One is a big, loud comic-book movie about a group of meta-human villains, and the other is a true-life documentary about the devastating effects of ALS on a former NFL football player. One is about some very bad characters acting sort of heroically and the other is about an actual hero acting even more heroically.
But at their cores, both movies are about flawed heroes. Heroes overcoming their own challenges.
And here they both are in theaters, presenting discriminating moviegoers with a choice. Which one should you see? Here are my reviews.
The Joke’s on Us
We’ll get the bat one — I mean, the bad one out of the way first: Man oh man, is Suicide Squad a mess. Way less cool than it thinks it is, the latest big budget misfire from the DC Extended Universe finds some of the worst baddies in comic book lore (or so we’re led to believe) joining forces to stop an even worse baddie — played by Taylor Swift squad member Cara Delevingne, of all people. Rather than flip the script, Suicide Squad flips the bird at all the fanboys who’ve spent the past year or two eating up all the hype. Suckers.
While occasionally fun, Suicide Squad is so preoccupied with being hip that it overdoes it. The film is already stuffed to the gills with bad guys (and girls) — notably Will Smith’s Deadshot and Margot Robie’s Harley Quinn — each grappling with a pesky conscience, and a jukebox-depleting soundtrack that kicks in whenever director David Ayer (who also wrote the screenplay) needs to remind audiences they’re not sitting through another slog of a movie like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Which is to say, every couple minutes. Alas, Deadpool this is not. And it’s definitely not Captain America: Civil War. Oh, and by the way, it’s worth noting that while BvS:DoJ already set up the upcoming Justice League movie, this film has an end-credits scene that does it again. Holy redundancy, Batman!
And then there’s the much hyped performance of Jared Leto. The only way to say it is this: Leto spends the movie (what little of it he’s in, thankfully) doing a poor man’s impression of Heath Ledger. It’s a spectacularly awful performance that people will probably hate him for for years.
To be clear: I didn’t dislike Suicide Squad entirely. It’s actually better than I expected it would be. (My expectations were pretty low.) Still, in the future, I think I’m going to adopt that oft-said credo: Make mine Marvel. I’m giving Suicide Squad a C.
No White Flags
On the other hand, there’s Gleason, one of the best movies of 2016 — and also one of the toughest ones to watch. It’s a documentary covering five years in the life of former New Orleans Saints defensive back Steve Gleason, during which he was diagnosed with ALS and had a son with his wife, Michel, who they named Rivers. The film, which was curated and edited by director Clay Tweel, draws a lot of material from Gleason’s own home movies, many of which were shot as a way for him to communicate with Rivers after he is physically unable to do so.
Gleason is a beloved figure in New Orleans thanks partly to a play he made during the first quarter of the Saints’ first game back after Hurricane Katrina in 2006. Gleason shows the impact he had on the city, and how his adventurous spirit drove him to carpe the shit out of the diem. And then, at the age of 34, he gets sick, and we watch how this once strong man is weakened physically and emotionally, and how he’s nearly powerless to stop the degradation of his body.
The film doesn’t flinch when presenting the effect ALS has on Gleason’s entire life, from his inability to breathe to his incontinence to Michel’s struggles to keep it all together, and perhaps especially, Gleason’s relationship with his own father, Michael. While Steve is doing everything he can to be present in his son’s life, Michael is presented as distant and almost resistant to contributing to his son’s well being. To that end, as Steve’s health worsens, Michael, who is a devout Christian, takes his son to a faith healer to stop the disease. Of course, it doesn’t work, and Michel fires back about the damage this is doing. Later, Steve and Michael have a tough conversation about the power of each other’s faith. Suffice it to say, bring tissues.
And yet, sad as it is, Gleason is not a total downer. The film inspires because of its subject’s can-do, never surrender attitude. Despite his deteriorating body, we watch as Gleason maintains his commitment to living a life in the present — “Now is better than never,” he says. He competes in a swimming race, spends two months camping, interviews his favorite band (Pearl Jam), and even goes skydiving. And, he starts Team Gleason, a charitable organization focused on matching ALS patients with speech technology solutions that allow them to live a better life. Clearly, Gleason’s determination to not let the disease beat him has made him a hero of a different kind — and a terrific ambassador for those with ALS.
Like one of Gleason’s great football plays, Gleason hits you right in the gut. This is a film that goes beyond just chronicling the effects of a horrible disease; it puts a spotlight on how resilience and attitude defines character. If you need more reason to support campaigns like the Ice Bucket Challenge, to put things in perspective, to donate to an ALS-related charity, or to call your own dad and tell him how much you love him, look no further. Like the man itself, this film is a real winner. I’m giving Gleason an A–.
The Choice Is Yours
On the one hand, you have some bad villains in a bad movie, and on the other, you have a good hero in a very good movie. Which one will you choose?