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Comic books are filled with high-premise, ridiculously unreal stories. The format is basically built on them. You have to believe that a billionaire playboy would decide that wearing a bat suit was the best way to heal his city to accept Batman. You have to believe that gamma radiation would cause a man’s cells to mutate and allow him to gain or lose mass in a heartbeat to accept the Hulk. You have to accept that gene mutations would produce viable human beings with super powers instead of just killing them in utero to accept the X-Men. The list goes on, but comics are founded on the notion that the audience is going to suspend disbelief and just accept whatever crazy concoctions are presented to them.

Suicide Squad is one of the crazier ideas. The basic premise of the comic – and now the feature film – is this: That the U.S. government has decided to recruit a team of villains to engage in top secret, off-the-books and incredibly dangerous missions as a way to earn goodwill and maybe get their sentences reduced. The movie is being positioned as part of Warner Bros.’ burgeoning DC Cinematic Universe, begun by Man of Steel and cemented with Batman v Superman earlier this year. But because it’s a story about the bad guys  the movie has a little more latitude to bring in the attitude (heh) and the wit, something that’s been missing from the first two movies in this new world.

In the movie iteration of the story Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has begun assembling a team made up of the “worst of the worst” to counter a threat that can’t be handled by the ordinary military. So she brings in villains like Deadshot (Will Smith), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and others because, well, the bad guys are expendable. If they die, one less bad guy. If they fail, the government can deny responsibility and say they were just being themselves. If they succeed…it will be a miracle. Add to all that a bit of mayhem courtesy of the Joker (Jared Leto) and you have a situation that could go very right or very wrong, both in the story and in the movie itself.

The Posters

The first teaser poster took all the faces of the various characters and portrayed them as skulls with something defining about them still intact. So Harley’s hair is still there, Katana’s mask, Deadshot’s eye patch and so on. It’s pretty madcap and certainly conveys a fatalistic tone for the movie while putting the gallows humor with which the characters traditionally greet their assignment front and center. A series of one-shot posters would follow that broke each one of these out onto its own one-sheet.

The second poster actually featured the cast, who are all standing around looking up at the camera, with Joker off away from the rest of the group. This gives us a better look at the cast but that’s about it since it’s not clear what the “XX” and what looks like…lipstick?…are meant to convey about the story. Basically this sells the movie as a bunch of tough-looking bad guys who are going to be tough-looking for some unclear reason.

Around the time of the SXSW “Harley’s Tattoo Parlor” (more on that below), a new series of tattoo-style character posters was released to show off the icons associated with each one of the villains in the mix of the story.

An IMAX poster took all the symbols for the various antiheroes and jumbled them all together in a bowl, making them look like the frosted treats in a bowl of cereal. This was an…innovative and certainly colorful approach to sell the craziness of the movie.

A similarly jumbled approach was taken on the theatrical one-sheet, which mixes things up by putting the credit block at the top, below the cast list but above a mushroom cloud that’s been made out of the faces of the characters and a general sense of mayhem. This looks like a Ralph Bashke animation with the exaggerated lines coming out of the close and the crazy way everything and everyone is assembled. The usual “Worst. Heroes. Ever.” copy is used again here and it’s all selling a riotous time at the movies.

The Trailers

The first trailer debuted at San Diego Comic-Con 2015 and was officially presented as a “First Look” and not a trailer, but it was a trailer. In fact it wasn’t meant to go public at all but after a ton of pirated versions showed up on YouTube it was finally officially released. And when it was it was accompanied by a terse statement from WB that, essentially, the fans were to blame for it not being a special treat for SDCC attendees. I get that, but blaming fans for being excited is maybe not the best PR strategy.

The trailer starts with Amanda Waller saying she’s assembled the “worst of the worst.” She mentions that Superman’s appearance seems to have brought these weirdos out of the woodwork and she wants to put together a team that has built-in deniability. It’s then that we meet the team, starting with Harley Quinn and including Deadshot and the others. A montage of clips follows making it clear that Deadshot and Harley are the stars here as they get the most screen time and dialogue. The trailer ends with Joker walking in and torturing someone.

It’s..well, it’s pretty great and certainly got fans excited when it was released. The shots of Harley are what everyone (rightly) focused on and Robbie looks great in the role. Overall it provides almost no story elements but does give us a look at the grimy, dirty look and feel of the film and lets us see the kinds of things fans were most anxious for, including Harley and especially Leto as the Joker.

The second trailer – actually the first official trailer since what came before was billed as a sizzle reel – starts off by introducing us to the team that’s being assembled as well as their powers. So we meet Deadshot, Harley Quinn, Killer Croc and others who are the worst of the worst, according to Amanda Waller. They’re given their assignment and after that we get all kinds of shots of the mayhem that goes along with that mission as things explode and more. There are a couple breakout moments for Robbie as Harley, which isn’t surprising, and we get a few more shots of the Joker.

There’s lots of great stuff here and the trailer certainly conveys a palpable sense of fun for the movie. It tells you nothing about the story other then that they’re going on some sort of mission, but that’s alright since it’s all about showing off the characters to the audience. My guess is Joker is a bit overplayed here and his role in the story is even more unclear than the rest since you don’t see him being part of the team. But it’s a really good trailer that presents a very different movie than any other super hero entry out there.

Another new trailer debuted during the MTV Movie Awards that’s just as good as the first. We again get the premise, that this team is being created as a contingency against very bad situations. So they’re assembled and told the situation, which is that they’re on a very short leash. After that it’s less about the story and more about just showing off the mayhem they cause while executing the mission.

Lots of new footage here, including more shots of the Joker and Batman. As with the previous trailers it’s mostly about showing off the movie’s attitude, which it does in spades. Harley again gets lots of screen time but we get a bit more of Deadshot as well and, again, the movie just looks like a whole lot of fun.

One more trailer was released at the time of this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. It features footage over a few of the songs from the movie’s soundtrack and provides a little more detail on the story and what the Squad has been assembled for.

There’s lots of good stuff here and the way dialogue is worked into the beat of the music and such puts a nice capper on a campaign that’s been fun and irreverent since it kicked off.

Online and Social

The first thing that greets you when you load the official website is the over-the-top cartoonish key art, the one where they all form the shape of a mushroom cloud. There are buttons at the bottom of the page encouraging you to buy tickets or watch the trailer. Once you start scrolling down the page there are a few features that you see.

The first is “Squad-Yourself,” which lets you create a custom image to either just share on social or to use as an avatar there. It provides two options, the first of which takes you through the whole creation process and the second of which just creates a random image for you. The other two are a link to go buy the movie’s soundtrack album or to download the “Special Ops” mobile game.

After that is the first section of actual site content, “Cast.” That provides a good look at the cast and the characters they play, with options to view a bio of the character and both of the posters for each one. “Videos” is after that and has all three trailers as well as the Comic-Con First Look from 2015.

suicide squad pic 1

There are a couple stills along with the first round of character posters – the ones featuring the skulls – in the “Gallery.” Next is “About,” which just has a short synopsis of the story along with the usual credits.

Commerce is the focus of the next couple sections. First there’s “Partners” with logos and links for the companies who are either promoting the movie or which provided in-kind product for the production. Then the “Carl’s Jr.” section has downloadable images and GIFs, some of which are co-branded with the fast food chain’s logo.

On social media the movie had Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles, on which the studio shared images and videos along with lots more, including promoting cast appearances on TV and elsewhere.

The studio also created a sponsored Snapchat filter for the movie that let people adopt the look of The Joker, obviously playing off the focus in the campaign on that character.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

DC Comics helped the movie out by making a special edition of Suicide Squad #1 from 2011’s The New 52 reboot part of their Free Comic Book Day offerings early this year.

DC and WB used the series premiere of “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow” to help promote the movie by airing a special immediately afterward that included the debut of the second trailer along with new looks at Wonder Woman and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Of course DC Comics prepped a full load of Suicide Squad-related comics to come out this month to take advantage of anyone who might be wandering into comics shops looking for new reading material. The Squad – specifically their props and costumes – became a major part of the Warner Bros. Studio Tour along with similar items from Batman v Superman and more.

Plenty of TV spots were created like this one that didn’t expand on the trailer too much, just showed the kind of mayhem the team gets into and plays up the angle that yeah, this is a group of bad guys we’re going to be asked to root for. Lots of Harley and the Joker and Deadshot and general violence, along with it being made clear that the team is being assembled for the first time here.

Partners on the movie included:

  • Alienware: There’s nothing about the movie specifically on the Alienware site.
  • Carrera: Offered a sweeps to send a lucky winner to the red carpet premiere of the movie.
  • Samsung: Again, no details on the company’s website about what, if anything, they’re doing.
  • Splat Hair Color: They ran a “Harley Quinn Inspired Color Look” contest, in keeping with that character’s wild look and is offering co-branded packaging with a couple of Harley-inspired colors.
  • T-Mobile: Obviously did something considering the site pointed to is their “T-Mobile Tuesdays” site where they promote free things it’s doing for customers.

Of course online and outdoor advertising was done as well that utilized the key art as well as the various trailers and other videos.

Media and Publicity

The cast had their first big coming out party at San Diego Comic-Con, where they all appeared as part of the Warner Bros. panel and answered some questions there.

Leto would continue talking, making comments about how he thought his portrayal of The Joker would make both Nicholson and Ledger proud by paying homage to their turns in the role while still doing his own thing with it. That kind of unofficial press would happen for a while as Leto, Smith, Robbie and others from the cast would casually mention something about the movie or respond to questions about their character while promoting other projects and so on. There was just a general kind of low-level hum about the movie as this happened.

A big first look package was run in Empire that provided great shots of Joker, Harley, Croc and others.

Much later there was a big feature on the upcoming DC/WB movies in USA Today, beginning with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice but also including Suicide Squad. Ayers talked in that story about being the odd duck at the table in terms of super hero movies, having Affleck on set as Batman for a bit (this was the first official confirmation, I believe, of that happening) and more. Ayers later talked more about Leto and how crazy his on-set behavior was as he embodied the Joker. All this seemed to be pushing the point a bit too hard, as if they were trying to manufacture the same buzz around the character as there was when Heath Ledger played the character in The Dark Knight.

Robbie eventually got her turn in the press, talking about how she signed on for the role, which was kind of unusual, and how she’s more excited than anyone to see the finished product. And eventually Common revealed who it was he was playing and what his relationship to the team is. Robbie talked later about how her character was playing all the other bad guys to advance her own agenda based on her training as a psychiatrist.

Rumors – fueled by Tweets and Instagram posts by the cast – that there would be some kind of SXSW activation for the movie and those rumors turned out to be true as the studio took over a local tattoo place and turned it into “Harley’s Tattoo Parlor,” offering both real and temporary tattoos featuring symbols and icons related to the characters.

About a week before broadcast, it was announced Smith and others from the cast would be at the MTV Movie Awards to promote the movie, including revealing new footage. Around that time there were reports circulating the movie was going back for extensive reshoots under a studio dictate to make it “funnier” in the wake of Deadpool’s box-office success. Those reports were debunked by Ayer, who positioned it just as him being given the opportunity to revisit some things and do more, an opportunity he’d be silly to turn down. Shortly after that the cast and crew, along with WB execs, appeared at CinemaCon to show off some footage from the movie and talk about how it fit in with WB/DC’s overall cinematic plans.

suicide squad pic 2

Robbie got a huge profile that allowed the actress to talk about the struggles she’s had with her career, approaching the unhinged Harley Quinn and the way she’s working to take advantage of and overcome her coming out in Wolf of Wall Street. Delevingne got in on the “things were cray cray” action by talking about how she got the part and what kind of strange things Ayer asked her to do while on the set.

At one point a study of the numbers showed the movie to be the most Tweeted-about summer release, surely a sign of strong word of mouth.

Plans were announced for a big San Diego Comic-Con 2016 presence, marking a year since the release of that first buzzed-about sizzle reel. Those plans included not only the usual cast panel and signings but a whole Belle Reve experience at a nearby hotel, another incarnation of Harley’s Tattoo Parlor and more.

A big cover story and feature in Entertainment Weekly hit about a month before release that featured variant covers, new photos and interviews with the cast and Ayers about making the movie, what their characters were up to in the story and so on. That was followed by a series of character introduction videos that showed off the members of the Squad. Longer videos that did the same basic thing, just with more footage from the movie, came shortly thereafter.

A year after its first big coming out the movie returned to San Diego Comic-Con one more time, with a panel of talent in Hall H as well as a display of costumes in the DC booth, which also hosted a cast appearance and signing.

All that Comic-Con activity added up to a significant bump in social media buzz about the movie. That was followed by a nice New York Times feature on Ayer and the rest of the team, focusing on how they and the movie were going to inject a little mayhem into the staid super hero format and help jumpstart the DC Cinematic Universe, which has so far just been about big, super-serious characters and singularly devoid of joy and whimsy. Karen Fukuhara, who plays Katana, also got a solo interview where she talked about making her big screen debut. Kinnamen also got some press as he talked about his training for the role of Rick Flag, the way the cast bonded and more.

Smith and the rest of the cast made the rounds of the late night and morning talk shows as well, talking about geeking out over all the super hero stuff around them, the pleasure of working with Ayer and lots more.

A final, last-minute round of press included a profile of Harley Quinn and traced the character’s history and her rise to such heights of popularity and a feature talking about just how much DC Films and Warner Bros. need this to be both a popular and critical success to counter the narratives that have emerged around Batman v Superman and other movies.

Overall

If there’s one issue to take with the campaign it’s that there’s just been an awful lot of it. While the 2015 Comic-Con sizzle reel kicked things off there’s been more or less a steady drumbeat since then of trailers, character posters, short videos and more. That initial reel was great and got things off on a solid start, creating strong buzz coming out of the convention for a movie that was over a year away but it’s had to sustain that for a very long time. And the sheer volume of of the push has felt a bit overwhelming at times.

While the marketing has, up until the previous two months, been going in fits and starts it’s the press push that contributes most to that sense of weariness. Specifically, it’s the constant thrum of anecdotes about what Jared Leto did or didn’t do on set that has kept the conversation about the movie going for so long. Usually that kind of consistent word-of-mouth is a good thing, but eventually it became just a bit too much for myself and, I think, plenty of others. The formal marketing campaign had to compete about stories of what amounts to a hostile work environment with a jackass who thinks he’s the class clown and in some cases the former was drowned out by the latter.

Focusing on the formal campaign, though, there’s a good effort here. Selling a movie like this with a bunch of characters, only one or two of which has any sort of mainstream awareness, can’t be easy and so the studio decided to sell a vibe, an attitude. Sure the characters, particularly Harley Quinn and the Joker, are front and center since they have the biggest non-comics footprint, but for the most part the campaign focuses on the mayhem that’s inevitable when a group of bad guys gets together for any length of time. Harley’s right there in the middle of everything and my guess is that’s accurate to the story but I’m assuming the trailers et al show 50% of the time Joker is actually on screen. It’s being sold at least partly based on that, especially when you factor in all those annoying press stories, but I’m thinking he has less than 10 minutes of actual screen time.

What the marketing does best is sell the Suicide Squad brand as one to associate with a madcap good time. It’s about anarchy, letting the lunatics run the asylum. It hits that message from every angle, from the music in the trailers to the design of the posters and more. In that regard it’s incredibly strong. But it remains to be seen whether or not it can deliver on that promise and be the antidote to the dour, grim Batman v Superman type movies that audiences are expecting and hoping it will be.

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