“Suicide Squad” just doesn’t have the “Nerve”

Suicide Squad is a studio tentpole release if there ever was one. The latest entry in the DC Comics cinematic universe, it stars Will Smith and Margot Robbie. The film is about a ragtag team of supervillains with various special abilities and neuroses who are forced to band together to save the world from an ancient witch commanding an army of goo monsters. It cost 175 million dollars to make; If an insider quote is to be believed, it might need to make 800 million to be ultimately profitable.

A week or so before Suicide Squad came out, a smaller film called Nerve was released, based on the novel of the same name by Jeanne Ryan. Starring Emma Roberts and Dave Franco, it’s about a wildly popular online game where players are challenged to do humiliating or dangerous dares on camera for money. It’s often silly, and sometimes downright bizarre, but for all its flaws it’s a more engaging and interesting film than the unwieldy behemoth described above. And, as an added bonus for the studio, it only cost 20 million dollars to make.

Discussing Hollywood’s fixation with high risk/high reward blockbusters, especially superhero movies, feels a little like confronting a gambling addict. Of course, I don’t mean to imply that the movie industry’s reliance on blockbusters is a new development; it’s been building up since Jaws and Star Wars in the seventies. But in recent years, it’s begun to feel like audiences have reached their limit. Marvel’s films seem to fare a little better at striking a decent balance between artistry and business. They’ve brought on interesting, talented filmmakers like James Gunn and Ryan Coogler to helm their gargantuan moneymakers, and the results have often been satisfying. DC, on the other hand, seems to have handed Zack “Sucker Punch” Snyder the keys to their cinematic endeavors. The films they’ve produced so far have been troubling, both creatively and financially, and Suicide Squad is the latest indicator that things may well be proceeding in the wrong direction.

The most positive thing I can say about Suicide Squad is that it’s a great deal of fun to finally see Harley Quinn make her live-action film debut. Fortunately, director David Ayer made the excellent decision to cast Margot Robbie as the Joker’s main squeeze. Though the character’s signature accent seems to drift in and out, it’s clear that Robbie is having a great time embodying Harley’s kooky sense of madness. Jared Leto’s Joker, on the other hand, is a conceptual mess anchored by a surprisingly terrible performance from the Oscar-winning actor. Will Smith is solid as master assassin Deadshot, one of the only Squad members to have a fully fleshed-out backstory and motivation. Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and Slipknot (Adam Beach) are not nearly so lucky.

The vaguely defined stakes of the central conflict as well as the tediousness of the action scenes (which consist mostly of our antiheroes mowing down waves of blobby CG creatures) means the entire enterprise just feels rote. There’s nobody to root for or against. Even beyond that, the narrative through-line feels uneven and hacked together, which makes sense given the rumors of heavy re-editing on DC’s part once the film was essentially complete, in order to cater to focus testing results that showed positive audience response to a more humorous tone. A similar tonal shift was forced upon last summer’s Fantastic Four reboot, and the end result in both cases was a tiresome film without any real glimmer of directorial vision. Readers, I’m not naive. I know that directors of big studio films like these can’t just have free creative reign over their work; hell, by most accounts that’s why Edgar Wright left Ant-Man. But removing any sense of artistic purpose from a film is a sure way to leave audiences uninspired.

While it’s a far cry from being a triumph of cinematic artistry (and the songs on its soundtrack aren’t quite as good as those in Suicide Squad), at the very least Nerve knows what it is. It’s a somewhat-trashy teen thriller that doesn’t have a lot to offer in the way of smart social commentary (it buys a bit too much into the moral panic surrounding kids that frequent social media sites), but it’s still delightfully entertaining. One scene in particular, in which sheltered high school senior Vee (Emma Roberts) has to steer her love interest and game partner Ian (Dave Franco) through the streets of New York City as he rides his motorcycle blindfolded, is more engaging and exciting than anything to be found in Suicide Squad. In another scene, the pair has to make a mad dash out of an upscale department store while in their underwear. It’s a genuinely lighthearted and fun moment, and it shows that, to make a movie that’s enjoyable escapist entertainment, you probably shouldn’t need to have an on-set therapist.

Nerve is like Mr. Robot if it sustained serious brain trauma, and the end result is both wildly dumb and weirdly compelling. Though it leans a bit too heavily on cringe-worthy teenage drama, it’s also one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in recent memory, in terms of comedy both intentional (the film has possibly the best use of the phrase “white people problems” in cinema history) and not-so-intentional. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman give the film stakes that are serious enough to be engaging, but they don’t ever take their material so seriously that it stops being fun. The wrong cast could make a film like this insufferable, but Emma Roberts leads a group of talented young actors with a performance that’s earnest and relatable. If this were the pilot episode for a teen-centric reboot of The Twilight Zone, I would be eagerly waiting, popcorn tub in hand, for the next installment.

So, why compare these two films in particular? Perhaps just to make the point that money isn’t everything when it comes to making movies, and neither is studio control. You can’t focus-group every film into a surefire hit for every demographic and audience subset, and most of the time it’s actively detrimental to try to. The Greek gods of old would be impressed; Hollywood studios have managed to grapple with big-budget hubris for decades and still turn massive profits. However, if they’re smart, they’ll take Suicide Squad as a valuable warning sign that this strategy, especially when it comes to superhero movies, isn’t infallible. A comparatively small film like Nerve can be far more entertaining than its summer-movie brethren, and at a fraction of the cost.

Final Scores:
Suicide Squad: 3/10
Nerve: 6.5/10 for quality, 8/10 for entertainment value