Some day there will be a great book written about the making and unmaking of Suicide Squad – the reshoots, the 180-degree marketing turn, the dead pigs sent to castmates by Master Method Actor™ Jared Leto. But until that happens, we only have the box-office numbers to tell the story – and the narrative they're currently spinning is one that might kneecap not just Suicide Squad's studio, Warner Bros., but the entire industry itself.
First, a brief recap: Suicide Squad, the third in Warner's extensively planned, exorbitantly funded DCEU franchise (that's DC Extended Universe, for those who have miraculously managed to avoid the moniker thus far), opened two weeks ago to disastrous reviews – but enormous box office. Its tally of $133.6-million (U.S.) broke August records, toppling the opening-weekend gross held by 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy (another "offbeat" superhero film in which bad guys save the world). So far, so good.
But then people who saw the movie started talking and – just as was the case with Warner's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – audiences began aligning themselves with the critics, and steep attendance drop-offs were reported throughout the week.
Now, Suicide Squad's second weekend numbers are in: $43.8-million. That's still enough to claim the weekend's top spot, but it also represents a massive 67.2-per-cent drop – almost as bad as Batman v Superman's steep 69.1-per-cent dive, and perilously close to the worst-ever second-week drop-off for superhero movies: 69.7 per cent, a figure which both 2003's Hulk and 2010's Jonah Hex can claim.
If the trend holds – and there's little to suggest that Suicide Squad will suddenly encounter an uptick in these final lazy weeks of summer, unless America is suddenly gripped with Killer Croc Fever (hey, anything's possible) – then the film must be taken as a wake-up call for Hollywood: the cinematic-universe franchise game simply isn't one that any arbitrary studio can win.
Disney's Marvel unit has been the leader of this practice – sketch out a decade's worth of interconnected films and watch the billions roll in. But just because a dozen or so films share a narrative continuity doesn't ensure an automatic payday. And just because Marvel has their own unique development process – president Kevin Feige oversees all, and individual filmmakers are given certain leeway – doesn't mean that formula can be easily facsimiled across the board.
So what is Warner's to do? The studio, under CEO Kevin Tsujihara, has chosen Zack Snyder to essentially serve as the DCEU's creative guru, and that decision has so far cost the company dearly – audiences might initially bite at Snyder's broody, dark vision, but there's also been a consistently sour aftertaste to his work that cannot be dismissed.
Yet Snyder's Justice League is already deep into production (an early teaser was even produced for last month's Comic-Con, emphasizing the humour that Dawn of Justice so obviously lacked), Patty Jenkins's Wonder Woman (produced by Snyder) is in post-production, and things are moving fast on Aquaman, The Flash and various other franchise planks. Billions are at stake, and audiences would have to be extra gracious to once again invest in Snyder's vision of the DCEU after it has already struck out, creatively speaking, three times (2013's Man of Steel being the first swing and a miss).
Late last week, an open letter circulated around entertainment websites, purportedly from an aggrieved former Warner employee, lashing out at Tsujihara and Snyder for running the studio's intellectual property into the ground. "Snyder is a producer on every DC movie. He is still directing Justice League. He is being rewarded with more opportunity to get more people laid off," goes the letter from the anonymous employee, signed "Gracie Law" (a character from Big Trouble in Little China, which is a bit odd considering that's a 20th Century Fox movie).
Whether the letter is real or not, it encapsulates the sentiment of both the critical community and, increasingly, audiences: we're tired, please stop, find something new to do, we beg of you.
The rest of the industry may have to do just that, even though most have already placed all their chips on their own versions of the Marvel formula, and are too far into planning to turn back now.
Fox, for instance, has its long-in-adamantium-claws X-Men brand to exploit (get ready for a new Wolverine, Deadpool 2, a sequel to the underperforming X-Men: Apocalypse, and Channing Tatum's Gambit, should that troubled production ever get off the ground); Paramount has four (!) more Transformers movies in the works, as well as a plan to unite its other Hasbro properties like G.I. Joe and M.A.S.K.; Universal hopes its reboot of The Mummy will lead to brand extensions for all its classic monsters; Sony thought Ghostbusters might spawn its own sequels and spinoffs (oops); and Warner's, not content with only having the DCEU in its stable, wants you to watch King Kong vs. Godzilla movies for the next decade, as well as a half-dozen King Arthur-centred blockbusters.
Will Suicide Squad's mission failure force studios to rethink their plans? Audiences tired of the same old routine can hope – and, of course, vote with their wallets. If anything, just think of how much torment you'd be saving Jared Leto's future castmates.