Let's Get Animated... and Then Kill Stuff
Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay
As we've noted on this site before, DC and Marvel have their various strengths and, usually, what one side is doing really well at the other is floundering (and vice versa). Currently DC's comics division is in a big of a renaissance with the post-Rebirth continuity while Marvel Comics has been flailing ever since the recent Secret Wars soft-reboot of continuity (followed by Civil War II, followed by making Captain America a Nazi, followed by... followed by...). And, to be fair, DC could screw things up quickly if they wanted to -- the recent rumors of a the "War of the Flash" rebooting DC continuity back to where it was before the New 52 reboot (which was before the Rebirth reboot... goddamnit, DC) could kill everything once again.
Comic companies are really dumb. I'm just saying...
Things are very different on the big screen, though. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is dominating the box office (currently laying a one-two punch in theaters with Black Panther followed by Infinity War). Not every movie they release is a critical success, but six of the last seven movies in Phase Three of the universe have made 800,000 million USD or more. Contrast that with the DC Extended Universe (the term for DC's recent cinematic output and shared universe around them) -- none of the films have been critical successes, and though some of the movies have done fairly well (like the critically panned Suicide Sqaud and the much beloved Wonder Woman), the big crossover movie, Justice League so under-performed studio expectations that reportedly DC isn't quite sure what to do with their film universe now.
Then we get over to TV. As we discussed in an older article (See Also: Superheroes on the TV), DC is really nailing the TV output, with their Arrowverse and related series still going strong (creatively the last seasons for most of the older shows were a tad stale, but newer output, like Black Lightning shows there's still life for the heroes on the CW). Sure, some shows like Gotham are awful, glorious messes, but even those are hard to ignore.
Marvel, though, struggles on the boob-tube (See Also: Okay Everyone, Make Sure to Grab Your SHIELD). Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the high-water mark for the MCU on TV (something I never expected to say four years ago), but while the Netflix shows start strong, most of the time they fizzle out mid-season. Marvel TV is generally lackluster, especially when you consider most of the shows have a tenuous connection to the overall MCU continuity at best (if the shows could play more in the world of the movies, maybe they'd be creatively stronger).
But there's another prong to the discussion that, up until now, I haven't really touched upon: Direct-to-DVD fare. Back in the 80s and 90s, direct-to-video movies were the worst of the worst -- cheap, forgettable cash-in sequels (see everything Land Before Time after the first one) or movies so bad studios knew they couldn't release them on the big screen (see anything Universal Soldier after the first one). And, indeed, the few vague tie-in films Marvel has release direct-to-DVD have been largely forgettable (does anyone out there, aside from myself, even admit to owning the disc for Planet Hulk or SHIELD Confidential: Black Window and Punisher?).
DC, though, has found a way to build a steady, generally well-received collection of films (31 flicks and counting) direct to DVD. Initially started as adaptations of known comic arcs of trade paperbacks (Superman/Doomsday and Justice League: The New Frontier), these films eventually evolved into their own continuity, with installments released twice or three-times a year. Everything was tightened up with the release of Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, an adaptation of the Flashpoint event that launched the New 52 (why is it that the Flash always has to be at fault now for continuity reboots?).
This film served a similar purpose -- many of the older movies featured recurring actors in their roles, many playing characters from the older cartoons of the DC Animated Universe. With Flashpoint, this loose continuity was reformed into something closer to the New 52, often with new actors cast for the various roles (who would then largely go on to consistently play these roles over and over again). Ten movies in, there's even a fair bit of continuity at play: three Batman movies that tie into each other, another two main Justice League films plus a Justice League Dark spin-off and a Teen Titans spin-off that gained its own sequel.
And then we have Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay the most recent film in the series (Batman Ninja is not in continuity). Hell to Pay has only minimal crossover at the beginning of the film, but eventually dives deep into the DC Animated Movie Universe continuity. And yet, the very fact that is has continuity to play with, that it can use or ignore the greater universe as need be to tell its story, make this a much better adaptation of the Suicide Squad comics than the DCEU film from a couple of years ago.
The 2016 Suicide Squad DCEU film is an absolute mess. The villain, Enchantress, is a barely-sketched vixen given little motivation to do anything she does except for some vague "cuz she's evil" explanation. Her minions are weird masses of CGI clay that are neither interesting to look at nor scary in the least. The action sequences are overly edited and hard to follow. Oh, and you don't really care about most of what's going on because the plot is both stupidly simple and horribly over-complicated at the same time. It's a movie that was edited, reshot, re-edited, and focused grouped to the point that it pleased no one and did nothing well.
And yet, despite all that, I still liked it (and many in the viewing public did as well). This is not a movie I go back to again and again, but when I watch it I do so for two reasons: Deadshot and Harley Quinn. As played by Will Smith, Deadshot is the most engaging character in the movie. That's not because he's anything like the character in the comics (beyond being good with guns, really), but because Will Smith can leak charisma out of his skin and take over any scene he's in. He plainly put effort into his role, instead of just phoning it in, and his Deadshot steals the movie from all the lesser characters. He's equaled in performance only by Margot Robbie as Harley -- she's a force in her role, a charismatic, energetic, psychotic bombshell that you can't stop watching. The Harley in this movie is absolutely terrible, less a villain than a Hot Topic cos-player, and yet I still enjoyed her despite all this because of Robbie and her performance.
A lot of the blame for this can simply be because DC elected to make a Suicide Squad film before they had established all their characters (the same issue I have with Justice League, which we'll likely talk about in a future article). You're supposed to somehow care about these anti-heroes and their antics despite the fact that we don't know any of them and haven't been given any reason to care. We end up caring about what happens to Deadshot and Harley Quinn because their actors are so good, bu, as clearly indicated by everyone else in their forgettable, sketched-in roles, that's not a trick you can pull off repeatedly or consistently.
Contrast this with Avengers: Infinity War. That's a movie over-stuffed with characters, and most of them don't get a ton of time for you to learn about them (a common complaint among critics). But Infinity War had 10 years of buildup and continuity behind it, so even if the movie can't spend time to reintroduce Doctor Strange or the Guardians of the Galaxy, you still know who they are and care about what happens to them. Also, almost all the leads in the movie are played by great actors who can imbue their characters with life (like, in Suicide Squad, Deadshot and Harley Quinn). It works because Marvel put in the effort and didn't rush the product.
This leads us back to Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay. The universe itself, the DC Animated Movie Universe, has gone through nine films before this one, building up the world and the various heroes. Most of the characters here, to be fair, weren't really seen in the films before this, but the world was, and it was clearly established that there are heroes, there are villains, and there's rules to the whole universe. Effort was put in to establish how things work and what kinds of stakes there are. Thus, when we get a team-up of Deadshot, Captain Boomerang, Harley Quinn, and others, we understand who we're watching and why it matters.
Oh, and the movie doesn't try to make us think anyone in the film is a good guy. These are criminals forced to perform deeds because if they fail, or run, or double-cross, they get their head blown off (by Amanda Waller, leader of A.R.G.U.S., the secret government agency controlling the Suicide Squad). The 2016 movie wanted us to feel bad for these villains, to make us think of them as anti-heroes, but Hell to Pay doesn't have time for that. These are bad guys and, as we're shown time and again, they will double- (and triple-, and quadruple-)cross each other to get ahead (and be free of Waller). If they get their heads blow off in the process, oh well. There's other villains that can be made to fight.
But let's get back to that discussion on continuity. As noted, it doesn't seem like Hell to Pay is that connected to the other movies in the DCAMU. Sure, Captain Boomerang and a couple of other characters had small, largely non-speaking parts in other films, but most of the connection between the movies is the clean, clear animation style. I happen to like the style these movies have had -- it's like the classic DCAU cartoons from the '90s and '00s, just grown up a bit (so much better than the Spencer's gifts pastiche of the 2016 film). But then, part way in, it's revealed that the movie is actually deeply connected to the larger universe. We find out that one of the villains is Professor Zoom, the Flash's bitter enemy.
Zoom, who last appeared in the Flashpoint Paradox and, more importantly, died there. This movie doesn't hand way it away but instead full force uses the speedster's apparently death as a plot point (involving the usual Flash mumbo-jumbo involving Flash Time and Flash Spirits and Flash Shark Repellant). His death, which happened nine movie prior, is integral to the universe and this movie in particular. Because of that we not only have a villain that we know can be dangerous (because he's a speedster and is shown very much willing to kill) but there are real stakes involved with him winning or losing -- potentially universe altering stakes.
That's what happens when a film series is willing to build and take time and do things right. The 2016 Suicide Squad was a rushed product cranked out to appeal to mass-markets. And sure, the 2016 film made $750 Million in theaters compared to Hell to Pay's $2.5 Million direct-to-DVD. And yet it's the smaller movie that's the more interesting movie. It's not perfect, no, but it is enjoyable in all the ways its big-budget counterpart never quite managed.