Harley Quinn, Deadshot, and the rest of the supervillains of Task Force X had an even tougher mission this weekend than the one they're assigned in "Suicide Squad": overcoming recent bad buzz to turn the Batman spinoff movie into (for now) a hit. So, how did they pull it off?
After all, "Suicide Squad" had been provoking reactions, both positive and negative, ever since Warner Bros. released the first images of Jared Leto's metal-grilled Joker a year ago. Stories of the film's troubled production history and its hurried and expensive last-minute reshoots culminated in reviews so negative that fans started a petition aimed at shutting down Rotten Tomatoes over the movie review aggregation site's supposed bias against DC Comics movies. (Even though this represents a fundamental lack of understanding how RT works, as it doesn't generate its own reviews. And, also, Time Warner owns DC, Warner Bros., and 30 percent of RT.)
Nonetheless, "Suicide" managed to shatter several records with this weekend's estimated $135.1 million debut. The widest-ever August release (it opened at 4,255 venues), "Suicide" boasts the largest opening ever for a movie in August and the largest debut ever for a movie starring Will Smith. (Smith's previous record-holder was "I Am Legend, which premiered with $77.2 million in December 2007.)
How did "Suicide Squad" overcome bad reviews and a problematic post-production to become an August smash? Here are five ways.
1. For Fans, the Movie Was Critic-proof
This is usually true for summer movies, but it seems especially true for these DC movies, where saturation marketing and an eager fanbase generates an audience that's willing to overlook all criticism. "Suicide Squad" got just a 26 percent fresh rating at RT, a hair lower than the 27 percent earned by "Batman v Superman."
But If there's one thing the anti-RT petition proved, it's that there's a die-hard group of fans (some 21,000 of whom signed the petition) who are determined to like these movies no matter what critics say. Those fans gave "BvS" a $166 million opening, knowing that it was the launch of the DC Extended Universe. So $135 million for "Suicide Squad" -- a story that seems tangential to the "Justice League" films, with more obscure characters and actors -- is a very good follow-up.
2. Youth Appeal
Young moviegoers in general care less about reviews than older critics anyway, and "Suicide Squad" is actually the first big summer movie in a while to cater to them. Don't forget, it's following on the heels of "Jason Bourne," "Star Trek Beyond," and "Ghostbusters," all of which relied upon a fair amount of nostalgia among older viewers to sell tickets. "Suicide Squad" may come from the familiar DC universe, and its plot may remind older viewers of "The Dirty Dozen" or "The Expendables," but it's still a new story with new characters. No wonder exit polling revealed that 54 percent of the film's audience was under 25.
3. Social Media
Those young, DC-invested fans made Friday the biggest opening day ever on Twitter for a new film. According to BoxOffice.com, users tweeted about "Suicide Squad" 646,724 times on Friday, with positive tweets outnumbering negative ones 6 to 1. That's about 100,000 more tweets than "Batman v Superman," which had a positive to negative ratio of 5 to 1. And it's a lot more Twitter activity than such buzzworthy recent movies as "Deadpool," "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," and "Jurassic World."
Similarly, the "Suicide Squad" Facebook page has about 3.8 million followers, close to the 3.9 million for "Batman v Superman" and above the 3.2 million that "Deadpool" had upon release in February. Whether all this social media activity is a result of good marketing -- or is organic, grass-roots enthusiasm generated by fans -- it shows that anticipation was especially high for "Suicide Squad," and that overwhelmingly positive word-of-mouth on Twitter was drowning out the general word-of-mouth from ticketbuyers, as measured by the film's just-okay B+ grade from CinemaScore.
4. The Diverse Cast
Aside from Smith, there aren't any big box office names in the cast, not even Oscar-winner Leto and the suddenly ubiquitous Robbie. Nonetheless, the ensemble as a whole looks as varied (in terms of race, gender, and national origin) as the cast of a "Fast and Furious" movie. (Perhaps not coincidentally, "Suicide" writer/director David Ayer co-wrote the first "Fast and the Furious.") In other words, there's someone for everyone in "Suicide." Which is probably one reason the film did almost as well overseas this weekend (an estimated $132 million) as it did at home.
5. The Enhanced Formats
Among those 4,255 screens playing "Suicide Squad" were at least 380 IMAX theaters, 490 premium large format screens, 180 D-Box venues (with seats that jostle in sync with the action on-screen), 200 dine-in/luxury auditoriums, and 270 drive-in theaters. (Did you even know there were as many as 270 drive-in theaters still operating in North America?)
The IMAX houses sold $18.1 million worth of tickets, another August record. All the surcharges from these enhanced formats help the bottom line, but they also signal to even casual moviegoers that "Suicide Squad" is the kind of event that's worth seeing on a bigger screen than the ones at your house.
The "Batman v Superman" comparisons aren't all good news. After all, that movie plummeted 69 percent on its second weekend, and the film limped on short legs toward a $330.4 million domestic total, not a great number for a production that cost $250 million. (At least "BvS' made up for it slightly overseas with a $542.3 million foreign gross.)
The meh word-of-mouth eventually lined up with the lackluster reviews, and the early fan enthusiasm for "BvS" was quickly spent. If "Suicide Squad" follows the same pattern, it'll have trouble making a profit. (It's hufe Friday-to-Saturday drop of 41 percent indicates the film will have dark days ahead; that's a worse falloff than "BvS.") "Suicide" cost a reported $175 million to make -- supposedly that figure includes the $20-plus million for reshoots -- and at least $100 million more to market, so before splitting ticket revenue with theaters, it'll have to gross about $550 million worldwide to break even. That'll be tough, with an opening $31 million below "BvS" and a foreign gross that's only half the total take. Also, the film will not open in the very lucrative country of China. ("Batman" earned 62 percent of its money abroad.)
Fortunately for "Suicide Squad," it's the last major release of the summer, so it'll have little competition for the next month. The movie may have looked like an iffy proposition on paper, but it seems no one else wanted to get in these supervillains' way.