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A note on Suicide Squad

I’ve been more than willing to cut DC/WB a lot of slack lately. Maybe too much. After all, they’re stuck with the Herculean task of trying to reinvent the wheel, figuring out how to emulate Marvel’s revolutionary “shared universe” business plan while making this new DC universe just different enough to stand out from the competition. DC/WB is also clearly trying its best to put out material at a good rate while also staying nimble enough to keep up with popular feedback, which is next to impossible with something as massive and slow-moving as your typical Hollywood blockbuster franchise.

Alas, Suicide Squad was pretty much entirely in the can by the time Batman v. Superman came out to such dismal reviews. The script for the upcoming Justice League movie was immediately retooled on the fly, and I’d be surprised if Wonder Woman wasn’t going through some changes in post as we speak. But it was way, way, WAY too late for Suicide Squad.

This was the kind of concept that could only have seemed like a good idea at the time, but turned out to be utterly boneheaded in retrospect. For what feels like a goddamn eon, fans have been bickering and bitching about Zack Snyder’s dark and brooding take on superheroes. We sent the message to Warner Bros. loud and clear that we don’t want to see our comic book superheroes killing people without consequence. We want our comic book media to be fun and inspiring. DC’s stable of superheroes were always supposed to be emblematic of our better angels, and that had somehow gotten lost in the translation to cinema.

To which WB pretty much replied “Okay, guys. We’ll work on that. In the meantime, how about this supervillain movie from David Ayer?”

Ayer — much like Denis Villeneuve and Roman Polanski — seems to operate on the notion that “good” is just another word for “naive”. He tells stories in which evil can only possibly be defeated by bad people who sink to their level, and sometimes not even then. It’s a morality that I find to be deeply flawed (What’s even the point of a “greater good” if it’s not that good at all?) and philosophically abhorrent. Ayer (along with Villeneuve and Polanski, for that matter) may be extraordinarily talented filmmakers, but I nevertheless despise how they use those talents.

Then we have the film’s critical reception. At present, the film has a notoriously low Tomatometer of 31 percent. Just about on par with Batman v. Superman at 27 percent. Because the film won’t be released until this Friday, it’s still anyone’s guess what impact (if any) this will have on the box office gross.

With all of that said, I was still open to giving this film a shot. I was entirely willing to give this film its day in court and publish my informed opinion. But then a friend of mine — a local actor/director — said something, and I honestly hate myself for not thinking of it sooner.

“I refuse to see a movie,” he said, “where an actor abused other actors in order to ‘get into the mind of his character’.”

He was of course referring to Jared Leto, whose backstage stunts are already the stuff of legend. While he’s hardly the first actor to play the Joker onscreen, I can’t find any evidence that Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger immersed themselves in the character to the unhealthy degree that Leto did. (Indeed, Ledger was reportedly a really sweet guy on the set.) But Leto reportedly stayed completely in character the whole time he was on the set, and he didn’t stop there.

Reportedly, Leto wanted to let his castmates know that even if he wasn’t around them all the time (since Joker isn’t really part of the Squad), “Guys, I can’t be there but I want you to know I’m doing my work as hard as you guys.” So to prove his dedication to the cause, Leto sent his castmates…

  • A live rat
  • Bullets
  • A dead pig
  • Condoms (reports differ on whether they were used)
  • Anal beads (no word on whether those were used)
  • Playboy magazines, described as “sticky”
  • Dildos
  • Switchblade knives

And those are just the ones we know about. Leto explained

“It was interesting to do because the Joker loves to play games he loves to manipulate and that was part of the reason to do that and when you do give a gift to someone even in real life you think about, ‘What do I get them?’ ‘Who that person is to you?’ ‘What do they like?’ So that immediately started to be really good homework to me… I gave Deadshot a briefcase full of bullets. It was kind of a message, it was kind of a threat, it was kind of a reminder… I wrote every character a note – a poem. What it did was that it started me on a journey into thinking what these people are, and it was a lot of fun.”

And it didn’t stop with Leto. Allegedly, David Ayer instructed everyone in the cast to seriously punch each other during rehearsals. Jai Courtney took some mushrooms and burned himself. Cara Delevingne got naked, ran through the forest, and howled at the moon, and that was for her audition. And again, that’s just the shit we know about.

To be clear, suffering for one’s art is nothing new. Just last year, it seemed like we were hearing over and over and over again about how much shit Leo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy had to suffer through while making The Revenant.

(Side note: Funny enough, The Revenant is precisely why it’s Joel Kinnaman playing Rick Flagg in Squad instead of Hardy.)

But the difference here is that at least with The Revenant, the actors knew what they signed up for. Consent is kind of a big deal, and that’s the problem with what Leto was doing.

Method acting is all well and good. That’s a choice the actor makes. Leto acting crazy and distant between takes, Courtney inflicting harm on himself, Delevingne acting like a lunatic, those were all choices that they made with little if any impact on anyone else. But when all of these choices put together create such a hostile work environment that somebody had to hire an on-set therapist (another thing that happened, seriously), a line has to be drawn somewhere.

If Leto had just stopped at thinking about what creepy and nasty gifts the Joker might send to someone, that would’ve been fine. But actually sending those creepy and nasty gifts without any warning or consent? Sorry, but I’m pretty sure that sending someone unsolicited condoms and porno mags covered in an unknown substance would qualify as “harassment” anywhere else. In any other workplace, we’d be talking about jail time for that kind of behavior.

But here’s what really gets to me about all of this: It’s being used as publicity. These disgusting, reprehensible, completely unnecessary actions are actually being used as a selling point for the movie. It’s even gone so far that Jared Leto — out of character — presented an unsuspecting Jimmy Fallon with a live snake during a talk show interview to promote the film.

I’m normally right there along with those who say “death to the author”. I’ve said multiple times that a movie ultimately outlives those who made it, and all the hype is irrelevant when a film is actually released. But in this case, I feel that an exception is warranted. If this kind of behavior is to be lauded by the press, given as a reason to go see the film and give credit to the strength of Leto’s performance, then I want no part in it. I don’t want to live in a world where actors and directors can wantonly abuse each other and expect to get away with it because there’s a multimillion-dollar movie on the line (to say nothing of the multibillion-dollar franchise that Warner Bros. is so desperate to launch).

Furthermore, look at DC/WB’s upcoming slate. Wonder Woman has wrapped production. The Flash and Aquaman should be starting production any time now. Cyborg and Batman are both getting their own standalone films, and we’ve been promised a Green Lantern film as well. And of course that isn’t even getting started on the aforementioned Justice League movies.

While a Suicide Squad sequel has been rumored since March (before the release of Batman v. Superman, I should point out), I’d be very surprised if it was ever actually confirmed. Obviously, I’m not privy to what’s going on in the closed-doors discussions about the future of DC/WB’s cinematic enterprise. But given what we already know about the films currently in development, given DC/WB’s vocal and overt reaction to the BvS backlash, and given the poor reception of Suicide Squad so far (in this admittedly early stage just before it’s even released), I simply don’t see how the Suicide Squad can fit into all of this. Except maybe for the recurring Batman villains (he does have a standalone film coming up, after all), I fail to understand how these characters or this movie could fit into the grand scheme moving forward.

To summarize, the film was made and promoted in such a way that it’s left a bad taste in my mouth before I’ve even bought a ticket. Plus, given the film’s early reception and what we know about DC’s path moving forward, I see no reason to believe that this movie will carry any notable consequence with regard to the greater DC film universe. For all of these reasons, there’s no way I can give Suicide Squad a fair chance. I will not be reviewing it.

4 Comments

  1. Comment by Joseph Sheldahl:

    This was well thought out and well written, but I think it’s just about irresponsible at this point to not review the movie. This note should’ve been folded into the review as a message of firm distaste on why Leto’s actions were unacceptable. But at the end of the day, I’m sure Will Smith, Cara Delvinge, Jai Courtney and Margot Robbie (along with every other person who put a single ounce of effort into the movie) still want people to see their movie. If Jared Leto’s bullshit is what’s stopping you from seeing and/or reviewing it- isn’t that kind of a slap in the face to everyone else who worked on the movie? That’s just adding to the bullshit he put them through. I mean, yeah, one person- big deal, but one person is a big deal. No voice is silent.
    And as far as notable consequence to the rest of the DC film universe, remember a little Marvel movie called Guardians of the Galaxy?
    On top of all of this, it’s the critic’s job to set aside bias, hype, and ‘bad tastes’ to give a movie a fair shake. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit disappointed.

  2. Comment by Brian:

    Joseph- perhaps the producing company (who would gain the financial benefit from this film) should protect those in its employ. Buying a ticket supports THEM, as they refuse to support their actors.

  3. Comment by Curiosity Inc.:

    I assure you all, this was not a decision I made lightly. Ultimately, I came to the same conclusion that Brian did. The studio execs, producers, actors, etc. are all actively hyping this movie around all the bullshit that went on backstage. Leto crossed so many lines, and everyone up top was perfectly happy to roll with it. At that point, it becomes far more than just one person’s bullshit.

  4. Comment by Joseph Sheldahl:

    I still don’t think that should deter anyone from seeing the film. I’m seriously disappointed. I’m not talking about financial gain here, I’m talking about performances. If I made something, I want someone to see it. To see me. What I did. Not for the money, but for the effort I put into it. You’re opting out of that because of Leto and the studios? For shame. I reiterate, the other actors went through a lot and devoted a lot of time and energy to this movie and I’m sure they would still want people to see it just for that. Money and profit margins be damned. I’m not talking about supporting anyone, I’m talking about seeing the movie, and writing a review. Reviews aren’t about money and neither was my point.
    You know how many movies we all enjoy featuring actors who cross the lines? Don’t get me started, I’ll ruin a whole fuckload of your favorites. From hiding naked in co-stars closets, to sending dead chickens to people on set. We still watch the movie. This is what we do. This is the function of critics. The review commentates on the movie and the controversy around it if needs be, we do not cop out of that bottom line.

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