The Anxious And Desperate Journey Of The “Suicide Squad” Marketing Machine

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After the disappointment that was Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, SUICIDE SQUAD had a tough task ahead of itself in terms of creating a “product” that would sell in a landscape of comic book movies dominated by their default rival, Marvel. Batman V. Superman raked in a little over $873 million worldwide, which may seem like a lot, but the numbers do not actually translate to “blockbuster” this day and age. That said, Suicide Squad needed to be a success for Warner Bros. not only monetarily, but also in the sense that the studio needed to assure audiences that they have a handle on the characters and stories from the DC Extended Universe. The success of Suicide Squad would also shift the direction of the DCEU, change the minds of critics, and please the rabid masses of fanboys and fangirls. There’s a lot at stake for the movie that tells the unlikely tale of a group of B-Team bad guys doing heroic things.

Warner Bros. needed to market the David Ayer-directed Suicide Squad the right way and it started with the all-important first trailer — because first impressions are everything. Especially when it comes to movie trailers. This was a chance for Warner Bros. to give audiences a new impression of the DCEU, but it turned out to be the first stumble on what became a perilous path of P&A.

The first trailer (which can be seen above along with all the others) screened at Comic-Con 2015 and was met with a mixed bag of reactions. Set to a haunting rendition of the Bee Gees hit song “I Started a Joke,” the trailer features Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) talking about how she wants to start a team of bad guys to do superhero-like things. We then see flashes of all the villains: Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Deadshot (Will Smith), et al.

Some people enjoyed the eerie trailer, but for others, the creepy introduction to the movie didn’t go over well with the audience in Hall H. The tweets about the trailer ranged from, “Well Suicide Squad sure looks unpleasant,” to, “Don’t want to criticize Suicide Squad before anyone has even seen it, but that trailer looks like it’s for Hot Topic: The Motion Picture,” and then there was the straightforward, “Suicide Squad is gonna suuuuuuck.”

The premiere trailer didn’t give us a clear idea of the movie, but instead showed us fan favorite characters and a bare bones blueprint of what to expect. Naturally, Warner Bros. took note of the reactions and made a second trailer set to the tune of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” injected more “fun” and “humor” to balance Ayer’s darker vision for the movie. The third trailer continued this good-to-be-bad vibe with soundtrack that included Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” and the 1973 hit “Ballroom Blitz” by The Sweet. That’s when we started to see the cartoony graffiti-soaked posters and assets that gradually became more cartoony closer to the release date.

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With its totally rad soundtrack and new edgy neon green aesthetic (a la Joker), it would seem that all was good with the action-packed comic book romp, but it was nothing but a coat of paint to cover up the fact that the tentpole flick was having its fair share of problems behind the scenes.

Apparently, there were significant reshoots to up the movie’s fun factor and make it less menacing – reshoots ordered in the wake of one of the loudest criticisms made of Batman V. Superman, which is that Zack Snyder’s aesthetic is overtly dark, brooding, and humorless. And according to the Hollywood Reporter, Warner Bros. executives were concerned it wouldn’t be as fun and edgy as originally planned, so the studio started working on a different, lighthearted cut of the film while Ayer worked on his own somber rendition. The two versions were tested for audiences and the result was a spunky version of the film in which the characters are introduced in the beginning. Even so, the two cuts of the film – supposedly very different from one another – seem to express the anxiety currently plaguing the studio and might explain the movie’s identity crisis.

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This brings us back to the trailers and Suicide Squad’s marketing campaign, which became as confused and messy as the movie itself (read our review here). Trying to figure out which of the three main trailers appropriately represent the movie is the equivalent of Goldilocks trying to pick the perfect bed. In this case, none of them are “just right.” Instead, the trailers are the result of a studio and director trying to decide how to market this to the biggest audience possible.

Even though trailers are on the front line of a movie’s marketing, star power is what fuels it’s watchability – and Suicide Squad has plenty of that. With Margot Robbie being “so hot” right now, she could bring the women who admire her and the males who want to be with her, while Will Smith still carries blockbuster cache and international appeal. As for Jared Leto, his Joker is set to attract cinephiles, hipsters, and 30 Seconds to Mars fans – that he recently won an Oscar quickly set the internet on fire with comparisons to Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn as the iconic villain. So this was the star trio that took up the most real estate on posters that were plastered on billboards, benches, and bus stops. But in an interesting twist, there seemed to be a huge push for Viola Davis’s presence in the movie a little over a month before the it’s release. Her character began to appear on more posters and spots – most likely to lure in the How To Get Away With Murder crowd, though how large the crossover audience is there would be hard to say.

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There certainly is more to marketing than trailers and star power, but these are the basic building blocks of a superhero movie that audiences respond to first. Although Suicide Squad had the star power on lock, the trailers were basically a plea of quiet desperation that said, “This movie is gonna be so much fun! Like our movie, please… please?!”

As of today, Suicide Squad is currently at  30 percent favorable on Rotten Tomatoes and the critics are not holding back with their frustrated burns and attacks, one of the harshest being from Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle: “If you know someone you really can’t stand – not someone you dislike, not someone who rubs you the wrong way, but someone you really loathe and detest – send that person a ticket for Suicide Squad.”  

Despite the scathing reviews and an uncertain marketing campaign, Suicide Squad is still on track to make a nice wad of cash. It is expected to make between $125 million and $140 million this weekend and is on track to outpace Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy for the biggest domestic August opening weekend in history (read our full box office analysis here). So maybe all of this talk about marketing mishaps won’t matter. People will fill the seats despite its many setbacks. They’ll want to see Smith, Robbie, Leto, Davis and not care about the behind-the-scenes drama that can have an impact on a franchise. Even so, the movie would have benefited from a decent collection of coherent trailers and a singular vision– not one muddied by the hand of the studio – to give it its own identity. Because this is a rare instance where box office numbers are not necessarily the end-all be-all for the studio; Suicide Squad was Warner’s chance to reset with fans and critics alike, to give people confidence in the DCEU franchise properties in the pipeline – and it doesn’t appear as though that goal is going to be achieved. After BvS, Warner Bros. is on high alert to not have further damage done to their brand image. With the way things are going for Suicide Squad, the studio shouldn’t put away their repair kits just yet.

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