It’s too early to say exactly what the final analysis of Suicide Squad will be - how it will eventually stack up in the pantheon of superhero/comics-inspired films. There will need to be some distance from all the arguing and infighting that has raged across the internet in recent weeks as reviews started to come in and be aggregated, fans reacted to those reviews, other fans reacted to those fans, and so on.
There is going to be no dissection of the merits (or lack thereof) of Suicide Squad here, for the simple reason that I haven’t seen the movie yet. But then, many of the people leading the charge against the critics last week hadn’t seen the movie either. Before Suicide Squad opened, before the masses had a chance to appreciate it for themselves, the DC diehards were out in force, defending it against the evil critical empire that seemed sworn to destroy the film. The accusations of a mass bias against DC that cropped up around Batman v Superman arose again (and again ignored the positive consensus that greeted Christopher Nolan’s three Dark Knight features). A tongue-in-cheek petition to shut down Rotten Tomatoes for daring to accumulate the negative opinions received thousands of signatures and hundreds of comments evidently made in all seriousness.
All this felt rather overreactive, but the main reason this fierce expression of brand loyalty struck this onlooker as misguided was that it was predicated not on a defense of the film’s qualities, but on the anticipation of them. How could this movie not be cool, the on-line commenters and posters were saying, and how dare these reviewers spoil our fun in advance? At the very least, it seemed, they should wait until they’d seen Suicide Squad, and if they liked it, then they’d have a more solid platform from which to oppose the naysayers.
Of course, if you’re a true fan, no amount of bad reviews should tarnish your enjoyment of a movie. Even being a critic myself, I’m quite aware that my opinion is just one in a sea of millions, and though I can argue and defend it at great length, I know not everyone will share it. Nonetheless, I can’t deny I’ve felt that sting of disappointment when a movie I’ve admired has not won positive notices elsewhere, and has been derided by others in the field. And thinking back during the Suicide Squad weekend, I recalled a time when I was in the same position as its defenders. When a film I had invested a lot of enthusiasm in was put down by the critical establishment. It was even a DC superhero movie.
I’m talking, of course, about Superman III.
Back when I was a kid, the science fiction/fantasy screen scene both was and was not an embarrassment of riches. We didn’t get nearly as many of those movies a year as are released today, but much of what we got was choice — films that won enthusiastic approval from critics and fans alike. There was Star Wars (which was not, in fact, widely panned when it first opened, but that’s another article) and its sequels, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Poltergeist, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the first two Superman adventures. (Alien and especially The Thing didn’t do so well with reviewers back then, but harder-core horror wasn’t expected to receive their approval in those days.) Since we only got a handful per year, each new big-ticket offering was the object of great expectations among the target audience - and perhaps none seemed as promising as Superman III. It was following up a pair of movies that really delivered the goods, plus they had added Richard Pryor, who at the time was at the peak of his popularity and was bound to add his considerable comic gifts to the mix. How could this not be a winner?
The answer, it would appear, arrived when the reviews came out. They weren’t available at the click of a mouse back then, and thus I paid more attention to such things than the typical young teenager, seeking out the write-ups in various newspapers and magazines - and what I read was disheartening. The Daily News: “…the creators of the Superman series now seem to be on a downward spiral.” New York magazine: “…tedious, labored, and feeble beyond belief.” The Village Voice: “…the dramatic scenes…are so static and clumsily edited that the actors look embarrassed to be caught hanging around the set. The obligatory superfests are not much better.” Rex Reed: “They’ve taken the old Superman comics as far as the idea will go, run out of steam, and now turned the whole thing into a mindless farce.” (Yes, there was a time when I took Rex Reed seriously.) The greatest blow was struck by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, easily the most visible film critics of the era, who both voted thumbs-down on Superman III on their televised show.
There was nowhere for me to publicly respond to all this negativity, so I simply rebelled against it in my own mind. This movie is going to be so cool, I thought. Those critics have to be wrong about it. I walked into a Saturday-matinee showing with a couple of friends, determined that we were going to have a great time. And two hours and change later…we walked out shaking our heads in disappointment. The movie wasn’t thrilling like its predecessors. Pryor’s shtick, even to us kids, seemed strained and out of place. Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane was sorely missed. The climax, with one of the villains transformed into a laser-shooting cyborg and the big problem solved with what resembled a radioactive strawberry milkshake, played as ridiculous to my eyes. Damn, I recall thinking, I guess the critics were right after all.
Superman III was my first experience being let down by a Big Event Movie. Not to overstate the case, but I lost just a little bit of my childhood innocence that day. And it comes to mind when a new Suicide Squad comes out, and the advance reviews putting down a high-profile, much-awaited film are greeted by a chorus insisting it can’t possibly be so. As a critic, my instinct is that those protestors should wait until they’ve seen the film before registering their disapproval — because who knows, they just might wind up agreeing with those negative notices. But the fan in me, remembering Superman III, can in some ways understand the urge to rebel, to “talk back” against those who seem to be tarnishing their expectations, as a way of holding out hope that the movie will turn out well after all.