Movie Madness is a feature wherein I pit my top sixteen most anticipated films of the year against each other in a bracketed single elimination tournament because top ten lists can eat a dick.
The brackets as they currently stand.
We hit the right hand side of the brackets with the grudge match between the superhero pictures. Comic vs comic. Marvel vs DC. Captain America: Civil War vs Suicide Squad!
So, Civil War. It had a lot to live up to. For one thing, Winter Soldier is my favourite Marvel Cinematic Universe movie up to this point, and the Captain America franchise is my favourite of the smaller series within the greater MCU. Also, it marks the first introduction of one of my favourite Marvel characters, Spider-Man, whose credentials are waning badly after the triple hit of Sam Raimi’s botched Spider-Man 3 and the two execrable Amazing Spider-Man flicks.
Fortunately, Civil War managed to somehow balance its huge cast and get everything just about right. The story is loosely taken after the comics event of the same name, with Steve Rogers (Cap) and Tony Stark (Iron Man) finding themselves on opposing sides of an issue that leads to them recruiting various allies and coming to blows. The issue in this case is that the various governments of the world have decided that enough is enough, the Avengers have gone unchecked for too long, and their missions have to be overseen by a greater authority. Stark, still reeling from the fallout of his failed Ultron program, agrees, but Steve thinks the Avengers will be far less effective if they cannot operate independently. It’s an interesting inversion of the two characters, with the normally conservative Cap playing the revolutionary, whereas the cocky rebel Tony Stark is now on the side of oversight. It’s to the script’s credit that these changes feel like a natural evolution for both characters rather than a jarring change.
The rest of the cast get solid time here too. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is as mysterious as ever, her allegiances ever in question. And Tom Holland and Paul Rudd are on hand to offer some levity to the heavy proceedings as Spider-Man and Ant-Man respectively, especially during a massive airport fight sequence, a huge battle that acts as a blowout to everything that has happened in the preceding hour and a half or so. And what a setpiece it is. It’s probably the best pure action scene a superhero movie has had since the battle against Loki and the Chitauri from the first Avengers flick. It had me laughing, cheering, and applauding in my cinema seat.
Of course, even as things threaten to get a bit too big, the third act actually does something fairly unprecedented for the Marvel movies and finds a way to bring the escalated conflict back down to a personal level as Cap and Bucky go up against Iron Man in a final brawl that’s as emotionally brutal as it is physical as these former friends tear each other apart.
Civil War is finally the film I wanted from this grand experiment, where the storytellers leverage the continuity set up by these various smaller franchises to set up a plot and execute on the emotional beats within it. Which isn’t to say it’s an unqualified success. The direction falls very much within the Marvel house style, with little to separate it visually from Joss Whedon’s Avengers movies and so forth. While this does lend the MCU a continuity of style, it does mean the films have little to nothing distinguishing themselves from one another. But admittedly, this small caveat matters little in the face of such a good time at the movies. Civil War is everything I want these movies to be. Packed with spectacle, but managing to tell an emotional, character driven story at the same time.
Suicide Squad, on the other hand, is nothing I want from these movies. It’s a disappointing failure on nearly every level, and it’s the first movie in this competition that I actively dislike.
Spoilers: Civil War is winning this fight.
The setup for Suicide Squad is that Amanda Waller is a black ops… person (I think, it’s not entirely clear) who decides that now Superman is dead, they need a squad of supervillains who can be sent in on missions where ordinary people simply will not do. They’re expendable, and she can control them by planting a bomb in their necks to use as leverage. To that end she recruits Deadshot (Will Smith) who is the world’s greatest marksman, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) who is the Joker’s girlfriend and is also pretty good at beating stuff up with a baseball bat, Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) who can throw boomerangs I guess, El Diablo who can control fire but doesn’t really want to, and Killer Croc who is a human crocodile. They’re led by Joel Kinnaman’s Rick Flagg, a soldier who honestly looks more like a heroin addict who couldn’t lead a nursery class to finger paint for half an hour, let alone convince a squad of supervillains to fight supernatural threats.
Also the Joker is in it, and that’s pretty much the extent of his influence over the plot. He’s just sort of there and doesn’t have much to do.
The squad’s mission is to go to Midway City and stop the Enchantress (Cara Delevigne possessed by a CGI witch) who has resurrected her brother Incubus who is a 6000 year old demon from the heady CGI days of the 1990s. Seriously, this thing looks like fucking garbage. The nearest comparison I can draw is to the weird CGI Dwayne Johnson as the Scorpion King from the end of The Mummy Returns.
The structure of the film is basically that the squad walks from one action sequence to the next, most accompanied by dissonant fun pop music from yesteryear (in a cynical attempt to one up Marvel’s success with Guardians of the Galaxy).
Look, here’s the thing. I’m sure there’s a good movie in here somewhere. David Ayer is a capable director, and there are flashes of good stuff in here. The introductions for each character are fun, despite being a little over expositiony. One character in particular, a sadistic guard at Belle Reve prison is almost certainly an Ayer creation. And I laughed several times at Boomerang being a complete shitbag, played to perfection by Jai Courtney. If only they’d given him something more to do instead of focusing hard on Will Smith and Margot Robbie. Yes, in 2016 I just said a film needed more Jai Courtney, feel free to quote me.
The real problem here is DC. No doubt David Ayer made a dark movie. I mean, it’s about a group of villains for fuck’s sake, this is when a movie should be dark! But, after criticism of Batman v Superman left everyone at Warner Bros and DC collectively shitting themselves, they took Ayer’s film and turned it into something more akin to a music video, without any regard to artful editing. Now there are light Marvel style scenes nestled right next to more serious moments with no pacing, no clever cutting, nothing. The whole thing screams studio interference, and it fucking infuriates me. The main criticism of Marvel films is that they’re too similar to one another, that the various directors’ styles aren’t really allowed to shine through. DC seemed to be tracking a different course. For better or worse Man of Steel and Batman v Superman were Zack Snyder movies. And I was looking forward to Suicide Squad being a David Ayer movie. Instead I got two hours of corporate mandate edited together by a fucking trailer house of all things. And it doesn’t work. Suicide Squad is a disappointing mess, a middle finger to fans of comics or David Ayer, and a two hour long steaming shit on the chest of anyone who just wanted to watch a decent flick.