Warner Bros. expanded its DC cinematic universe in a big way this spring with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but fan reactions were mixed. Many complained the franchise was too dour, too grim, too serious. But Suicide Squad could just be the film to change all that.

When I visited the Toronto set of Suicide Squad last July, it was just days after the very first trailer had killed at Comic-Con — absolutely slaughtered, really. Suddenly, people who’d never even heard of the Suicide Squad a month ago (which is to say, pretty much everyone who doesn’t self-identify as a DC nerd) was dying to know more about this playful, colorful group of baddies. Who were these weirdos? What were they going to do in the DC universe? On day 68 of the film’s 98-day shoot, I joined a group of other journalists on set to find out. 

Balancing Dark and Gritty With Twisted and Funny

Before the first Suicide Squad trailer hit, we’d heard a whole lot about how gritty and twisted this movie was going to be. The first stories about Jared Leto‘s full-on method approach to the Joker were just starting to circulate, and we’d heard reports that Suicide Squad was so nasty that director David Ayer had had to bring a therapist on set to keep his cast from going off the deep end. And to top it all off, this film came from the same cinematic universe as Man of Steel, which wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs.

Which is why it felt like such a surprise that the trailer looked so fun — not just energetic and action-packed, but gleeful, with an anarchic smash-it-all-up attitude that had the Hall H crowd laughing and cheering. But, Ayer explained, Suicide Squad‘s darkness and its humor aren’t mutually exclusive, but rather two sides of the same coin:

We’re out of our freaking minds now. The Greek symbol of drama is happy mask/sad mask. If you have too much of one, it’s imbalanced. I think the best movies are the ones that can make you double over in laughter and cry, which I hope this will do for the audience. I think people will be really surprised by how much humor is in the movie. But, at the same time, it’s like an honest situational character-based humor versus the low-hanging fruit. You really believe it.

Indeed, that sort of anything-goes unpredictability stems naturally from the characters and core concept of Suicide Squad, which is that it’s not about good versus evil but bad versus evil. Ayer explained:

So many times you feel like these genres are trying to inject complexities in what’s a very black and white character. Good guys, who are doing the good thing. It’s very easy to get ahead of them in plotting because you always know what the good guys are going to do. These guys can do anything. They are not bound by the normal rules. That’s what makes it so fun to play in this space.

Throwing another wrench into Suicide Squad‘s tricky tonal balance is the introduction of magic to the DC universe, as represented by Enchantress. But Ayer seemed confident that the supernatural could sit alongside the gritty in Suicide Squad. “Religion and mythology – magic has been seen throughout human history and the belief in the supernatural and the belief in transformative abilities,” he said. “Even today, there’s people of faith that believe in miracles and there’s a pantheon of world gods, all with these amazing abilities. All the answers are there.”


How to Create Sympathy for the Devil

Since Suicide Squad‘s “heroes” are really villains, that naturally raises the question of how to get the audience to sympathize with a bunch of characters who are, at their core, pretty awful people. One approach? Play up the wish fulfillment aspect.

“They do things that we’ve always wanted to do and obviously society says we can’t, but they do them,” said producer Andy Horowitz. “But they do things in a lighthearted way. They’re bad guys but they’re having a lot of fun.”

Or perhaps give the bad-guy protagonists something even worse to stand up against. “[When we meet them] they’re in such terrible conditions in the film even though they may deserve to be incarcerated, some of the things that are happening goes beyond what you maybe deem inappropriate so you automatically and inherently get to root for them because of the conditions,” explained producer Richard Suckle.

And of course, it’s worth making sure the characters are fleshed out and, if not exactly relatable, at least understandable. Some characters get more history than others, but Suckle emphasizes that each of them have their own motivations. “In addition to them being in this dysfunctional ragtag Dirty Dozen-like group that has to come together to go on this mission and hopefully succeed, David’s done a great job of giving you backstories and understanding these characters beyond what you would just see on the surface as a gang of guys that are forced to go do something because Amanda Waller’s telling them they have to.”

Added Ayer:

At the end of the day, they are people with lives. They are people who have made bad decisions. You get into the question of, “Are you your worst day? Are you your worst act that you’ve ever committed? And should that define you? When you are defined in that way, is it immutable? Can you change? Can you learn? Can you grow?” A lot of this is about people that have been defined in an incredibly negative way and have absorbed and are maybe discovering that they are not so bad after all.

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