It’s official: With DC’s latest, Suicide Squad, breaking all records for an August movie opening, gonzo humor is the future of superhero movies. The ensemble antihero flick joins Deadpool as a member of the new breed of cartoonishly violent, superpowered action films. But Deadpool was funnier, and sharper, than Suicide Squad–for one crucial reason. It didn’t give a rat’s ass about being part of a shared universe.
Even as Suicide Squad aimed for a fun grindhouse movie tone, it labored to keep reminding us that it’s part of the new DC Extended Universe, the network of characters and movies that includes Man of Steel, Batman v Superman and the upcoming Wonder Woman and Justice League films. At times, Suicide Squad‘s nonstop references to the events of Batman v Superman reminded me of the early episodes of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, where every other line of dialogue was discussing something that happened in The Avengers.
By contrast, Deadpool is at its funniest when it’s making fun of the concept of a shared universe. Deadpool nominally belongs to the X-Men franchise, alongside Wolverine and Professor X, but his solo movie revels in the fact that you won’t see either of those characters in it. When he visits the X-Mansion, it’s empty and obviously fake, and the movie constantly makes hay of the fact that it can only afford two other X-Men: Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead. When the characters talk about X-Men business, it’s super jokey and has almost nothing to do with what the actual X-Men movies are about. (No mention of Magneto or anti-Mutant prejudice, lots of bromides about what it means to be a superhero.) And let’s not even get into the fact that Deadpool himself previously appeared in the abysmal X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a movie that his solo film both contradicts and pokes fun at.
Both Suicide Squad and Deadpool revel in not caring about the hard-won dignity of movie superheroes, and it’s thrilling. After Batman and Robin, Catwoman, Spider-Man 3 and other campy disasters, superhero movies had been obsessed with proving they deserved to be taken seriously, a defensive posture that has gotten seriously old. The House that Christopher Nolan Built has been getting creaky. So it’s great to see characters like Deadpool or Harley Quinn–who is basically DC Comics’ version of Deadpool at this point–taking the piss out of the hero-in-spandex genre.
But you can’t really cast off the self-seriousness of the superhero genre if you’re still paying fealty to the shared universe–especially the notion of obsessive continuity, where every film references stuff that happened in every other film for half an hour. It’s no accident that Marvel’s most fun movie of the past few years is Guardians of the Galaxy, which doesn’t take place on Earth and thus has no need to discuss the events of other movies. Meanwhile, the least fun Marvel movie is still Iron Man 2, which wastes too much time setting up other movies.
Where Deadpool rips off the shared-universe straitjacket and lights it on fire, Suicide Squad tightens the straps so hard that the flow of blood gets cut off. You can’t really go all the way with the self-mocking humor if you’re constantly servicing your corporate franchise development strategy. Even the movie’s last-minute reshoots, which were ostensibly to lighten the tone, stuck in gratuitous scenes with the Flash and other DC characters, adding to the sense of clutter.
(For the record, I kinda liked Suicide Squad, in spite of its messiness, its lazy stereotypes, and all the ways the movie suffered from that highly publicized editing-suite battle. It’s fun, it captures the feel of the comics it was based on, and it feels like someone spent $185 million to make a cheesy exploitation movie. Even the fact that this movie keeps introducing new characters long after you would have thought the plot would get in motion sort of reminded me of Tokyo Tribe, the 2014 cult sensation.)
Besides, it’s easy to see why Warner Bros. wants to emulate the success of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, which has generated two hit movies per year. But a big part of Marvel’s success probably comes from being the first studio to pursue this strategy, sparking lots of curiosity and fan excitement, and from hiring Robert Downey Jr. at the exact moment that he was returning to super-stardom. (It’s no accident that all of Marvel’s most successful films have starred or co-starred Downey Jr., and when he finally hangs up the metal suit, they might be in trouble.)
Meanwhile, DC has attempted to turn Ben Affleck into their version of Downey Jr.; the Caped Crusader turns up not infrequently in Suicide Squad. Sure, the extended cameo in the film is fun; comics are full of random cameos from famous heroes, and Batman inevitably rears his cowled head in every DC title at some point. But at the same time, the constant Bat-pearances only serve to underscore that we’re not just watching a fun standalone movie–this is a quasi-sequel to Batman v Superman.
It’s not like there’s no way around shared-universe fatigue, it just depends on not aping another studio’s proven model. Imagine an alternate history in which Superman Returns was more successful and critically adored, and DC produced a series of Superman movies alongside Nolan’s Bat-films. This might have established more of a track record of DC doing separate series, set in different universes, for its main heroes.
A single shared continuity is one of the great thrills of reading superhero comics–when you see Superman or Batman turn up in an issue of Justice League, you know that this adventure will affect whatever happens to them in their own books. But as thrilling as it is to feel those connections in movies, the connective tissue quickly overwhelms the story, and leads to narrative drag.
That’s because the thing that shared universes are great for–big, sprawling stories–is the exact opposite of what superhero movies are good at. Superhero movies are good at a three-act structure, leading up to a big boss battle. No movie costing $150 million is going to spend a lot of time developing a complex plot, especially one that doesn’t pay off in that movie. (Unless it’s explicitly part of a narrative trilogy, like one of the Star Wars saga “episodes.”)
And the real problem with a single all-encompassing universe is that it’s mostly going to be cosmetic–and the best you can hope for, most of the time, is that it’s unobtrusive. A big part of what made Deadpool so refreshing was its willingness to thumb its red-masked nose at the most pervasive trend in superhero movies right now. If only Suicide Squad had been able to follow suit.