As feared, James Gunn’s critically-acclaimed The Suicide Squad opened this weekend with a $26.5 million domestic and $72.2 million worldwide debut. That’s below even the “fingers-crossed” $30 million benchmark, and below both Space Jam: A New Legacy ($31 million) and Jungle Cruise ($35 million). Yes, we’re still in a pandemic, with infection rates rising among (mostly) the unvaccinated and the film is concurrently available on HBO Max. But as regular readers know, I never considered The Suicide Squad a remotely safe bet even well before Covid changed the equation. Frankly, most of the “big” films this summer (Jungle Cruise, Space Jam 2, Snake Eyes, Free Guy, etc.) were at-best commercial question marks. The Suicide Squad stings because A) it had rave reviews and B) a lot of folks thought it would repeat what happened in 2016, when Suicide Squad crushed it on this very weekend ($133 million domestic) in 2016 snapping the summer season out of a June/July slump. So, what went wrong? Well…
1. Covid, obviously…
There’s a cruel irony in Covid mounting a “comeback” in July right as Hollywood had begun rolling out “big movies.” Simply put, May and June were mostly quiet/small slates, with A Quiet Place part II dominating over Memorial Day and F9 crushing it in late June. Both “must-see” sequels performed pretty close to “business as usual” in North America. The horror sequel on track to earn 85% of its $188 million domestic cume and 90% of its $341 million global cume. Fast & Furious 9 will soon pass Hobbs & Shaw ($174 million) in North America as it takes a shot at ending closer to $700 million than $675 million worldwide. Disney’s Black Widow ($171 million and counting) was supposed to start a run of bigger “franchise flicks,” but Space Jam 2, Snake Eyes, Jungle Cruise, The Suicide Squad and (presumably) Free Guy ran smack into a new wave of infections.
2. It’s not a movie, it’s HBO Max…
We’ll find out tomorrow courtesy of Samba TV just how well The Suicide Squad may have performed on “opening weekend” in terms of HBO Max viewership. Generally speaking, I’m inclined to argue that it didn’t make much of an impact. Most “big” HBO Max/Warner Bros. theatricals pulled anywhere from 700,000 (In the Heights) to 3.8 million (Mortal Kombat) households alongside their theatrical opening weekend. However, I’ve heard and read plenty of anecdotal evidence of folks who were intending to see the DC Films sequel in theaters but decided at the last minute to watch it on HBO Max instead. Does that mean it’ll score bigger-than-normal HBO Max viewership? Ask me again tomorrow, but news that the film earned, say, 5 million households instead of over/under 3.5 million isn’t a game-changer. Even if I don’t yet think it was a huge factor in the film’s soft opening weekend, it certainly deserves a mention (especially in case I’m wrong).
3. Is it a sequel, a reboot, a spin-off or something else?
I don’t know why James Gunn and friends worked so hard to spin the notion that The Suicide Squad was something other than a direct sequel to David Ayer’s Suicide Squad. Yes, the 2016 release wasn’t terribly beloved, but general audiences were less vitriolic than critics and “fans.” Merely adding “the” to the title and then arguing that it was… well, something other than a direct sequel did little more than annoy those who pay attention to this stuff while confusing everyone else. Look, the film acknowledges the continuity of the previous film, features several returning characters played by returning actors (chief among them Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn and Viola Davis’ Dr. Amanda Waller) and has characters who met in the previous film acknowledge each other accordingly. Back in my day, and this goes for Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984 too, we called that a sequel.
4. Audiences didn’t like or didn’t care about Suicide Squad.
Yep, it’s the good old “Tomb Raider Trap.” Step one: You make a movie that everyone wants to see and craft a marketing campaign that creates pre-release interest. Step two: The movie gets miserable reviews and indifferent audience reaction, but it opens so high and legs out just enough that it’s a huge hit anyway. Step three: Since that first film made money ($325 million domestic and $745 million worldwide), you assume that a new franchise is born and make another one. Step four: You acknowledge that mistakes were made and craft a superior picture. Step five: You earn better reviews but still open with a far lower-than-hoped opening weekend, because audiences were either only curious the first time or outright disliked the first film and are once bitten, twice shy. Step six: P̶r̶o̶f̶i̶t̶. We ’ve seen this many times, with Addams Family Values, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, The Angry Birds Movie 2 and, of course, Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life.
5. Five years is too long between installments.
Yes, a long wait time between sequels can work if you’re working that “It’s been a long time” vibe into the film itself. Think early “legacy sequels” like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Live Free or Die Hard or Toy Story 3, which are very much about how a decade or so has passed and our once glorious protagonist has “reached the point where life stops giving you things and starts taking them away.” And while most animated sequels have struggled of late, the ones that specifically deal with the passage of time and the maturation of marquee characters (Frozen II and How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World come to mind) can withstand the gap. But if it’s just “another day in the life,” four or five years is way too long for another Star Trek movie, another LEGO Movie, a second Pacific Rim or, yes, another Suicide Squad.
6. Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn is not that popular in the real world.
Margot Robbie has absolutely made the character of Dr. Harleen Quinzel her own, in a turn that had the benefit of being first. But whatever pull she had as Harley came and went with David Ayer’s Suicide Squad. To be fair, Harley is a supporting character this time out, and frankly having her do her thing on the fringes is to the movie’s benefit. Cathy Yan’s terrific Birds of Prey earned just $82 million domestic and $203 million worldwide on an $82 million budget just before Covid upended the world, and seeing Margot Robbie as Harley for the third time offered as much of a boost to The Suicide Squad as did Gal Gadot playing Wonder Woman for the third time for the theatrical cut of Justice League. That Birds of Prey and The Suicide Squad are R-rated movies didn’t help with the fan base of folks too young to see a hyper violent R-rated movie. Speaking of which…
7. $185 million is an absurd amount to spend on an R-rated movie.
Deadpool ($863 million), Deadpool 2 ($865 million, counting the PG-13 Once Upon a Deadpool cut) and Logan ($620 million) showed that R-rated superhero flicks could earn top-tier box office, while Joker ($1.074 billion) showed that R-rated super-villain movies could go toe-to-toe with Aquaman and, uh, Rey Skywalker. But all four of those films cost $58 million, $110 million, $97 million and $65 million. They didn’t have to remotely break records to break even. Making a $185 million R-rated sequel to a $175 million PG-13 movie is the definition of chutzpah that (like Terminator: Dark Fate) demands best-case-scenario box office to break even. I don’t care how much good PR you get for renting James Gunn from Marvel and giving him carte blanche. Most regular moviegoers don’t know or care about Gunn. Moreover, once Gunn resigned to direct Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, the notion of him doing a DC Films ensemble flick became noticeably less special.
8. Idris Elba is not a bankable movie star.
Idris Elba is a terrific and charismatic actor, but he’s not and has never been a butts-in-seats draw (see also: Pacific Rim, The Losers, The Dark Tower). He’s a strong added value element in the likes of Thor, Prometheus and Hobbs & Shaw, but he (like Robbie and Gunn) is an example of a filmmaker/actor whose mainstream popularity is vastly overstated by online discourse and SEO-friendly articles constantly fan-casting for any and all commercial projects under the sun. If anything, as evidenced by solid showings for modestly-budgeted programmers like No Good Deed, Obsessed and Takers, he’s not unlike Gerard Butler. Butler is a B-movie action star when the movie is cheap enough (Den of Thieves, Angel Has Fallen, Greenland) to thrive on a $15 million opening weekend. But ask Butler to front Dean Devlin’s $120 million Geostorm, and yeah, $220 million worldwide isn’t enough. To be fair, there’s only one Will Smith.
9. Stop making sequels to Will Smith movies without Will Smith.
While the overall hype and interest in DC Films and the cinematic debut of Harley Quinn pushed Suicide Squad open with $133 million domestic, that it featured one of the world’s biggest movie stars as a comic book assassin A) helped that opening and B) was instrumental in helping the movie survive a 67% second-weekend plunge. Moreover, in less comic book-obsessed markets, Will Smith’s charismatic movie star turn in a blatantly commercial IP exploitation was a key factor in the film’s $420 million overseas cume. As we saw with Men in Black International ($252 million) and Independence Day: Resurgence ($390 million), making a sequel to a Will Smith star vehicle without Will Smith is a commercially perilous idea. Sure, he can’t open non-IP flicks like The Gemini Man anymore, but he’s gold “as the Genie” in Aladdin while Bad Boys for Life is still the last movie to top $200 million domestic.
10. The Suicide Squad had nothing to offer other than the brand.
All of the above variables combined to create a sequel which had nothing to sell other than the fact that it was another Suicide Squad movie. It lacked Will Smith, the allure of the “first” Harley Quinn appearance, much-hyped cameos from Ben Affleck’s Batman and Jared Leto’s Joker and a PG-13. It had to overcome bad reviews for and an indifferent consumer response to the first Suicide Squad. Couple that with an R-rating and a budget even more expensive than the first, The Suicide Squad was arguably always a dead man walking with or without a global pandemic and concurrent HBO Max availability. Yes, Delta-specific infection rates are a big reason why it didn’t even reach the “successful disappointment” level (maybe $35-$45 million) which we might have otherwise seen, but The Suicide Squad was essentially a sequel to Suicide Squad lacking almost everything that made that movie a hit. That it’s pretty good is beside the point.