Film

Superhero films need to reach beyond the geeks

by James Hadfield

Special To The Japan Times

Where superhero movies are concerned, you should never trust a critic. When David Ayer’s “Suicide Squad” opened to a barrage of negative press in the U.S. earlier this month, some fans responded by lashing out at film journalists online. One even launched a petition against the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, for what he claimed was a bias against films featuring characters from the DC Comics stable.

For a brief moment, too, it looked like the critics had landed on the wrong side of the debate. While “Suicide Squad” is currently averaging 27 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, the film’s strong U.S. box-office performance during its first week on release suggested that it may prove the haters wrong. However, a 67 percent drop during its second weekend has put it back in line with the trajectory of Zack Snyder’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” its immediate predecessor in the so-called DC Extended Universe.

Snyder’s film was supposed to help jump-start the Warner Bros.-owned DC franchise, making the company a viable contender to Disney’s Marvel Studios, which produces the “Avengers” and “Captain America” movies. Its lackluster reception earlier this year prompted a shake-up at Warner, which created a separate DC Films division to ensure a more unified approach in its superhero properties from now on.

Perhaps this will help avoid some of the issues that beset “Suicide Squad.” A recent Hollywood Reporter article described how Ayer was given just six weeks to write the screenplay, and how his cut of the film eventually lost out to a “lighter” version that the studio had produced in parallel, with help from the company that made the first, well-received “Suicide Squad” teaser.

It’s hard to know how much these problems affected the finished film, which opens in Japan on Sept. 10. At a recent Tokyo press screening, the loudest audience reaction was the awkward tittering that greeted each appearance by Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a sword-wielding Japanese assassin who exudes as much menace as a contestant in a cosplay competition.

The movie’s bravura marketing campaign emphasized how much it would diverge from the standard comic-book formula, both in its trashy aesthetic and the fact that its titular team of crime-fighters consisted of villains rather than heroes. Too bad that DC’s answer to “The Dirty Dozen” turned out to be such a dreary bunch, and that the film’s story was such a jumbled mess.

Then again, it’s debatable how much this matters to the kind of fan who’d petition against Rotten Tomatoes. The superhero zealots who spend months counting down to the next Marvel or DC release hew closer to the pop-culture junkies that Hiroki Azuma described in his 2001 book “Dobutsuka suru Posutomodan: Otaku kara Mita Nihon Shakai” (released in English in 2009 as “Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals”).

For these fans, the message or narrative of an artwork is less important than the “data” it provides about particular characters. Contrasting “Mobile Suit Gundam,” an animated sci-fi saga first screened on TV in 1979, with Hideaki Anno’s postmodern mid-’90s series, “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” Azuma labels the latter as “an aggregate of information without a narrative.” He could almost be talking about “Suicide Squad,” or earlier examples of comic-book incoherence such as 2009’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.”

In this reading, it doesn’t make a difference to the “otaku” fans whether a film such as “Suicide Squad” is actually good, so long as they get big-screen versions of familiar characters to pore over. A disinterested viewer may feel that Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn is frustratingly underdeveloped, or wonder how the hokey Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) even made it into the team. The DC faithful are just happy that they’re there in the first place.

Of course, none of this really excuses the shoddiness of the end product, especially when there’s a more successful example of “fan service” playing in theaters at the moment. Bryan Singer’s “X-Men: Apocalypse,” which opened in Japan last week, shows that it’s possible to keep the geeks happy while still making a reasonably successful blockbuster. Granted, the film is a step down from the loopy audacity of 2014’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” but it does an impressive job of marshaling its unwieldy cast and multiple subplots into a movie that isn’t completely impenetrable to newcomers.

As franchises become the norm for Hollywood’s major studios, this is likely to become a more pressing issue. Even a series as warmly regarded as the “Harry Potter” films had to contend with the fact that later installments, weighed down with accumulated backstory, were unlikely to lure new initiates. Last year’s headline Marvel offering, “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” only made sense if you had a working knowledge of at least three earlier films in the franchise. “Batman v Superman” didn’t really make sense unless you were Zack Snyder.

Such considerations are less important for the kinds of cheaply produced pop-cultural product that Azuma was writing about, but for a film like “Suicide Squad,” which needs to make around $800 million just to break even, they’re rather more urgent. The geeks may make the biggest noise about each new superhero movie, but these lavish blockbusters have to draw a far wider audience if they’re going to remain viable. And that’s a balancing act that DC Films is still struggling to figure out.

“X-Men: Apocalypse” is now playing at cinemas nationwide; “Suicide Squad” will be released on Sept. 10.