SPOILERS FOR BATMAN V SUPERMAN
Superman is dead, and Zack Snyder has killed him. No, not in the way that Superman is deceased at the close of Snyder’s Batman v Superman; Mr Snyder has so fundamentally misunderstood the character of Superman, he has killed him – the fun, the hope, the optimism and the joy of the Man of Steel. Fittingly, then, as Superman has been laid to rest, the villains are about to run rampant with David Ayer and his Suicide Squad. Rewind a decade or so. Hugh Laurie commented that until very recently, even his eponymous character Gregory House would have been a no-go, labelled too dark : ‘Heroes had beautiful hair – lots of it – splendid teeth and fine jawlines. To find something so jagged… a misfit, such a misanthrope, such a tortured and dark… character at the centre of a drama was then very unusual. It’s now required.’ Within ten years, we’ve gone from Gregory House, a sarcastic and dark but ultimately good guy leading on the screen, to a gang of murdering villains fronting an August blockbuster. Have we called time on good guys? Do we love villains too much? Have we become too accepting of the monsters?
I say no. Instead, what Suicide Squad represents is the cinematic representation of ‘the devil has all the best tunes’.
We haven’t fallen out of love with good guys. Guardians of the Galaxy, full of Spielbergian hero-led optimism has become a fan favourite. Generally, DC’s unquestionably lighter cousin Marvel has raked in audiences to the tune of billions of dollars. Smallville, even, had a large following. Don’t take the dislike of Cavill’s Kal-El as dislike for sunnier characters, or Superman himself: it is Snyder who killed the Last Son of Krypton, foolishly following Christopher Nolan’s successful choice to turn the dimmer switch down on Batman – an inherently dark character and foil to the lighter Superman – and doing the same with Man of Steel. It’s as fundamental a mistake of character to make Clark Kent dark as it is to make Batman Joel Schumacher-esque light. Where Nolan’s superhero colouring book contained shades of blue, purple, black and with dashes of green and purple, Snyder ignores the lines and paints it all black. OH, DARK. PEOPLE WILL LOVE IT.
People didn’t. Just as Nolan gets that a film should reflect the tone of its main character, Ayer, too, understands that. When the biggest character in your film is a psychopathic villain called the ‘Joker’, it must be pretty hard to screw up the tone. He plays Bohemian Rhapsody over shots of psychopaths doing psychopathic things, bad folk doing bad things, as one of these wrongdoers cracks a beer mid-fight. Dark and funny. Nailed it.
Though to blame everything on Snyder would be unfair and ignores Mr Laurie’s hypothesis. It’s true that we’ve rather rapidly turned to rooting for the less heroic heroes: Walter White, Tony Soprano, Don Draper, yes, Batman. It’s why Han Solo is more beloved than Luke Skywalker, he has that edge of darkness – even Peter Capaldi’s ‘Am I a good man?’ Doctor is more of an anti-hero than Matt Smith’s clean-cut good guy. One might argue that Suicide Squad, and its predicted box office success, is the culmination of audiences’ love for antiheroes. But we love these anti-heroes of TV for a small but sharply different reason than we love the villains of film.
Anti-heroes, either deep down or rumbling near the surface, have good in them. We’re constantly warring with ourselves about whether we should support Walter White (I rooted for him up until the end), about how a good man who wants to look after his family can turn into the murderous Heisenberg. But we’re in no doubt to Harley Quinn, Killer Croc or Deadshot’s villainy. With Suicide Squad, we’re being treated. It’s your Mum letting you forego the vegetables and just having the meat and pudding. It’s your Dad letting you skip all scenes in The Dark Knight but the Joker’s. It’s Ayer understanding that you can never get enough of the full-blown villain. ‘Here’, he’s saying, ‘here’s a film of villains being villainous. Lap it up’.
We haven’t had too much heroism – we’ve just had enough of heroism done badly; we’re not in love with villains – we just haven’t had our fill.