The past decade has seen the rise of a remarkable art form: the recut trailer. Savvy home editors have taken it upon themselves to craft pieces of often-ironic wish fulfillment, ones in which The Shining becomes a heartwarming family film, The Ten Commandments becomes a teen comedy, or the Avengers star in a rom-com. They assemble something new out of existing materials and reveal surprising tonal undercurrents, however slight, in the original material.
In that regard, the much-watched first trailer for Suicide Squad was something of a professional recut. After seeing the actual film and revisiting that promo spot, one almost feels like it could be titled “What If Suicide Squad Was a Comedy?” It took footage from what is a dour, muddy action film, pulled dozens of shots and lines out of context, and smashed them together into a sublime two and half minutes. It delivers exactly what would have been welcome, and exactly what the real thing doesn’t deliver: tar-black nihilism elevated to comedic heights by contrast, pacing, and extremity that clue you in to the fact that you’re allowed to laugh.
It’s all there in the first few seconds: “Is this the real life?” Freddie Mercury asks us in the opening strains of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a song as melancholic as it is goofy. Before we can answer him, a prisoner (Jai Courtney as Captain Boomerang) desperately pleads for mercy while a guard closes his lone window to the world in solitary confinement. “Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality” — more prisoners find ways to cope with the horrors of maximum security, choosing laconic depression (Will Smith’s Deadshot, Jay Hernandez’s El Diablo) or insane calm (Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn). Jesus, what a grim way to start out! But the song, familiar to us all, reminds us that misery can translate into comedy with the right juxtapositions.
Although the actual film has a robust soundtrack of rock hits (including a late-stage appearance of the famed "Rhapsody" itself), they mostly serve to provide on-the-nose character assessments, e.g. when Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” plays while we meet Harley. The opening portions in the prison are very deliberately portrayed as simple misery, there to demonstrate that these are all dangerous individuals with little to lose. It’s standard action-movie-character introduction, right down to being unnecessarily overlong.
But the trailer — God, this trailer — selects all the most vicious moments from the exposition, putting them together to provide a vision that feels like a parody of such introductions. As the team assembles, everything is ratcheted up to a point where no one can take it seriously: Deadshot gets brought in after a completely useless attempt to resist a comically large group of beating-prone guards, Boomerang is cut out of a body bag and immediately punches someone’s lights out, and Harley does a little bit where she talks about the voices in her head with charming — and menacing — self-awareness.
“Here’s the deal: you’re going somewhere very bad to do something that’ll get you killed,” Joel Kinnaman’s team leader Rick Flag intones in the trailer to the assembled group, and his blasé attitude toward the value of human life (expressed while Queen belts out “No! We will not let you go!”) doubles down on the notion that we’ll be sending up superhero and action tropes. So does the rhythmically timed series of explosions, machine-gun fire, screams, and glimpses of Jared Leto’s Die Antwoord–esque Joker. There’s even a dude in a panda suit firing a machine gun! It’s insane! There’s no way this can be anything other than stylish, grin-inspiring chaos at the speed of a bullet, right?
The trailer ends with Harley stealing a purse from a store window while everyone marches to their deaths, offering the justification, “We’re bad guys; it’s what we do.” Then the title comes up as Mercury resolves with the line, “Nothing really matters to me." Once again, a nod to nihilism and an embrace of ensemble antiheroism.
But as it turns out, the movie has a surplus of heart. People do things out of affection for their families and lovers, the bad guys learn the value of friendship and altruism, and the moral compass of the film is firmly directed toward a dark sort of virtue. Contra Queen, many things really matter.
If Suicide Squad were a better movie, that might have been okay — but this is a movie that, even if you find certain aspects meritorious, is likely to disappoint. And it's certainly not the movie the trailer promised, which is something that had even Warner Bros. execs worried about — as noted in a recent Hollywood Reporter story: "A key concern for Warners executives was that Suicide Squad didn't deliver on the fun, edgy tone promised in the strong teaser trailer for the film."
In the end, despite the studio's efforts, the movie still doesn't deliver. Fortunately, we’ll always have that marvelous little bit of promotional filmmaking. It follows its own little three-act structure and provides excitement, humor, subversion, and innovation. It's something we can all return to long after Suicide Squad has departed the multiplex, even if only to wonder what if?