They say that life imitates art, but the conversation and criticism surrounding the DC Extended Universe has taken things to a new level. As Batman V Superman created a version of the Dark Knight unsure of his own future against increasingly powerful and insurmountable opposition, so, too, has Ben Affleck (reportedly) reconsidered his role in the DCEU against waves of criticism. As Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel faced off against a world that wasn’t ready to accept him, the director encountered waves of criticism that suggested what Superman should be instead. And with Suicide Squad making unlikely heroes of criminals society neither cared about nor understood, the film proved to be one of WB’s biggest commercial hits thus far despite a critical thrashing.
Now that Suicide Squad 2 has become a no-brainer sequel, despite critics and online media sure to view it with the same suspicion and doubts as the first film, news arrives that Mel Gibson could direct. The immediate reaction, given the director’s past comments and personal troubles, is to dismiss him just as quickly. But if we’re not going to make an effort to separate art from the people who are making it, then it’s hard to argue that Mel Gibson ISN’T a poetic director for Suicide Squad 2 – a film hoping to prove itself in more ways than one.
What He’s Done vs. What He’s Capable Of
First things first: we have no interest in mounting a defense of Gibson, or offering any opinion on the offensive comments he made in the past, or in what condition he made them. History catalogued those events, his apology, his response, and Hollywood’s collective reactions more than well enough. It’s also a proven fact that consumers of mass media have shown varying willingness to ignore, accept, or forget altogether the moral and ethical faults of their favorite artists and creators for a variety of reasons. After all, directors accused or charged with violent crimes continue to make award-winning films with award-winning actors, just as singers and music producers charged with the same continue to do so once the spotlight has moved to the next story.
For those who feel that an artist’s personal prejudices, inappropriate comments, or past hate speech cannot, or should not be forgotten, whether or not they apologize or seek reconciliation, that is a personal moral stance. And whether knowingly or not, others choose the equally valid decision to evaluate art as art: to engage in the enjoyment or creation of art with Mel Gibson, valuing his creative vision and style, separated from his past. And as many roll their eyes, or vilify Gibson along with the actors who collaborate with him, or any studio who would consider offering him a paycheck based on his past, the standalone quality of his work, or those of his collaborators, should be recognized.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been around long enough to know that prejudices, political affiliations and personal issues almost have to be set aside for any sense of objectivity, meaning Mel Gibson’s accomplishments in the field of directing are judged on those merits alone (or, in an ideal world, could be). The fact that Gibson delivered an accomplished film after a ten year absence from the chair is a sign that things may have changed.
That the film in question – Hacksaw Ridge, the story of a real-life World War II veteran who refused to carry or use a weapon starring Andrew Garfield – has earned six Oscar nominations confirms that film enthusiasts, or those interested in compelling, human stories captured on film do themselves a disservice by not at least attempting to separate Gibson the man from Gibson the director.
Again, many never will, and do so on moral grounds that few would assail. But separating what Mel Gibson has done from the art that he is capable of producing is a pursuit of those with a mind for art, not publicity. Before he became famous for alcohol-fueled hate speech, and angry statements in his personal life, Gibson had distinguished his artistic talents as an Oscar-winning director with Braveheart – and now, years after, has delivered yet another Oscar-caliber film. All with little sign of the controversy that plagued his personal life (unlike directors like David O. Russell, whose on-set antics rival any tabloid story).
To decide that his abilities as a director are more important to a film’s success, and therefore the studio, than his personal history isn’t outlandish to think. People may still take issue based solely on the hurt and offense his name is now tied to (with good reason), and no apology or virtuoso direction will ever change that. Which, as it happens, makes the film WB considered him for a fairly poetic one, all personal politics aside.
Redemption is Kind of The Squad’s Whole Point
That whole idea of judging a person based on what they’ve done, and deciding what they are, can be, or should be allowed to be in the future will have particular resonance with Suicide Squad fans. After all, it was the idea at the very heart of the story, as explicitly expressed by director David Ayer prior to the film’s release – when he was asked about the challenges of building a so-called “superhero” story around people who made mistakes, were prone to offend, and generally written off by society:
“At the end of the day, they’re people with lives. They’re people who’ve 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?” And when you are defined in that way, is it immutable? Can you change? Can you learn? Can you grow? So a lot of this is about people that have been defined in an incredibly negative way and have absorbed that, and are maybe discovering that they’re not so bad after all.”
While many critics slammed the film, and Ayer later admitted he would do things differently if given a do-over, the premise struck a chord. The cast of characters from different walks of life, all having committed crimes, stamped as freaks and irredeemable, and shuffled off to die was one fans sought out. As it turned out, a comic book movie that took the stand Ayer stated was one people wanted to see play out: Can a villain change? Can a person who made mistakes grow, progress, and leave past troubles behind?
It’s perhaps a commentary on our modern world that the average person is more willing to accept that from a fictional character than a living, breathing human. But aside from that question, the fact that the heroes somehow found a ludicrous amount of success but are still seen as the ‘losers’ of the comic book universe adds yet another layer to the meta nature of this news piece. Gibson made mistakes, and paid for them. The Squad members crossed other lines, and paid for those, too.
The characters now stand in the light of incredible box office success (already spawning sequels) and fan enthusiasm, and paradoxically deemed total failures, or ‘flukes’ by others. Mel Gibson now walks his way to the Academy Awards to be honored for his contributions to cinema, while others hate that he’s been invited (many without having seen the reasons for themselves). So, in one sense, it seems only right that this strange pair should be formed, and accomplish ever stranger things together.
The bottom line: a Suicide Squad sequel led by the talents of a director like Mel Gibson stands a high likelihood of being a better film – or at least an accomplished one, in some sense. Since that sequel will, inevitably, be doubted and derided by the critics who feel it should never have existed in the first place, the focus on Gibson’s personal history over his professional one seems like a pit stop along the way.
If you hate Suicide Squad, then the sequel wasn’t likely to appeal to you either way. If you hate Mel Gibson for things other than the work he’s produced, then his next film will similarly not be of interest. And so, fans and the studio stand at an empasse: fight the uphill battle with a safe pick, or take the sentiment and philosophy of the film to heart, and seek out the best person for the job, regardless of how much dirt they have in their past. Since it’s only a conversation at this point, it seems the poetic justice of it all, at least, is not lost on executives.