Why 'Suicide Squad' might never be released in China

Beijing's censorship guidelines are controversial, but similarly dark films, including 'The Dark Knight' and 'Deadpool,' were never released.

Warner Brothers/AP/File
Margot Robbie (l.) and Jared Leto star in 'Suicide Squad.' The movie, distributed by Warner Bros., hasn't been scheduled for release in China, sparking speculation that the film did not meet the strict guidelines for foreign films.

In the US, “Suicide Squad” has gotten a critical drubbing, with one reviewer likening the movie about a team of antiheroic villains to "a demolition derby of barely explained action and droll quips." But in China, much to fans' chagrin, it’s unlikely to be released at all. 

China Film Group, the state-backed distributor of all foreign films, hasn’t yet put the film on an internal release calendar, a process that is typically done two months in advance, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

While the film received a PG-13 rating and includes bankable stars like Will Smith, some have speculated that the film’s dark tone – the plot features a team of supervillains let out of prison to work for the US government – may have fallen afoul of China’s strict guidelines on imported films.

In China, foreign films, which are now restricted to 34 a year, aren’t formally rated. Instead, Beijing’s media regulator, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, makes a judgment on whether the film is appropriate for Chinese viewers.

The films chosen for release have sometimes confused Western observers, but on the whole, the guidelines bar stories “propagating passive or negative outlook on life, worldview, and value system,” according to the Hollywood Reporter.

In “Suicide Squad,” Jared Leto portrays Batman villain The Joker. His performance has been compared to Heath Ledger’s dark, anarchic portrayal of the character in 2008’s “The Dark Knight, which wasn’t released in China.

But the Marvel film “Captain America: Civil War,” distributed by Disney and also rated PG-13, has been a box office draw in China, earning $190.4 million, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

In the case of “The Dark Knight,” distributor Warner Bros. said “cultural sensitivities” drove its decision to cancel release of the film, CBC reported.

The statement didn’t provide further context, but some speculated that the cancellation may have been because of scenes filmed in Hong Kong, including one where Batman grabs a Chinese money launderer.

Though the similarly dark comic book film “Deadpool” was barred from release in China due to violence and graphic language, Warner Bros. hoped to gain a different fate for “Suicide Squad.”

It changed the film’s local-language title to "X特遣队," which translates to “Special Task Force X.”

But release still appears to be unlikely. Distributors “think this is not a good film to release in China,” a Chinese executive told The Hollywood Reporter.

To get through the censorship barrier, some Hollywood studios hoping break into China’s lucrative box office – the second biggest in the world – have increasingly begun partnering with Chinese studios. But China’s own switch to making the type of films that would appeal to audiences around the world – action films or comedies, for example – has happened slowly, as The New York Times reports:

Even as China became a global superpower in the late 20th century, big-budget Chinese movies were, by and large, treacly, patriotic fare. And though tastes were shifting, the studios used their connections with the government to ensure their own films succeeded. In 2010, for example, the behemoth state-owned studio and distributor China Film Group pulled “Avatar” from 1,628 screens and replaced it with its own film, a Confucius biopic starring Chow Yun Fat.

The guidelines applied to locally-produced films and TV shows have sometimes seemed equally, if not more, befuddling. In 2011, the State Administration for Radio, Film & Television discouraged TV shows that involve time travel. Shows that feature characters traveling back in time “lack positive thoughts and meaning,” said the state regulator, as The New York Times reported at the time.

But debates over “Suicide Squad” continue, as Chinese film regulators have recently eased restrictions on other Hollywood summer blockbusters. The move to open up the lucrative season to foreign movies, letting them compete with domestic ones, comes in the wake of a decline in the Chinese box office.

“In the absence of very strong Chinese movies, if you put in a two-month blackout, the theaters are going to struggle and that's bad for the industry,” a Beijing executive told the Reporter.

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