Suicide Squad & Complexity

Want to know where Suicide Squad went wrong? DC Pictures tried to replicate a known success. They didn’t understand what made it a success. And they definitely didn’t understand complexity limits.

Let’s start with what they were trying to do: replicate the Dark Knight Trilogy, aka the only good Batman movies. Batman is a campy story with dumb, one-note villains. Yet, all the campy Batman movies sucked, and the new serious ones were good. This probably says something deep about the American psyche. Or Heath Ledger was an amazing Joker. Let’s go with the latter.

Complexity is expensive

Unlike books, movies are time constrained. There’s a practical limit of three hours or so, and within those three hours there’s a limit to how many plot points an audience will remember, how much they’ll care about characters, and how many emotional shifts they can go through before going numb. Do too many, and people stop caring. The movie feels random. Plot threads open and close for no apparent reason. Stuff happens.

Suppose you have a cop who’s always angry. Now you could just go with “angry policeman,” but that’s such a trope. So let’s make him a really complex angry cop. Maybe he’s sad because his wife left their kid in a car and the kid died. And the she went to jail because that’s the law but he knows she had absolutely no bad intentions. So now he feels really weird about the job of being a policeman and compensates poorly by yelling at his subordinates.

Great! That’s some first-rate character development. You can see the Oscars in your future. Only problem is, how are you going to convey this? Well, you could just tell it. Have a cutaway showing what happened. Or the cop talks about it.

No matter how you do it, you’re going to burn at least a minute of screen time. Either that or set up some too-clever-by-half easter egg where some characters pass by a dead kid in a car with a mom being arrested and then the cop has a picture of the same kid on his desk.

You’ve also changed the emotional tone. Unless you’re going for a world where everything sucks all the time, you can’t explain the cop being angry without dipping into sadness. Maybe the main characters are getting ready to fight some evil. Maybe the cop’s angry just to set the scene. Unless you’re trying for dissonance, the main characters will have to respond to finding out the angry/sad cop’s secret. Because the audience just did, and they need to process the surprise.

Now the cop’s a tragic cop and part of the main storyline. That’s five minutes of screentime and an emotional beat that’s been spent on something NOT the main plot. All because your angry cop guy had to be a serious human being.

If you want to make a better Suicide Squad, make it a comedy. Writing good antiheroes is expensive, writing good comedic supporting cast is cheap.

The problem of having too many heroes or too many villains is somewhat well known. The Avengers was good but it required five movies to lay the foundation. The Expendables just sucked. What’s worse is that selling good antiheroes is even harder than selling heroes. Heroes can be one or two sided, but everyone knows what makes a good guy a good guy. Meanwhile, an antihero has to be both compelling and repulsive, which means a complex character who requires lots of screen time and emotional investment.

The worst part is that a black comedy Suicide Squad could have been amazing. Being a comedy removes a lot of the complexity restrictions that a serious movie has. Characters don’t have to be serious and well-developed, which is good because there are a lot of them. Also the villains are doofier than the Guardians of the Galaxy. Assless Hawkeye. Flame Guy. Crocodile Bro. Captain Australia. Psycho Pixie. Guardians was good, so why not a darker Guardians.

An over-funded secret government agency that’s half a step away from dosing each other with LSD as a prank. Incompetent villain protagonists who got corralled into fighting a Big Bad but really are just looking for an excuse to have a good time and blow things up. A lady in a panda costume with no powers who’s just along for the ride. That would have been an AWESOME movie. Instead we got a dumb one.

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