy (although we will sometimes give a high-level look at what we would do in that case as well).
This column is about acknowledging problems and trying fix them. This is How to Fix.
Suicide Squad. For me, maybe the most disappointing film of 2016.
Which is not to say Suicide Squad was the worst movie I saw that year (looking at you, BvS and Ghostbusters), but rather the most disappointing—because I had expectations. I really wanted the film to be good. I was looking forward to enjoying it.
Remember those trailers? Remember how fun they were? Especially juxtaposed to BvS? Especially since Deadpool had just come out and a standard had been set for flicks featuring gun-toting bad-good wacky superhero characters?
I’m certainly not a DC die-hard by any stretch. The prospect of getting a new Joker, as well as seeing Harley Quinn and Deadshot on film for the first time did nothing for me. I couldn't care less about all that.
I was more excited to see an over-stylized, fun superhero movie—unburdened by Zack Snyder’s unrelenting mission to be the world’s most artistic frat-boy.
What we got was a jumbled mess with abundant Snyder influence. The movie is crudely sewn together with orphaned scenes that feel more like a stream of music videos than a coherent film. It’s populated with on-the-nose characters without a dramatic purpose—bogged down with more backstory than required. The entire experience feels forced, numb and stupid.
All it needed to be was Escape from New York meets The Magnificent Seven.
However, the truly frustrating part is that there are moments within Suicide Squad that work—where you can see what the vision might have been. Unlike BvS, there are fun moments—moments you might actually crack a smile. And after a few painful repeat viewings, you might even pick up on where some of the overall narrative threads are.
Will Smith deadshotting targets while ‘Black Skinhead’ plays gets your blood pumping. The bar scene is so rich with character beats, it could stand alone as a short film (until Rick Flag walks in). Harley is fun, so at least we have that.
The actors are also giving 110%. Not just Margot and Big Willy, either. Fucking Jai Courtney commits to Captain Boomerang, of all things. Viola Davis IS Amanda Waller.
For these reasons, Suicide Squad is worth analyzing, and more importantly, worth saving. So let’s get to story editing.
IF WE STARTED FROM SCRATCH?
The Joker, recently escaped from Arkham, leaves Harley behind and plants a dirty bomb in Gotham. Amanda Waller doesn’t want to involve Batman and break his trust in her to look after the villains he puts away. So she puts together a squad based on the resources she has; villains. A now vengeful Harley is recruited to find The Joker. Of course, Batman eventually finds out about the whole scheme. So it’s a race against time to stop The Joker, before Batman catches up to them. Weave in a romance subplot between Harley and Deadshot and you’re all set.
And hell, if you really wanted to, play up the Mad Love flashbacks with Harley firmly as the film’s main protagonist and call the movie Harley Quinn and the Suicide Squad.
BUT OF COURSE, WE AREN'T STARTING FROM SCRATCH.
There are two big things we need to address about the film as it stands; the music video editing and the film's core intent. Let’s start with those.
Watching Suicide Squad is particularly frustrating because it really does feel like it was once a movie that—albeit bogged down with too many characters, too many ideas, and too many competing tones—was at least coherent in its causal progression.
The big rumor is, of course, that the executives panicked at the last minute and had a trailer house re-cut the film. And it feels like it. The first act is just a series of music videos—one recognizable pop-song licensed after the next.
Beside the painful transparency of the film trying to manipulate you into feeling something—anything in those first scenes, it actually breaks the first act.
Because the goal wasn’t “set up characters in a first act that will allow the audience to feel satisfying pay offs for them in the third act.” It was, “see how many cool scenes we can string together that explain who the characters are so the audience doesn’t get confused and put cool music kids like over it so we keep their attention and we seem cool too.”
We know people have talked about the editing of this film to death. But it had to be said.
The Core Intent.
What the fuck is Suicide Squad about? Is it about “bad people can do some good”? That seems like a perfectly reasonable thematic premise. Seems like what the new Magnificent Seven was going for, and that worked.
This movie could have been about female liberation, the dangers of pacifism, what it means to be a hero. Any of those would have been fine themes.
Instead, Suicide Squad is about DC characters. Who they are, where they come from, what movies they’ll be in next.
Why are thematic premises important in storytelling? Because without one, nothing feels like it’s happening for a reason. It’s just random violence and at the end—it doesn’t feel like there was a point to anything.
“But it’s just supposed to be a fun movie,” we hear you say. “ There doesn’t have to be a point to it.”
Good art examines what it’s like to have real human emotions. To quote David Foster Wallace: “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.”
We want to see characters who learn and grow—who sincerely struggle to do so. We want to see them need to change and succeed in doing so.
Suicide Squad has little flames of that, but it ultimately never delivers on a big single pay off, because it’s far too busy explaining to you who Captain Boomerang is. He’s the guy who carries around a pink unicorn.
WHAT ARE SOME MACRO NOTES WE COULD USE TO FIX THIS MESS?
1) We don't need the Enchantress / Rick Flag back story. We should learn about their relationship through a series of reveals. We should feel as surprised and in the dark as the Squad does as the why the putties are so keen on capturing Flag. They tear everyone else to pieces—why not Flag? Is there something more to this mission than a simple VIP snatch and grab?
Also, wouldn’t it be fucked up if the Enchantress wanted to use Rick Flag’s body to re-birth her weird brother? So as a way to subdue Dr. Moon forever, she baits her with Flag and puts her into the same kind of ‘perfect world’ spell that the Squad falls under? Just a choice. Not a mandatory fix.
2) The situation in the city should play as a straight terrorist threat— it’s a dirty bomb, something the squad can actually handle—then they learn they are in way over their heads with Last of Us Puttie Zombies and The Enchantress and the swirling storm of trash in the sky.
Essentially, we need a sense of escalation.
Granted, snatching Waller seems like a perfectly adequate task for the Squad to complete, but that goal and narrative beat is so muddled in the execution of the exposition.
In the movie, Rick tells the Squad that a simple terrorist what they’re in for. But of course, we know that’s not the case—and there are no powerful reveals built into the second act as a result. Plus, Waller sells the whole idea of the Suicide Squad as a replacement for Superman. Which, like… Harley Quinn is your replacement for Superman?
How about this as a quick fix?
The government is down with the idea of employing super-humans. However, they don’t approve of Waller’s idea to use incarcerated villains. Deadshot and The Joker’s girlfriend? No way. What’s the point? Too risky. But Enchantress and Katana? Totally. They’re “good guys.”
So Flag, Enchantress and Katana are dispatched to handle a terrorist threat. It goes sideways and the Enchantress is left behind— she goes rogue and begins to take over the city. Desperate, Waller convinces Flag to round up the villains to save the day—under the nose of the government.
When they arrive they think they’re rescuing Dr. Moon—but instead the tracker leads to Waller, who knows the shit is really about to hit the fan. It’s too late for the city; The Enchantress is loose and going to wreck shit. The Squad doesn’t stand a chance. What’s a guy with a boomerang, a lunatic with baseball bat and a giant crocodile going to do against her? But of course, they learn to work together and conquer something way bigger than themselves—maybe even get a taste for this whole ‘hero thing’.
It really does seem like that was the movie’s original intent. But that exposition is lost somewhere in the bonkers MTV video-flow edit.
3) Focus on an arc for Harley. Harley should learn to reject The Joker. She's a victim of abuse. The only logical thing to do with that character is to have her turn against her victimizer. From victim to hero. From co-dependent to independent. You can have a mini arc for Deadshot and Diablo—but we don't need the heavy backstory. Their arc should be in the moment entirely.
Harley is such a cool fucking character with two really interesting arcs over the character’s history. From stuffy therapist to wild child. And from emotionally abused victim to independent antihero.
It seems like this film might have been using the Mad Love storyline to try and sell us on her first arc; The Joker shows he really cares about Harley. But The Joker is an asshole who tortures, pimps out and abandons his girlfriend.
We want to see Harley get away from that and learn she doesn’t need to be co-dependent with a lunatic when she joins the Squad.
4) Rick Flag should be a total straight man. All-american boy. Steve Rogers, essentially. He should be flatly uncomfortable working with villains and the villains should mock his ‘by-the-book’ attitude. Maybe he learns to break the rules, and Deadshot learns to be a leader. An all-American soldier forced to team up with a contract killer is the buddy cop movie we wanna see. If he's a gnarly, shot-out Spec-ops killer who doesn't bat an eyelash when Amanda Waller ices innocent CIA workers, he becomes all the more bland, boring, and unnecessary for the film to accomplish its dramatic core intent.
Contrast is fun between characters. It’s what creates comedy, interesting chemistry and conflict. DC doesn’t seem to get that this is one of the ingredients that make the Marvel movies work.
5) Hang a damn lampshade on something. "Uh I just shoot people good. This guy throws a boomerang? All this crazy girl has is a bat. And we're supposed to stop a witch?!" Deadshot should say.
"Hey! It's a BIG bat." Harley replies as she turns to the camera and literally winks.
6) Katana should not talk. But Captain Boomerang should hit on her more (because he's a scumbag), and she should threaten his life every time (because she doesn't take that shit/that’s very funny).
7) Speaking of Captain Boomerang, he should like, do stuff with boomerangs. Insane, wacky crazy stuff that nobody sees coming. Like in the final battle, he should Happy Gilmore a boomerang to make a beam fall that crushes the Enchantress's brother or something.
Also, and this is another choice, what if Captain Boomerang and not Diablo was the guy who didn’t want to use his power? “I’m done with boomerangs, mate.” He says.
“But you’re like… Captain Boomerang. You have one thing and you don’t want to do it?”
And then the running joke becomes, “I bet you can’t even throw a boomerang. What kind of superpower is that anyway?”
Then when he finally does throw a boomerang, it’s insanely fucking cool.
8) The Joker. We have to talk about The Joker. And for the purposes of these notes, we’re not even going to talk about the stupid tattoos. Which are stupid.
The Joker is not necessary in this movie if you’re not going to have an arc for Harley.
Now, if you are going to have an arc for Harley, you need to decide how prevalent Harley is, because that will dictate how much you actually need The Joker.
If Harley has basically the same weight as any member of the squad, then you don’t need to see The Joker. Show us the car chase at the beginning and Harley being pulled from the wreck with no Joker in site.
Have the The Joker live only in text messages on her phone. Like a love addict who learns to overcome—she finally ignores the text from her shitty ex-boyfriend at the end of the film.
If you’re going to go full on ‘Harley at the center of the movie” then complete her damn arc and break out from The Joker’s spell. There’s so much set up in the Mad Love flashbacks, and to have The Joker chase Harley around only to once again leave her behind—and for her to be once again thrilled when he decides to rescue her is so damn unsatisfying for this character.
What if when The Joker showed up to get her in the last scene of the film—with Harley still behind bars, she just told him NO?
“What do you mean, no?”
“I ain’t going with you. You blew it and you lost me for good.”
And then she just turns her back on him and sips her espresso.
Chris D'Alessandro is a screenwriter from Toronto, Canada who likes movies and arguing with people. He also has more cover-up tattoos than he'd care to admit.