A Look at How Suicide Squad Is Defying Critics

Yes, the Batman v Superman sequel is as weird and horrible as the reviews say it is. But a lot of people want to see it.

Andrew McGill / The Atlantic

So hold on: Is Suicide Squad good or bad? Bad, right? I haven’t seen it, but I’ve sat through the preview roughly a dillion times this year, and Jared Leto’s cackling psycho hipster routine did not improve with repetition. When the film scored a horrible 26 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, I figured I was in the clear—okay, bad movie, don’t have to see it, back to waiting for Black Panther.

But somehow, this bomb of a movie took in $133 million in its opening weekend. Not only does that total beat the better-reviewed Deadpool (84 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), which I loved, it smashed the August box office records previously set in 2014 by Guardians of the Galaxy, which I really loved. And this doesn’t seem to be a fluke: Deadline reports Suicide Squad is posting great weekday numbers, beating even the vaunted Captain America: Civil War for a Tuesday box-office record. Hence my confusion. How could such a poorly reviewed film make so much money?

Because, as sometimes happens, despite a poor critical reception, a lot of people simply love it.

Movie critics and popular opinion often sync up pretty closely. But in the case of Suicide Squad, not so much. While three-quarters of reviewers gave the movie a bad review, almost the same percentage of Rotten Tomatoes users gave it a thumbs up. Their average rating was 7.4/10, compared to the critics’ 4.7/10. The experts panned the flick. The fans loved it.

Is this unusual? To find out, I pulled the 50 or so top-performing Marvel and DC films, as measured by opening weekend box-office revenue. I compared their Rotten Tomatoes scores, pitting reviews from critics against ratings from users.

Suicide Squad is not just an outlier. It is the outlier, boasting a gap of 45 percentage points between reviewers and users, the largest in this sample. Second place goes to—surprise!—Batman v Superman, another critically panned sort-of-blockbuster that just so happens to be the prequel to Suicide. Among the 2016 movies, only Deadpool and Captain America: Civil War were equally loved by critics and fans alike. (Here’s a larger version of this graphic with all the points labeled.)

This love-hate relationship goes both ways. Critics were far more complimentary than fans of 2004’s Hulk, with two-thirds giving it their blessing. I personally remember that movie for its interminable length and lack of memorable smashing. Moviegoers apparently agreed with me, with only 29 percent giving it a positive review. Critics and fans were similarly split on 2002’s Spider-Man, starring a boyish Tobey Maguire, which earned a startling 89 percent of critical favor but only 67 percent among the plebeians. (Don’t confuse it with The Amazing Spider-Man, which featured a Shia LaBeouf-ish Andrew Garfield. Everyone agrees that one was just OK.)

To be fair, fans who write amateur reviews of superhero movies might be biased. Averaging the positive user-review percentages, I found Rotten Tomatoes contributors are five percentage points more likely than critics to give one of these films a positive review, probably because they’re the sort of people who want see costumed megahumans punch things to begin with. Even so, Suicide Squad sets a striking record. It is almost certainly the biggest disagreement between critics and moviegoers over a Marvel/DC movie to date.

This kind of split is of course not unprecedented. You may remember The Boondock Saints, that bizarre Catholic twins revenge rampage that spawned a million dorm-room posters. Fans loved it—91 percent on RT—and critics hated it—20 percent. But the size of Suicide’s haul is what sets it apart. With more than $100 million already in the bank, I wouldn’t be surprised if it beat Batman v Superman’s U.S. domestic take of $330 million. Cult classics are one thing—bad movies that tank at the box office but live on forever in well-worn DVDs. Suicide Squad looks to be an actual smash.

How many things will the elites get wrong? The ascent of Donald Trump, the vote for Brexit, and now this? The truth is, I’ll probably agree Suicide Squad is rotten myself, if I get around to seeing it. Movie reviewers are savvy, and few of them have any great disdain for popular movies as such; they’re just not reliable indicators of public opinion—which is in the end what the makers of a movie like Suicide Squad really care about.