WASHINGTON, August 22, 2016 – As the 2016 blockbuster movie season winds down, it’s hard to think of a more divisive summer film release this year than “Suicide Squad.” The critical reception for this Warner Brothers release has not been great. But there’s been significant pushback from certain demographics that feel movie critics, on some level, just don’t get this movie–mainly because it’s been pretty well received audiences that don’t have a real critical platform.
Additionally, some wonder whether the same critics who’ve panned “Suicide Squad” have an inherent bias toward Disney’s Marvel juggernaut, or simply won’t accept any cinematic entertainment they don’t recognize as “high art.”
Comic book fans recognize at least part of this ongoing dynamic. Since the 1960s, Marvel and DC Comics exerted a major influence over how comics are produced and promoted on various levels.
DC began this era as the clear leader. But when Marvel started to challenge the market, its leading creative force, Stan Lee, made it a point to playfully antagonize his DC rivals, challenging and eventually usurping the DC Universe’s primacy of place. This donnybrook, in turn, inspired fans on both sides to pick up the cudgels and launch a widespread, fan-based rivalry whose intensity, even in 2016, has yet to fade.
The rivalry gradually moved from its comic book base to the world of the cinema. DC and Warners made an impressive move with their 1978 blockbuster film “Superman.” That was followed roughly a decade later by the studio’s winning, moneymaking “Batman” (1989). That Tim Burton film, boosted by a convincing performance by Michael Keaton in the title role, obliterated much (though not all) of the camp 1960s TV “Batman” series residue, returning the Dark Knight to his 1939 vigilante origins in a dystopian, Art Deco-influenced production inspired by Frank Miller’s violently haunting 1980s graphic novels.
Unfortunately, DC-Warners dissipated the good will generated by both films by rolling out a series of increasingly lame sequels, each of whose final installments—“Superman: The Quest for Peace” (1987) and “Batman and Robin” (1997)—were panned by critics and largely rejected at the box office, temporarily killing off each franchise.
As DC-Warners retreated to the inner sanctum and tried to figure out where they’d gone wrong with their two formerly blockbuster superhero franchises, the then pre-Disney Marvel, partnering with different studios, attempted to step into the breach.
DC rival Marvel had experienced early cinematic failures as well, perhaps most notably the catastrophic Universal Studios/Lucasfilm “Howard the Duck” (1986). Marvel’s following trio of releases, long-forgotten iterations of “The Punisher” (1989), “Captain America” (1989) and “Fantastic Four” (1994), went direct to video.
But as DC’s George Clooney-headlined box office bomb “Batman and Robin” was breathing its last, Marvel finally discovered its movie mojo with the surprising box office success of it’s offbeat vampire film, “Blade” (1999).
The studio quickly followed “Blade” with its critically-acclaimed and highly profitable “X-Men” origin film (2000), which launched that ongoing and mostly successful franchise. As their successive superhero releases—beginning with Sam Raimi’s hyperkinetic “Spider-Man” (2002)—began to roll out like clockwork, DC-Warner Brothers suddenly found themselves left in the cinematic dust.
Next: Is “Suicide Squad” the breakthrough film DC and Warners needs to beat the mighty Disney/Marvel juggernaut?