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Creative Sensemaker

The DC empire strikes back

Thursday 29 July 2021

The comic book giant has – how shall we put this? – a mixed record when it comes to movies. But James Gunn’s new film, The Suicide Squad, shows that DC’s less orchestrated approach can still keep Marvel on its toes


What a difference the definite article, or its absence, can make. Facebook, don’t forget, was originally called The Facebook, which has much less “let’s-take-over-the-world-and-manipulate-elections” energy. If George Lucas had stuck with his working title, The Star Wars (a screenplay which recounted the adventures of a certain “Luke Starkiller”), would his space fantasy saga have expanded into an 11-film franchise, still generating billions of dollars 45 years later?

The traffic can flow in the opposite direction, of course. In 2016, Suicide Squad, based on a DC Comics supervillain team of the same name, was a commercial success but a critical flop. David Ayer’s film, which tried to capture the spirit of a comic book series stretching back to 1959, is now principally remembered for the toe-curling dreadfulness of Jared Leto’s Joker, only partially redeemed by Margot Robbie’s spirited performance as Harley Quinn and Viola Davis as Amanda Waller, the government official who gives the squad their orders.

Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad (2016)

Robbie reprised her role in Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey (2020), but other spin-off projects fizzled out. So: back to basics. DC recruited James Gunn – who has masterminded Marvel’s triumphant Guardians of the Galaxy series – to try again.

Strictly speaking, The Suicide Squad (30 July, general release) is neither reboot nor sequel: the addition of the word “The” is intended, one assumes, to suggest confidence. If so, it is justified. This is a first-rate popcorn movie, full of CGI thrills and spills, cynical “we’re all going to die” antihero banter, and Sylvester Stallone as a shark. Really, what more could you want?

Davis and Robbie are back, as are Jai Courtney as Captain Boomerang and Joel Kinnaman as Rick Flag. But they are outnumbered by newcomers: Idris Elba as Bloodsport, John Cena as Peacemaker, and Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson as the mercenary Blackguard. Peter Capaldi plays the mastermind villain whom the Squad must take on, Gaius Grieves. Even with his head bald and covered in sinister electronic circuitry, Capaldi manages to skewer his assailants with the unforgettable Malcolm Tucker stare that says: “Fuckity bye”.

Peter Capaldi as Gaius Grieves

As an exercise in action-packed nihilism, The Suicide Squad works a treat – in much the same way that last year’s Wonder Woman 1984 failed as an exercise in treacly romance and super-mythology. But it does not follow from this that DC’s next cinematic outing (or the one after that) will be equally good. Robert Pattinson’s debut as Batman next year is eagerly anticipated: but teaser trailers can be deceptive. 

To say that DC has a mixed record in its campaign to conquer the planet’s multiplexes is a serious understatement. There have been many disappointments, from the dire Green Lantern (2011) via Zack Snyder’s overblown Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) to the same director’s Justice League (2017).

Justice League (2017)

The late Stan Lee’s greatest contribution to the Marvel Comics empire was to insist upon the interconnectedness of the titles: all the superheroes occupied the same universe and would routinely appear in one another’s storylines, team up, fight, or even marry one another. This coaxed fans into buying more comics, of course; but it also nurtured the sense of a seamless, integrated mythology, as though the world of Marvel was a sort of dime store, pop art version of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

Since 2007, Kevin Feige has applied precisely the same creative and commercial principle as president of Marvel Studios, weaving the storylines of a vast gallery of characters into 24 closely interrelated movies, meticulously divided into a series of phases.

Since Avengers: Endgame, Marvel has shifted its focus to the small screen, releasing, in short order, three series – WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki – on Disney+. In sharp contrast, DC has closed down its streaming service, DC Universe, now reduced to a digital comics subscriptions platform.

Tom Hiddleston in Marvel Studios’ Loki

It is no surprise, then, that DC is generally dismissed as the loser in the great war of the comic book corporations. But the excellence of The Suicide Squad suggests that this may not be the whole picture. For a start, DC continues to thrive as a global supplier of video games, animated content and comics books.

What it has failed to do (conspicuously so) is to construct an integrated cinematic universe. But then – so what? For all its sleekness and perfectly executed interconnections, Marvel has never produced a movie to rival Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, or Todd Phillips’s Scorsese-influenced Joker (2019).

Heath Ledger as Joker in The Dark Knight (2008)

No Marvel movie actor has even been nominated for an Oscar, whereas the late Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix both won golden statuettes for their respective portrayals of the Joker. And – while Marvel shut down one of its most interesting experiments, the gritty Netflix “Street-Level” suite of shows, including the much-mourned Luke Cage and Jessica Jones so as not to confuse the storylines in development on Disney+ – DC’s more decentralised, laissez-faire approach has yielded such gems as Gotham, the crossover Arrowverse roster of shows, and Pennyworth, a prequel series about the early adventures of Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s legendary butler.

Idris Elba as Bloodsport and King Shark in James Gunn’s Suicide Squad

In effect, Marvel has become the Apple of the comic book universe: sealed, heavily-policed and wholly integrated in order to keep its consumers captive and baying for more. Steve Jobs would have loved the MCU and its Marie Kondo spirit of tidiness.

While not quite open source, DC is much more disaggregated, much messier – and, sometimes, much better. There have been disasters aplenty, but also a handful of genuine masterpieces. The Suicide Squad is a triumphant victory of untamed creativity over corporate control freakery: go see.

Here are this week’s recommendations.


Watch

The Sparks Brothers (selected cinemas, 30 July)

Best known for his collaborations with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and the excellent Baby Driver (2017), Edgar Wright now pays homage in this documentary to the veteran art-pop duo, Ron and Russell Mael. Since the early Seventies – and with 25 albums to their name – the two brothers have simply kept going, influencing much more famous bands, an under-acknowledged force in contemporary musical culture. They are also extremely funny, as Wright demonstrates. A well-deserved and thoroughly entertaining recognition of an important, weird and endlessly imaginative musical force.

Blind Ambition (BBC Two, 1 August)

TV director Jamie O’Leary, whose sight is failing, teams up with blind comedian Jamie MacDonald to explore the world of sightless artists. The resulting documentary is the opposite of worthy, and the badinage between the two often owes more to Clarkson-era Top Gear than the Guardian comment pages. Especially funny is MacDonald’s mirth as O’Leary tries desperately to impress the blind rapper, Stoner, with his in-depth knowledge of hip hop. Precisely because of this, the exhibition that the duo mount at the culmination of their travels is all the more inspiring because it is driven by heart and human connection rather than virtue-signalling. 

The Courier (general release, 13 August)

Benedict Cumberbatch is no stranger to the world of espionage, having played George Smiley’s sidekick, Peter Guillam, to great effect in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011). But his performance as businessman Greville Wynne in Dominic Cooke’s spy thriller – based on a true story – is a very different matter. Recruited by MI6 in the early Sixties as a go-between with the Soviet double agent, Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, Wynne is baffled and out of his depth – “I’m just a salesman”. This, of course, is precisely what gives his cover its authenticity – but also cranks up the tension. Cumberbatch is as compelling as ever, and Merab Ninidze (whom you might recognise from McMafia) is terrific as Penkovsky.

Watch the Sound With Mark Ronson (Apple TV+, 30 July)

With a single track, ‘Uptown Funk’, Mark Ronson earned his place seven years ago in the pantheon of pop legends. He has an Oscar, too, for ‘Shallow’ from A Star is Born, and seven Grammys. But he has always communicated an appealing restlessness as a creator of sound – the subject of this six-part series. The approach is thematic – autotune, reverb, distortion – but the pleasure lies in Ronson’s interactions with the creative talents he has worked with (Paul McCartney, Questlove, Dave Grohl, Charli XCX and others). He also remembers his pioneering work with Amy Winehouse, and reflects poignantly on her tragic decline. A must-watch for anyone interested in the creative process.


Read

The Island of Missing Trees – Elif Shafak (Viking, 5 August) 

Those who have enjoyed Elif Shafak’s previous novels – especially the Booker-shortlisted 10 Minutes 38 seconds in this Strange World – will be enthralled by this book. As a laureate of grief, thwarted emotion and the complex interactions between the self and the operations of history, the writer is well-placed to tell the story, beginning in Cyprus in 1974, of Kostas, who is Greek and Christian, and Defne, who is Turkish and Muslim. But this is much more than another tale of Montagues and Capulets. The scale of Shafak’s ambition is clear from the opening paragraphs: “legends are there to tell us what history has forgotten” and “cartography is another name for stories told by winners.” Love, politics, food, and the legacy of pain all intertwine in what is, to my mind, the best novel of the year so far.

Power Play: Elon Musk, Tesla and the Bet of the Century – Tim Higgins (WH Allen, 5 August)

So much mythology has accrued to the story of Elon Musk, that it is refreshing to read such a well-researched and detailed account of his story by a Wall Street Journal reporter with a deep knowledge of business, as well as a clear sense of the tech titan’s sheer singularity. The key to the story was Musk’s readiness to put everything on the line in 2008 and borrow money himself to keep the company afloat. The Model S luxury sedan transformed his automotive business into a global success story; his Space X dream turned out to be much more than a billionaire’s fantasy. An extraordinary tale, grippingly chronicled.

Crying in H Mart – Michelle Zauner (Picador, 5 August)

Though best known for her shoe-gaze rock band, Japanese Breakfast, Michelle Zauner is fast emerging as an essayist and author of distinction – the Patti Smith of her generation. In Crying in H Mart – an extended version of a New Yorker piece published in 2018 – she explores her experience growing up as the only Asian-American pupil at an Oregon school; time spent with her grandmother in Seoul; and, most powerfully, the hammer blow of her mother’s diagnosis with terminal cancer. A love of food as a symbol of home, intergenerational bonds and familial identity curls beautifully through this exquisite book.

Who Cares Wins: How to Protect the Planet You Love – Lily Cole (Penguin Life, 12 August)

Now more accurately described as an environmental activist than a model and actor – though she continues to work in both capacities – Lily Cole first published this book last July between the first and second waves of the pandemic. It deserves the wider readership that this paperback version will attract, as a genuinely innovative and imaginative manual for those seeking personal, technological and social solutions to the climate crisis. The range of reference alone is formidable, and Cole’s writing style combines erudition with an affecting appeal to basic decency.


Listen

We’re All Alone in This Together – Dave

Two years after his Mercury Prize-winning debut album, Psychodrama, British-Nigerian rapper Dave – AKA David Orobosa Omoregie – returns with a record that is, if anything, even better. Relentlessly introspective and pitiless in his self-analysis, Dave uses rap as a truly poetic form, investigating the dilemmas and contradictions of his life with a clarity that is often dazzling. From the first track, ‘We’re All Alone’, he is awash with a sense of responsibility: “I got a message from a kid on Sunday morning/ Said he don’t know what to do and that he’s thinking of killing himself”. The duet with Stormzy, ‘Clash’, is as powerful as you’d expect, but the stand-out track is ‘Heart Attack’, a stunning account of knife crime which concludes with the searing words of Dave’s own mother, Juliet Doris Omoregie, breaking down as she laments the struggles of her own life.

Happier than Ever – Billie Eilish (30 July)

Already, a record 1.28 million users have pre-added this album to their libraries on Apple Music. How to live up to the hype? The follow-up to When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go? (2019) is, according to Billie Eilish, heavily-influenced by Sinatra, and she has a clear sense of how it should be listened to: “If your car has nice speakers, or your friend’s car has nice speakers — it’s raining, you’re in a nice car with a good sound system. Turn it up, and just recline and close your eyes, and listen. That’s what I hope people will do.” Climatic conditions aside, the pre-released tracks, especially ‘Lost Cause’, are very promising.

Scarlatti: Stabat Mater – Zurich Chamber Singers

Alessandro Scarlatti’s setting (1724) of a 13th-century liturgical text on the suffering of Mary, mother of Jesus, is a challenge to performers – but not one that daunted Christian Erny, ensemble leader of the Zurich Chamber Singers. “It’s really 25 minutes of the highest intensity with ten solo voices cast,” he says, “and it goes from the innermost sorrow, from the most intimate despair, to operatic drama that at times you feel the piece is exploding.” The recording is poised, haunting and – as Erny says – takes the listener on an emotional journey of great power.

Pressure Machine – The Killers (13 August)

Recorded at home during lockdown, the Killers’ seventh studio album was an unexpected project that effectively filled the space created by a cancelled tour. Its themes are mostly drawn from the Utah childhood of frontman, Brandon Flowers. As he has put it: “..it was the first time in a long time for me that I was faced with silence. And out of that silence this record began to bloom, full of songs that would have otherwise been too quiet and drowned out by the noise of typical Killers records.” The pandemic has spawned an extraordinary yield of unplanned creativity – to which this is set to be a fascinating addition.

….and finally: thank you to Tortoise member Frances Tobin for this recommendation: Dusk In The Luxembourg Gardens by Ty Jeffries “Beautiful piano pieces: evocative, somewhat nostalgic, like the best film scores – lose yourself In a different place.”

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Creative Sensemaker is taking a summer break, but returns on Thursday 19 August.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
@MatthewdAncona

Photographs Warner Bros. Pictures/™ & © DC Comics, Jake Polonsky courtesy Sundance Institute, Ian Traherne/Television Repairs/BBC, Lionsgate, Apple TV+, Disney+, Marvel Studios