What the Marketing for ‘Suicide Squad’ and DC Movies Are Doing Wrong
Today sees the debut of DC’s latest entry in the Superhero Movie War, Suicide Squad, which promises to be a madcap, action-packed romp filled with demented and colourful characters. At least, it was promising that until the early reviews started coming in. 33% of Rottentomatoes and 46 on Metacritic marks it as a critical flop. Whether those scores represent the feelings of the moviegoing public as a whole is yet to be seen. We thought it was OK. What let it down was a muddled script that felt like far to many people were adding their own agendas.
Whether or not you like the movie is going to be up to your own personal preference. One failure that is entirely on the studio and the DC brand is the way the movie was marketed. This is not a good time for film marketing, with hype being driven up years before the movies get released, trailers being released while filming is still underway and countless internet commentators picking everything apart. But there are some basic problems they can address.
Advertise the Movie You Have, Not the One You Want
So what’s the plot of Suicide Squad? It’s a team of criminals who are forced into doing shady work for the government and the Joker is involved. Perhaps they have to bring him in. Maybe he’s carrying out some big attack and they have to stop him. Either way, it’s pretty clear from the marketing that whatever is going down, the Joker is a big part of it.
Except he isn’t.
The Joker features in the film for perhaps 10 minutes, and the bulk of those scenes are flashbacks for Harley Quinn’s story. As far as the main plot of the movie goes, he turns up in a total of four scenes, all brief ones, and the entire subplot could be cut without affecting the film as a whole. That’s certainly not what the trailers suggested. The big reveal at the end of the first teaser was the Joker. In most trailers they play his laugh over the Warner Brother’s logo. Whenever there’s a pause during the dramatic music, a shot of the Joker pops up.
To give you a sense of how misrepresentative this is of his role in the film, every single scene he has in the film appears in the trailers. Not the entire scenes, of course, but a bit from each. He has only a couple more lines than what we’ve already seen. Plus he’s been on all the posters, the cinemas have life-size standees and we’ve been inundated with disgusting stories about him mailing his colleagues used condoms, allegedly because he was a ‘method actor’, but it honestly just sounds like he’s an asshole.
I get it. The Joker is the best known character in the film and one of the most popular villains in comics. The last time he appeared in a film people went absolutely bananas for him. So using the Joker as a hook makes sense. But by over-playing that card and over-representing him in the marketing they’ve given people the impression that this movie is something that it’s not: a Joker movie. All of the early fan reviews commented on the surprisingly small role he had. Whenever this happens people are going to be vexed (see what I just did?) because they didn’t get what they were sold on.
This happened in Batman v Superman as well. Many were expecting Wonder Woman to play a larger role than simply tagging in during the finale. And while we’re on the subject…
Stop Showing the Best Parts in the Trailer
Christ, remember sitting in the cinema watching Captain America: Civil War? It blew us away! There were some amazing moments in the film that we did not expect to see. Ant-Man flipping the switch is one that springs to mind, that was phenomenal! Would have been more surprising if Lego hadn’t let it slip, but it was still something seeing it for the first time on the big screen. Spider-Man in action was another amazing sight, and we hadn’t had more than a tiny hint of it in the trailer. Plus there was the villain and what his plan was, we had to let that unfold during the story.
One thing that helped these scenes hit hard was how little of it was featured in the trailers. There was a lot of marketing for Civil War, and they gave us a tonne of cool stuff, but they knew to keep the best parts under wraps so we’d appreciate them in the proper context.
Compare that to the DC marketing, which seem determined to show us all the best bits to make us think that the whole product would be on par. BvS was keen as anything to show us Wonder Woman in the trailers, when what they should have done was hold the reveal of her in costume and in battle until the big screen. The first confrontation between Superman and Batman, the moment Superman found Batman could match him, the reveal of Doomsday…there wasn’t a lot left to wow us with in the cinema.
Suicide Squad makes a similar mistake in laying out all the funniest jokes and coolest action beats in the trailers. During the preview screening, whenever the audience should have been laughing at Harley stopping the mission to break into a store window, Captain Boomerang hitting on Katana or Jack Flag’s exasperation at his charges it was dead silent. Why? Because we’d seen the jokes already. We’d seen the coolest action moments with one or two exceptions. They blew their load early.
They Start Promoting Works-in-Progress
One thing has become commonplace in the modern age of film-making, and that is movie trailers turning up in cinemas and online while the movie is still in production. With the time taken to include digital effects and edit the film, it makes sense to give us a taste of what’s to come. Sometimes this can be problematic, such as unfinished dinosaur effects in Jurassic World.
Over time this has resulted in something of a backwards process. Now the marketing companies who are commissioned to make the trailers are dictating what they need and getting it moved up in the production. Studios will take notes from the marketers and push for the director to create shots required for the trailer first and foremost. This is key scenes being made not to service the story or the film, but to sell it.
This is why Suicide Squad had such awesome trailers but a lacklustre final product. The footage wasn’t made to fit into a larger product, but to make a cool trailer. On that front they succeeded. If they wanted a positive critical response to the film, however, they failed.
It also means the movies are going to undergo a massive amount of change between the trailers and the release date. Suicide Squad could hold some kind of record for the amount of footage that appears in the trailer but not the movie, including the Joker with his face burnt, Harley taking drink orders and Flag running down the list of abilities. Maybe we need to start using that disclaimer video game trailers have about a ‘work in progress, may not represent final product’.
Where’s this going to lead? Marketing companies being brought in to get final cut on the film itself?
Well, as fate would have it, that’s just what happened. While writing this very article I was sent an article from the Hollywood Reporter stating that amid the many, many people brought in to rework the film to the studios liking the marketers themselves were given final cut. The company Trailer Park, whose job it is to make the trailers, had an unprecedented amount of control over what we’d see when we forked over our cash for the movie.
Actually, maybe the trailers aren’t the problem. Maybe Warner Brothers and DC should focus on making good movies and trusting in their directors rather than trying to shift tickets. You know…kinda like what Marvel is doing.