After years of showcasing square-jawed, spandex-clad do-gooders, the superhero genre is breaking bad.
With "Suicide Squad," in theaters Friday, writer-director David Ayer set out to flip the script on the comic-book genre with an edgy, darkly comic story of a ragtag band of supervillains brought together by the government to fight a greater evil. February's smash "Deadpool" showed there's a huge appetite for a wisecracking comic-book antihero, but are audiences ready to cheer on true baddies? We're about to find out.
Ayer, whose credits as a screenwriter and director include "Training Day," "End of Watch" and "Fury," spoke to The Times last month about his personal "Squad" goals, handling fan scrutiny and where we are in the evolution of the superhero genre.
You've never made a movie in the comic-book genre before this. How did you get involved?
I was posting "Fury" and literally one day in August I woke up and said, "I need to grab the biggest show I can grab. I need to grow. I need to challenge myself. I've been outside of the studio system for so long. I need to just man up and go inside the house."
A World War II movie with Brad Pitt was too small for you?
[laughs] Yeah, well, it was pretty manageable. I met with [Warner Bros. President of Creative Development and Worldwide Production] Greg Silverman, and he was like, "What do you want to do?" I said, "What do you got?" He mentioned "Suicide Squad" and I just took home a bunch of comic books and I was like, "Yeah, I want to do it."
Within a couple of weeks of that meeting I had done a pitch, and they basically greenlit the pitch. I was in prep in September. It was insane. It happened lightning fast. The script just exploded out of my head. Within four months of pitching, I was in Canada, building sets.
What was it about "Suicide Squad" that you connected with so much?
Bad guys. I don't know, maybe I have a jaded worldview because there's bad guys and then there's really, really, really bad guys. There's bad and there's evil.
The world the movie takes place in is very Cold War in outlook, and I'm a child of the Cold War. I like the idea of the government running covert ops, using bad guys to do good things against other bad guys. It just seemed very close to the world we're in today.
They're bad guys and they have led their lives in that shadow – and can they come together? Can they love? Can they have any normalcy? Do they deserve it? Can they do good? Those were the interesting questions to me.
For me, everything is character. All the films that I love and venerate are character-based films. That's what I wanted to bring to the genre. So many times I feel like these films are just actors posing in wardrobe. There's sort of a stiffness and it's not natural.
I wanted to bring a patina and a history and a naturalistic performance and psychology to the comic book world. Whether I did or not, who knows?
This film is one piece on a giant chessboard that Warner Bros. is setting up for its integrated DC movie universe. How did you factor that bigger picture into the movie as you were putting it together?
It's definitely sandbox rules. They have a slate and they have a road map. It was working with Zack [Snyder] and working with [DC Entertainment President and Chief Creative Officer] Geoff Johns, who is the mastermind here who is kind of the general with the map. I had to fit my show into that map.
At the same time, everything is sort of liquid and, as things happened, you adjust. So during the process of making this, there's a little bit of adjustment in: How do we make this movie as good as possible? How do we make sure the things are working that you need to work?
As a filmmaker, you're so buried in the weeds that you need an audience to tell you what you have. I'm a big believer in that, in showing it to an audience and getting feedback and making sure the things work that you want to work. It was interesting.
After "Batman v Superman" came out, the spotlight turned to you guys in a more intense way as the next DC movie in the pipeline.
"Now what?" Yeah, you know, you become part of a narrative whether that narrative as it affects you is true or not.
It's funny because, like, the reshoots-for-humor meme cropped up — that drove me insane. … Because if you look at the movie, there's humor all the way through. It's not like, "Here's the joke sequence!" The tone of it is wall-to-wall.
One of the hardest things when you direct a movie is tone: Is it sad? Is it fun? For me, even in the dark stuff — even in "Fury" — there's these moments of humor. But also, I mean, I've got a crocodile and a lady in hot pants with red and blue hair — it's like, come on, man, it's not going to be that serious out of the gate.
The whole reshoot thing — we knew good things were happening with this movie and it's like, "OK, dude, what do you want? How can we bolt on some chrome rims and put some 20-inch MTX speakers in the back?"
When you look at the superhero movies we've seen this year, from "Deadpool" to "Batman v Superman" to "X-Men: Apocalypse," what's your sense of where we are in the evolution of this genre?
The comic-book movie was enabled by technology and then obviously they sort of cracked it with "Iron Man." Then you look at how people execute these movies. I'm a big believer that you can only follow the cookbook so many times before people get tired of the same chicken dinner. "Deadpool" is an example of that, where if you break a genre and really lean out …
The comic-book movie is the new cowboy movie. And the cowboy movie started Hollywood and had a good 70-year run. I think we're a long, long way from this burning out. I think brands and styles of execution will burn out but new phoenixes will arise. It's just too close to people. And there's kids and moviegoers now that don't know anything else.
There's a lot of talk lately about whether fans have grown too entitled and are sort of throwing tantrums — or worse — when they feel like they're not getting what they wanted. How do you see that?
It is what it is. It's the Roman arena. It's thumbs up or thumbs down. The crowd votes. Hopefully my movie doesn't get executed in the sawdust there.
But that's why the genre has the connection and the power and the audience that it does — because there's that ownership and there's that participation. It's exactly what you want in a lot of ways.
You have to be courageous and respectful. I'm a student of the genre and I love comic books and I listen to the fans and I listen to what they say. I think that's important. There's definitely some nods to the fans — and there's a few things that I know bump. My hope is that we can just push the envelope a little bit and challenge people.
I promise you, "Suicide Squad" is going to [anger] a few people, and I promise you a few people are going to love it. Where's everybody else at? I don't know yet.
Having made this film and planted a foot in the DC movie universe, do you want to continue making movies in that world?
Yeah, I mean, look, for me I brought these actors together and they're lifelong friends now. I feel like I'm part of that family. Let's see what the movie gods say but absolutely, I would love to.
This was a big personal gamble for me. Normally they have these kids do these movies — you do one movie for $5 million and you sell it at Sundance and they bring this guy in. And as someone who's done a lot of movies, with a point of view under my belt, it was like, "How is this going to work?"
Because again, it's sandbox rules. They're not my toys – I'm borrowing them. It's not my money. You're part of a much bigger machine. And I loved it.
The scary thing is, it is kind of addictive because you're playing at the highest level of the game. As a filmmaker, it's total world creation. [laughs] My fear is that I'm going to get cracked out on it and not be able to turn away.