First things first, this is going to be spoiler heavy, so if you haven't seen the movie and don't want major plot points spoiled, stop here. If you have seen it or just don't care, then join me below as we try and salvage some good from this film.
So first off, as you can probably tell, I wasn't a fan of this movie. But instead of listing all the problems I had with it( watch this, it sums up my thoughts pretty well), I decided it would be more constructive to point out all the things you as a storyteller can learn from Suicide Squad's mistakes.
Off the bat, one of the biggest problems of Suicide Squad was tone. Whether it was studio meddling, poor editing, or just a basic misunderstanding of the source material, the movie was all over the place. It also didn't help it was a PG-13 movie, trying hard to have an R rated edge. Things would switch from zany, to action thriller, to Lifetime movie in the span of a scene. It could have been a dark comedy, a high energy action flick, or other worldly superhero fantasy, but instead they tried to mash a lot of disparate ideas together creating a center that couldn't hold.
Lesson Number One
Choose a tone and stick with it. And don't misinterpret that as your story can only be one thing, but more so that your story can't be all things. You can't really make a dark comedy if it's filled with bright images and peppy banter, nor can you make an edge of your seat spy thriller using the style of My Dinner with Andre. Pick what you want as the core of your story, and build everything else around that. Now if you want parts to have a slightly different tone, that's fine. The Killing Joke has a whole Joker song and dance number, but it works because of everything that comes before. Case in point, everything you need to know about the tone of Being John Malkovich can be found in this one scene:
After tone, characterization was the second biggest problem. Not only did they do more telling than showing, insisting time and again these were the worst criminals around while we watched them do heroic act after heroic act, but they failed to really sell them as a team. On top of all that, they rushed in an unreasonable amount of backstory for certain characters while leaving others with almost no explanation for why they where even there. Finally, in the case of Will Smith and Margo Robbie's characters, they left you almost no choice but to like them, while never really giving you a chance to get to know anyone else.
Lesson Number Two
So first with the telling over showing. That works in a novel because you literally can't show, but even then, allowing the reader to get to know a character via their actions rather than having someone describe that character is always the more effective route. You can tell me how many people Will Smith's character Deadshot has killed, but that isn't nearly as effective as actually showing him in action. In the one scene we actually see him being an assassin, he kills a person we have no reason to care about nor have any information on. He's an informant, that's about it. Instead, why not show him doing something that lets us see just how bad he is, like killing an innocent person or providing back up for other villains. Same goes for every other character. Why was Killer Croc even in jail? Because he was a crocodile man? What about Slipknot? Surely he wasn't using his ability to climb anything for crime. For shame Slipknot, for shame.
A good example of showing over telling is this scene from Guardians of the Galaxy:
Now admittedly there's quite a bit of exposition in the beginning of this scene, but it's paired with some visuals showing off the personalities of the different characters. Following the opening bit, we have Star Lord trying to fight a guard for using his tape player. They could have had him say It's his last connection to his mom and Earth, but instead we come to understand all that through his reaction. Makes for a better scene right? Finally, there's a small moment where we see Rocket Raccoon's back. Earlier the guard mentions he was experimented on, but seeing the aftermath of those experiments, and the reaction Star Lord has when he notices it, tells us a whole story. We don't really need more than that to understand why Rocket is the way he is.
This scene does more to establish it's characters in 4 minutes than Suicide Squad does in it's entire running time, which is both impressive and depressing.
Suicide Squad also tries to skip a lot of the team building elements and get right to the family part. We're supposed to believe this team of dysfunctional and anti-social bad guys are suddenly a close knit family after spending less than 48 hours with one another. They never fight or argue, and even worse, they barely talk to one another. No one speaks directly to Killer Croc until basically the end of the movie, and it's really nothing of substance. Same goes for Captain Boomerang and Katana. We also have to wait until nearly the end of the movie for Diablo to string more than a few sentences together. I might buy Harley and Deadshot getting somewhat close, but everyone else seems too busy trying to find a good spot to fall in for all the slow motion walks they do.
Want to see how to build character relationships:
How long have Vincent and Jules known each other? Who knows? Are they just work friends? Possibly? None of that matters though, because by the end of the scene you get a sense that there's a strong bond between the two that doesn't really need an in depth explanation.
That leads to the final character problem of the film. There's too many characters, and because of that we only really get a chance to know and like 2 or 3. There's nothing wrong with Harley or Deadshot being the stars of the film, but with so many other characters just walking around, you begin to wonder, what are they even doing there? The movie is called Suicide Squad yet, and let's be honest Slipknot doesn't count, only one of the team dies during the mission. If you want to bring back some of these characters for other movies, that's fine, but why not fill the team up with a bunch of expendables? Whittle down the cast over the course of the movie and give us the impression that no one is truly safe. Instead we got several characters wandering on and off screen with seemingly no real reason to be there, until the movie comes up with one. Compare this to Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, which also had a bunch of characters that seemingly came and went, but each of them had a unique purpose and helped move the story along.
So to sum this section up, let your characters speak for themselves through their actions, instead of having others tell us repeatedly how cool/dangerous/crazy/funny they are. If you're creating an ensemble, let your characters interact in a real and believable way. Good examples are movies like Oceans Eleven or The Usual Suspects, and comics like The Runaways or Young Avengers. And finally make sure each character is there for a reason, otherwise they're just taking up valuable space that could be used for the development of other characters or general advancement of the plot. So if you find you don't need 'em, probably best to ditch 'em.
3.) Villains and plot
This fucking guy, am I right? Again, I'm not going to go into the reasons why Leto's performance didn't really work for me, but he's symbolic of the third biggest problem of Suicide Squad; the villains and the plot that revolved around them. I'm willing to give everyone in this film a slight pass in the sense that this script was a mess, and no one really had much to work with, especially poor Cara Delevinge who was basically thrown to the wolves. That being said, the biggest problems with The Joker in this movie, purely from a structural point of view, is you could have taken all of his scenes out and really lost nothing. Secondly, his presence is mostly just distracting, and takes away interest from the main villain of the film. As annoying and all over the place as I found this Joker, it's still the Joker. It would be like having Darth Vader show up for a few minutes in The Force Awakens to ask Kylo Ren for the Wi-Fi password to the new Death Star, then leave. These kind of characters don't really work as cameos. Their presence, especially in a film with a bunch of lesser known characters, is too big. So either make them the main villain or just leave them out entirely.
So that leaves us with the actual villain of the film, Enchantress, and the plot surrounding her. What was she trying to do? Why did she have to teach a Zumba class to make her machine work? And why did Amanda Waller think a guy with guns, an unstable woman with a bat, a guy who throws boomerangs, a guy who can shoot fire, but refuses to, and a crocodile man would be enough to stop a 6,000 year old, all powerful witch?
Simply put, she's boring. Everything she says feels like a bad Ghostbusters rip off, as does her world ending portal. The film posits her as an all powerful being, until it deems it necessary for her not to be. She's not really scary, nor is she sympathetic. It's just more destruction for destruction's sake. Because of this, the movie doesn't really know what to do with itself.
We spend a majority of it following our anti-heroes from destroyed building to destroyed building, without any real idea of what they're meant to be doing. There's even an attempt to center the plot around no one knowing what's going on, which is already a bad idea, but it's even worse when we've spent so much time without any actual plot beyond Task Force X needs to stop something.
Lesson Number Three
First, your main villain or antagonist should have a clear motive. Second, your heroes should be within punching weight of said villain. If one side is too powerful, then you'll have to do some extra work explaining how your rag tag group was able to stop an omnipotent alien god or why the president of a large corporation had such a hard time dealing with some intern. Third, make sure your main villain is your best one. Don't introduce a character that's ten times as interesting (Dart Maul), only to have them disappear or get killed off halfway through. And finally, any plot is better than no plot. Introduce the main idea early (stealing a precious artifact, protecting a diplomats daughter, winning the super turbo grand Prix) and then find a way to get us there. As long as we have an idea of the characters objective, you can take whatever road you like.
First of all that above picture (and video that spawned it) is the best thing that came out of this movie. Anyways, for the sake of brevity, here's a list of other wrongs to watch out for in your own work.
- Pacing. Momentum is key in any story, and any break in said momentum should be purposeful. You can't go pedal to the metal from start to finish. Sometimes you need to come up for air, and that's fine. Suicide Squad however starts off basically as a music video, transitions into standard action fare, and then bounces back and forth between sci-fi fantasy and a series of flashbacks. This all ties into tone and plot, but the point is every scene should build on the last in someway. Too many scenes in this movie just start and stop abruptly with no context to what came before or after. It's as if they decided that because it was in the trailer it needed to be in the movie somewhere.
- Flashbacks. Speaking of, there's a right way to do them and a wrong way. Memento is literally all flashback when you think about it. Flashbacks can be used to deliver a twist, or give us context for something that happens later in a story. They're good shorthand when you need to deliver a lot of backstory in a short amount of time. Then there's the wrong way to do them, like say having a 10 minute flashback to squeeze some characterization into the last 30 minutes of your movie. Or having multiple flashbacks back to back to back. Or just having characters randomly break into flashback like Family Guy. They need to have a purpose. You can't just use them as a lazy way to add depth to cardboard characters. Flashing back to what Katana was doing before she joined the team with no context or follow up doesn't really add anything to her as a character, because it never answers the question on everyone's mind; why is she there in the first place?
- Women. A lot has been made on the treatment of women in Suicide Squad. Some have argued that Harley was sexed up in the comics so she should be sexed up in the movie. Others have wondered why so many women needed to be used as literal punchlines. Or why they couldn't wear actual clothes. Here's a surefire way to make sure the women in your stories avoid stereotypes. Write them as people. Give them the same treatment and the same story lines, not that you would even give a male character, but just any general human being. It's not the punching women that's so much the problem, as it's the fact that the actual violence is what we're supposed to find funny. It's not that women can't be sexy or sexual in nature, it's that their sexuality needs to have roots in something. Some people use sex to take advantage of others, for other people sex is how they make emotional connections, and some people just enjoy sex but that's only a small part of who they are as a person. It only becomes a problem when you reduce female characters to objects of desire or give them stories that solely revolve around their relationship and standing to men.
- Action. I know Suicide Squad had various action scenes in it, but honestly I don't really remember any of them. They all just kind of blur together in some combination of bullets and decapitated vegetable men. If your going to make an action movie, you should have some memorable action set pieces. Case in point:
Not really much to add to that, the scene pretty much speaks for itself. You want to create your own Dark Knight tunnel chase. Something unique that jumps out at the audience, grabs them, and makes them say "I need to see that again!" Whether it's film, TV, or comics, always think about how you can visually tell a story using all of the different tools at your disposal. One of my favorite action scenes from the last couple of years is from Captain America Winter Soldier.
The whole scene, starting from the shootout on the bridge is great, but this last bit with Bucky and Cap going one on one is what really sets the bar high for me. Just watch the back and forth between these two. It feels like it could really go either way. Look at how they each have little wrinkles in their fighting styles that make them unique. Cap is a bit more agile, while Bucky is all about precision (peep the nifty knife work). And then finally there's the big reveal at the end. It's a terrific sequence that manages to be thrilling and also moves the plot forward in a major way.
Alright, I think it's best I end this here. Hopefully you'll be able to take something from this and apply it to your future work. And by you I mean Warner Brothers.