Welcome to Elder Vs. Scion, where we take a look at two versions of a famous movie and see which one is better. This month, we’re looking at the 2016 and 2021 Suicide Squad movies.
In the past month, James Gunn’s take on Suicide Squad was released. Although critically acclaimed, the film was a financial bomb and failed to break even worldwide. Curiously, the first version of the movie had the exact opposite happen. Critics and a lot of viewers HATED it, but it grossed nearly three quarters of a billion dollars when it was released.
A part of the the box office take undoubtedly has to do with the COVID resurgence and the decision to release the film directly to streaming. But even then, the numbers weren’t great and the film would not have been as successful as the 2016 version.
Which leads to a simple question – why?
Superhero films have somehow gotten even more popular since 2016 and James Gunn is still a highly regarded cult filmmaker. His Guardians of the Galaxy movies were incredibly successful even though everyone predicted it would be the first big MCU flop.
When he was tapped to do a soft reboot of The Suicide Squad, I was excited. The first film is an artistic disaster that is more interested in shoving neon coated visuals down audiences’ throats (a technique typically referred to as the Schumacher approach) than telling a story with compelling characters. Not to mention the fact the first film contained the despised Jared Leto version of The Joker, who was so tacky he’d be thrown out of an Insane Clown Posse concert.
Yet there’s precedent for this. Schumacher’s Batman Forever out-grossed Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. The latter was criticized for its dark tone while the former was seemingly more appealing to kids and families with its Adam West era influenced villains.
Yet that’s not the full story here. Both films a hard, R-rated films that focus on decidedly non-family friendly characters and contain serious violence and gore. They also both have the same basic first act. A team of supervillains that appeared in various DC comic books are recruited as a special ops team to complete a difficult mission. If they succeed, they’re given time off their sentence. If they refuse to obey orders, they’re executed via an Escape from New York bomb that’s been implanted in their heads.
So why did the version that was seemingly rejected by critics and audiences alike somehow do well enough to gross nearly seven times as much as the film that everyone was poised to rule one of the best comic book movies ever?
Let’s take a look at both movies and see what differences between the two may have lead to this result.
Suicide Squad (2016) dir: David Ayer
I remember when the first film was announced, practically everyone I spoke to was excited to finally see a live action Harley Quinn. The character debuted in the legendary Batman: The Animated Series and became a very popular character. Margot Robbie’s casting as the character after her breakout debut in The Wolf of Wall Street seemed like icing on top of an amazing cake.
But as I saw trailers, I sensed we were in trouble. And I was right.
The film’s plot is straightforward. Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) tries to recruit a team of supervillains to take on missions that are considered too dangerous for regular units, particularly incidents involving dangerous metahumans. These include Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Deadshot (Will Smith), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and Enchantress (Cara Delevigne). However, Enchantress betrays Waller and goes rogue, conquering Midway City (the film’s setting) and summoning her brother to assist her.
The squad is tasked with taking down Enchantress and – well, they do. There’s no suspense, no real drama outside of El Diablo’s death, and no good action scenes. The pacing is bad – it takes forty minutes to put the team together. The soundtrack is stuffed to the brim with random pop songs that don’t add anything to the scenes they’re included in. The production design is some of the worst comic book movie aesthetic I’ve seen. Also, The worst Joker is in the movie.
In fact, The Joker’s presence in this movie is a perfect illustration of the movie did wrong. There was no reason to introduce a new Joker, besides to tie him back into the failed DC Extended Universe. He has no purpose to the plot or even to Harley Quinn’s development as a character. Yes, we see his involvement in her origin, and he does try to get her to betray the squad, but we really don’t see how their relationship grows and evolves. Nor does the Joker seem like a particularly interested romantic partner. The cartoon got that right, by having the Joker calling Quinn “pooh” and showing some (twisted) affection. It doesn’t help that Quinn is far more charismatic than Joker. Yes, Leto’s portrayal of the the character is atrociously bad, but I don’t know if anyone could have saved The Joker in this movie. He’s basically portrayed as Lil Wayne if Wayne were a crime boss. There’s nothing interesting about that.
Still, we also do have some vague attempts at drama. One subplot involves Deadshot’s strained relationship with his daughter. But it doesn’t work because none of the characters have any personality beyond their powers. We don’t learn about their internal conflicts or what really motivated them to become villains in the first place. One character apparently killed his entire family, another is being possessed and is horrified about her actions. But it’s all delivered with the nuance of a rushed elementary school book report. And, even though the characters have explosives planted in their skulls to ensure they don’t go off mission, it never leads to any suspenseful moments.
This film is awful on just about every level. It’s unpleasant to look at, it’s far too long, the characterizations are bad, and above all the movie is pointless. I like the idea of a blue-collar supervillain team but this film doesn’t explore any of that. It’s a movie that existed only to forward some vague idea of a new superhero franchise.
So, what did James Gunn do with the same material?
The Suicide Squad (2021) dir: James Gunn
The first ten minutes of the new version of Squad correct the mistakes of the original. There are emotional stakes. There is drama. The film has plot twists. And it’s far funnier.
When the trailer first hit, with its Vietnam Memorial sized cast list, I wondered how on earth Gunn could use all these actors effectively. Well, surprise – a bunch of them, including some of the A listers, are killed before the opening credits.
The movie follows a back up Squad that was formed in conjunction with the original (they were deliberately canon fodder), including Bloodshot (Idris Elba), King Shark (Sylvester Stallone), Peacemaker (John Cena), Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), and the second Ratchatcher (Daniela Melchior), as they go to Corto Maltese to find The Thinker (Peter Capaldi) who was responsible for an experiment designed to create the ultimate hive mind. Also, Margot Robbie is back as Quinn.
What makes this movie different, besides the bravery of misdirecting audiences the way the opening does, is the way the film treats the rest of the cast. Some of the subplots (particularly Bloodshoot’s conflicts with his daughter) are identical to the first movie’s. However, here they’re given much more weight because we see Amanda Waller using her position to manipulate the character’s weaknesses into doing her bidding. For example, she not only knows about Bloodshot’s family, but threatens to send his daughter to prison if he doesn’t comply and join the team. Harley Quinn, instead of just being a victim, shows that she no longer trusts any man and assassinates someone with a romantic interest in her because she “saw a red flag.” I could see The Bride in Kill Bill doing the same thing.
The film is also much more fun. Stallone’s voice over performance of King Shark is a magnificent parody of his usual characters with his monotone voice, inadvertent quips, and his seeming invulnerability. Also, while the first film shoved as much pop music standards into the audience’s ears as it could, Gunn uses his selections to emphasize his jokes. The opening credits are played over The Jim Carroll Band’s “People Who Died,” immediately after Gunn set the standard that anyone in this movie can die.
Even the design is better. While the original ended up looking garish and ugly, Gunn uses some very similar imagery with much better results. We still see flowers being associated with Harley, only this time it’s used during an action scene where she slices open prison guards with a sword. Instead of seeing blood, we see animated flowers coming out of the wounds. It showcases how Harley views her violent actions as ultimately sweet and redeemable.
Even the choice of the characters is more inspired. The team is made up of some seemingly ridiculous people who Batman and Superman could easily overpower without too much effort. But Ratchcathcer, despite only having the power to control rats, is shown in the climax to be one of the most valuable members of the team and her powers are useful. And, because the opening established it, the “final boss battle” is genuinely suspenseful, as I wasn’t even sure if Quinn would make it out. (Some of the characters, in fact, don’t survive the final battle.)
Gunn used the first film as a template and saw the potential for the material. He improved on it in every way, utilizing his cast’s strengths and playing with his audience’s expectations. The end result is one of the better comic book movies I’ve ever seen.
The Big Differences
There are some very glaring quality differences between the two movies. The original film is meant to distract audiences with bright colors. The later film tries to make people care about them and sets up the stakes early. It kills off multiple big stars in the first ten minutes – including one character who dies after his neck bomb is activated by Waller, showing us a more ruthless version of the character. That creates suspense for the rest of the movie about whether another character will die. Harley Quinn is nearly killed in the final battle and I was on the edge of my seat because I genuinely believed her death was a possible outcome.
With the original? It’s the very definition of “toyetic.” Every artistic decision made was made to promote merchandise. Suicide Squad was hoping people would buy the soundtrack or they would buy official Harley Quinn cosplay pieces. There’s barely any suspense here. Yes, they try to by introducing Deadshot’s daughter and the conflict with her father, but it’s ultimately meaningless because their reunification feels like an inevitable conclusion.
But the biggest problem is it’s an Avengers knock off. When we get the team together, they don’t get along at first, but have to come together to save the day at the end. It’s completely formulaic. There’s no suspense, there’s no drama, and its attempts to subvert the characters come off as weird and even gross at times.
But while the original wants to copy, Gunn’s version wants to comment. Comic book movie tropes are well quoted in 2021. Gunn helped create some of those tropes, so he knows how to parody them. The new Squad raises the emotional stakes, has better villains (including using Waller to her full potential), and better executed production design and action sequences.
It’s little wonder critics loved the new version more.
So, Why did the Original Succeed at the Box Office?
One of the primary reasons I can think of is the new approach to Harley Quinn. She’s a character that’s connected to a lot of people over the years and seeing her in a new light definitely helped the movie gain an audience. That novelty was gone, as we’d already scene Robbie’s Quinn in two other movies.
But other than that? I don’t understand. The new Suicide Squad is superior to the original in every single way. The characters are more interesting, the plot and pacing are much tighter, the effects are better, and even the soundtrack is superior. Gunn is a more talented filmmaker and this should have been a way for him to reclaim his A list status after being unfairly dismissed by Disney.
Maybe audiences were just more interested in the usual summer blockbuster distraction and it was at least a new idea. Or maybe some people still hold Gunn in a bad light for some (admittedly tasteless) jokes he made no Twitter years ago. It certainly can’t be because the first film was just that good. Maybe the title has such a bad reputation after that first film it’s impossible to redo The Suicide Squad.
The critical reception, hopefully, will save Gunn’s reputation with WarnerMedia. But the low box office take must hurt, especially considering Gunn did everything right when Ayer did everything wrong.