Going out to see a movie can be tough with a toddler. My wife and I, in what feels like another life, used to attend the cinema regularly. While we rarely have a night out at the theater these days, I was able to catch a few of films this summer, including DC’s Suicide Squad and Woody Allen’s Café Society.
I found Café Society to be pleasant while underwhelming and Suicide Squad to be a hot mess. The two films couldn’t be further apart in the audiences they attracted or the marketing used to invite said viewers, yet I couldn’t help but feel those in charge of DC’s Cinematic Universe would benefit from a close study of Woody Allen’s work. Warner Brothers (DC Comics parent company) may have made a big chunk of cash with their recent superhero exploit, but the negative reviews their films have received should result in a readjustment of their methodology.
I would also argue that the backlash from DC fanboys towards critics is terribly misplaced. When I talk to friends who claimed to enjoy Batman v. Superman, I tell them emphatically that they do not love said film: they care for Superman and Batman and want to see them on the screen. I am still a fanboy at heart, and I too want to see the heroes of my childhood represented in big-budget productions. I have now sat through three films in the DC Cinematic Universe that have been terrible movies solely because I do care for these characters. But there is no way in hell I will make excuses for a studio that continues to produce such poorly made representations of these characters, and fans of DC Comics shouldn’t either. We should be demanding that Warner Brothers do something different.
Comparing Café Society to Suicide Squad is a bit unfair; two more unalike beasts have yet been made. Café Society is the vision of a lone writer and director, well versed in his style and craft, developing a singular focused work from conception to screen. Suicide Squad is a corporate product, developed by committee and focus groups to appeal to the largest demographic group possible while overtly placing products to generate revenue. From all known reports, the production of Suicide Squad was a mess of epic proportions, with the studio constantly trying to retool the film to follow recent successes at failures at the box office. According to The Hollywood Reporter:
A source with knowledge of events says Warners executives, nervous from the start, grew more anxious after they were blindsided and deeply rattled by the tepid response to BvS. “Kevin was really pissed about damage to the brand,” says one executive close to the studio. A key concern for Warners executives was that Suicide Squad didn’t deliver on the fun, edgy tone promised in the strong teaser trailer for the film. So while Ayer pursued his original vision, Warners set about working on a different cut, with an assist from Trailer Park, the company that had made the teaser.
By the time the film was done, multiple editors had been brought into the process, though only John Gilroy is credited. (A source says he left by the end of the process and that the final editor was Michael Tronick.) “When you have big tentpoles and time pressure, you pull in resources from every which way you can,” says this source. “You can’t do it the way it used to be, with one editor and one assistant editor.”
I can’t imagine a more foolish approach to film making, but what do I know; my only cinematic work was a poorly acted found-footage comedy done in school. The advice that follows may fall on deaf ears, but the basic lessons of filmmaking present in Allen’s Café Society could encourage DC to learn from a master and craft a watchable movie.
It was well near 40 minutes into Suicide Squad before the narrative focus of the film even began to take form. For the entire first act, we were simply introduced to characters in the most ham-fisted manner possible. Understandably, when dealing with an ensemble cast, time must be given to getting the audience acquainted with the main characters, but Suicide Squad took this to new nauseating heights. At the film’s heart is a story of a group of criminals recruited to do the dirty jobs superheroes could not. The film did not need the level of expository characterization just to get those pieces in place.
Compare that to Café Society. Within 5 minutes, Woody Allen has set the tone, setting and introduced all our major characters, alluding to their goals and failings. Some would criticize a filmmaker for telling us about a character and not showing us via visual ques. This is a fair point, but films of this nature do not require the extended character study you find with Charles Kane or Luke Skywalker. Neither approach is wrong, but if you are going to go down the overt expository route as Suicide Squad did, then get to the bloody point. Woody Allen told me everything I needed to know about his characters within a few sentences. Even when one takes into account the convoluted backstories of many comic figures, Suicide Squad’s characters were not so complex that their origins required 40 minutes of screen time.
Harley Quinn is a good-girl turned mad by the Joker.
Deadshot is a hitman for hire trying to make good with his family.
Captain Boomerang is Australian.
Little more than this was required to get these characters into the narrative action of the film.
This is where comic book films often fall short. In an attempt to appease fans while tapping into as many demographic groups as possible, they shoehorn in too many characters than is feasible to adequately integrate into a single film. Suicide Squad was fundamentally the story of criminals Deadshot (Will Smith) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) being groomed/controlled by their government minders Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) and Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman). Every other character could have been removed from the film and had their narrative bits placed in the hands of an aforementioned character. By including so many parts, the audience was not given sufficient screen time to sympathies with any of the characters.
Compare this to Café Society. With a few auxiliary characters present, a vast majority of screen time is spent with those involved in the narrative’s central love triangle (Jesse Eisenberg, Steve Carell and Kristen Stewart). Woody Allen didn’t give us an extended scene describing Carell’s rise to prominence in 1930s Hollywood, nor did he provide more than was necessary of Eisenberg’s gangster uncle’s escapades. The camera’s eye remained on the core character’s struggle, while only deviating to Eisenberg’s Jewish parents for comedy relief when need be. I excuse these narrative deviations from Allen as what would a film about 1930s café society be without a little nod to Jewish culture?
Some may criticize Woody Allen for returning to the same musical themes in all his works. His reliance on Golden Age Jazz and Big Band tunes may be cliché, but it is very fitting for a film like Café Society. If the score is to help situate the audience in the world of its characters, providing tone and characterization without exposition, than Allen’s arrangement of songs in this film was effective.
Suicide Squad’s approach to scoring felt like a high school student’s first attempt at selecting music to accompany a character. In nearly each case, a pop-song used in the film is too on-the nose. A striking example was Black Sabbath’s Paranoid accompanying a scene with Harley Quinn (“Finished with my woman ’cause she couldn’t help me with my mind/ People think I’m insane because I am frowning all the time”). Ok, we get it; she’s insane (I bet good money that some executive or producer considered Ozzy Osborne’s “Crazy Train” for this exact scene).
Composer Robin Hoffmann lists the considerations that should go into selecting accompanying music in any film, and Suicide Squad fails on every count. These songs do not accompany a character throughout the arc, nor are they helpful in establishing tone. They exist just for the audience to think, “I know this song.”
Considering the development process this film went through, I have to believe Warner Brothers saw how successfully Guardians of the Galaxy used pop music as its score that they decided to try the same in Suicide Squad. The major difference between the two is that the music used in Guardians actually had a narrative purpose and wasn’t used to bludgeon you over the head with pointless, unambiguous characterization.
Lighting and Visual Tone Setting
I could discuss at length the way Allen masterfully frames his characters to help tell the narrative’s story. It may not always be necessary, but Allen knows how to block a scene (I highly recommend this interview he gave to Roger Ebert that illuminates the detail Allen put into each scene’s lighting, framing and design). Seeing that Suicide Squad was reshot and reedited by countless hands helps explain its tonal inconsistency and was likely not the fault of its director, but visually placing it next to Café Society is striking. Why bother taking on a competent director who has a clear vision and approach to the film if you believe a committee of executives and focus groups should have final say over the film?
Café Society clocks in at an hour and thirty-six minutes, a fitting length for a film of this type. Suicide Squad gives us a conservative (for comic movies anyway) two hours and ten minutes to accomplish its very simple narrative goal of having superheroes beat up some monster. I am told a much longer cut of the film exists, and maybe it will help make sense of the narrative inconsistencies. But there really doesn’t need to be more screen time added, just used wiser. This is not a piece of high fantasy with epic world building taking place. This is a movie about some villains who come together to beat a bad guy and do some good for society. This trend towards longer and longer films has not helped make these movies any better; if anything, it is making them worse with all the additional padding and plotting.
Like many other nerds, I am excited about the forthcoming Wonder Woman and Justice League films. Not because DC has made movies worth watching, rather my nostalgic affinity with those properties. It is possible to make a decent comic book movie that also stands its ground as a competent film. My fanboy wish is that a few basic lessons about filmmaking be learned by Warner Brothers; it’s not as if they don’t have ample examples to study within their own roster of films.