Forget the galaxy: filmmaker James Gunn is officially the co-guardian of a whole universe. The DC Extended Universe, to be specific (though one wonders if that name will stick under the Gunn’s auspices). And all of a sudden, that universe, which for decades couldn’t seem to expand much past Gotham City, Metropolis, and Themiscira, is suddenly bursting with possibilities. Gunn is poised to be the hero DC both needs and deserves.
The announcement that Gunn will be sharing the cinematic and televised stewardship of Warner Bros. Discovery’s DC Studios with talent-manager-turned-producer Peter Safran—whose comics-to-screen bona fides include Aquaman, Shazam!, and Gunn’s own The Suicide Squad installment and HBO Max spinoff Peacemaker, as well as The Conjuring horror franchise—should bring a jolt of creative adrenaline to DC’s film and TV fortunes.
The film arm of the venerable company, an entity with multi-franchise potential that despite having the most iconic and enduring names in comic book and pop culture history, has paled in comparison to the dominance of Marvel Studios’ expansive Marvel Cinematic Universe, seemed to take the wrong lesson from Christopher Nolan’s critically hailed Dark Knight trilogy (make everything super-serious and decidedly dark), and never seemed to escape going all-in on filmmaker Zack Snyder’s all-encompassing grim, violent vision for DC’s traditionally brighter, more noble-minded heroes.
Even DC’s TV successes, with its Arrowverse array of series, have been modest, living in the dwindling broadcast realm of The CW and rarely garnering widespread critical attention or watercooler-level buzz—although the shows have been crucial in exposing some lower-tier super-players to a widespread audience and boosting their popularity.
The move to bring in Gunn comes at a critical, and likely appropriate, moment in his long, if briefly fractured, relationship with Marvel, where with the Guardians Of The Galaxy films, he turned a collection of D-list characters into beloved superstars, kicking open the door to the cosmic corners of the MCU. But Gunn has long signaled that he only had so much story he planned to tell with Star-Lord, Rocket, Groot and Co., and he hadn’t staked a claim on any additional real estate in the universe (one wishes he’d gotten to take a proper stab at Howard the Duck before his departure, though). So much of the rapidly growing MCU is already creatively spoken for, and directly under the cross-connected orchestration of Kevin Feige, that Gunn’s forthcoming, long-planned Guardians swan song with the third film seems an ideal moment for him to take the reigns of an even more challenging endeavor, and one he seems ideally suited for.
Gunn proved with The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker—which tapped an array of genuine Z-list supervillains for both deliriously funny and surprisingly poignant purposes and showed he could also find the right big-screen tone for established A-list characters like Harley Quinn and Silver Age curiosities like Starro the Conqueror—that along with having “cooler” Marvel Universe cred, he was a genuine DC fanboy with a deep appreciation and understanding of its characters. Growing up, Gunn was immersed in DC comics during its most adventurous and creatively bold era, the 1980s, when the company was simultaneously celebrating its long legacy, unifying its quirky universe of far-flung properties, and shedding its quaint image in favor of something more modern, urgent and continuity driven. The lessons of DC’s growth and change in that era are likely obvious to a creatively savvy filmmaker, and now executive, like Gunn, and are perfectly suited to this new era for DC Studios.
Time and again, Gunn’s shown that he inherently gets the essentials of what makes characters tick, and tick best, and while Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman may not be ideally suited for his own personal filmmaking aesthetic, he recognizes the unique, inherent qualities in them that will work best on screen. Though he’ll share an executive seat, Gunn is at heart a creative and not a suit, and—if allowed to by WB Discovery’s top leadership—seems ideally suited to target and, especially, support and nurture the right filmmaking talent to realize DC’s heroes on the screen.
That Safran, who was once Gunn’s manager, has long specialized in supporting and boosting the careers of creative talents, is another boon: these are execs who aren’t likely to smother filmmakers and showrunners in a blizzard of notes designed to make things more appealing to stockholders.
Indeed, on creative and social levels, Gunn’s one of the best-liked filmmakers within Hollywood, cultivating longstanding relationships in its various ranks well before having a smash hit with the first Guardians film. He’s proven to be a loyal, supportive friend and collaborator many times over, guaranteeing that the line is already forming across the industry to work with him on his most ambitious venture to date.
He’s also demonstrated a canny understanding of, and adept facility with, the media: along with deftly managing the attempt to “cancel” him over long-ago social media snafus, Gunn shrewdly communicates with mainstream and genre-centric press alike. He also geek-speaks fluently to a legion of online followers on social media: His ability to engage marks him as a potentially potent central figurehead/impresario—could he a new millennium’s Stan Lee?—for selling DC’s future fare to the mass audience. Here, he may outperform the MCU’s closer-to-the-vest Kevin Feige.
It’s a given that Gunn and Safran will devote plenty of attention to finding the right creative talent to shepherd DC’s biggest guns in their new big-screen incarnations: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman should land in good, visionary hands (consider, for example, the exciting prospects of Gunn helping add cosmic scope and Christopher Reeve-style charm to Henry Cavill’s return to the Superman role); Shazam, Black Adam and the Suicide Squad will likely find better-defined lanes in the bigger-picture universe; and even perceived/potentially “damaged” properties like Green Lantern, Flash, and the Justice League have strong shots at revival, rethinking, and redemption under new leadership. And Gunn’s already demonstrated a keen sense of synergy and cross-pollinating continuity across different platforms when spinning Peacemaker onto streaming TV out of the theatrical The Suicide Squad release.
It remains to be determined if Matt Reeve’s just-launched The Batman films, or distinctively out-of-DCEU continuity projects like Todd Phillips’ Joker sequel, will fall under their auspices, but Gunn and Safran may at least be able to help provide a better brand definition for how such projects fit alongside the main DCEU line.
But better yet, given Warner’s strip-mining of Gotham-set properties, Gunn’s eclectic tastes and deep well of fanboy knowledge promises to open the screen to a host of less-traditional DC projects that, whether they be longtime fan favorites or more obscure properties with terrific hooks that would make for exciting film and TV fare. His long-established love of horror could lead to big-screen fast lanes for characters like Etrigan the Demon and Deadman; he may be ready for better, grander cultivation of DC’s Vertigo line of characters like Swamp Thing, Constantine, and Fables, and fighting to assure future seasons of Neil Gaiman’s prestigious, critically hailed but expensive Sandman series. Gunn’s proven sense of quirky humor could allow characters like Booster Gold and Guy Gardner to shine, or properties ranging from Mark Russell’s satiric take on the Wonder Twins to the cult-beloved Silver Age parody group the Inferior Five to deconstruct territory now-familiar to fans of screen superheroes.
Gunn’s cosmic sensibility could set the stage, finally, for fresh interpretations of the New Gods, Adam Strange, and the Green Lantern Corps, while his overall taste may lead him to left-of-center creations ripe with screen potential, everything from Mike Grell’s Warlord to James Robinson’s Starman to Tom King’s Human Target to long-forgotten but intriguing one-offs like Camelot 3000. After over eight decades, DC offers a deep, deep toybox of varied properties, and Gunn possesses a uniquely attuned skill set that could compete with Marvel crowd-pleasing fare and, more importantly, add a much-needed diversity of storytelling styles and genres to Hollywood’s all-too-formulaic comics-to-screen output.
Entering a post-Adam West Hollywood era as a symbiotic entity after the comic book company was acquired by the film studio, Warner Bros. and DC’s first act was quite remarkable, if based largely on just two key films: 1978’s Superman and 1989’s Batman provided enduring—and wildly different—templates for how superheroes could truly soar on the big screen, and at the box office. Meanwhile, the Wonder Woman TV series demonstrated how the television format and an ideally cast actor could endear a character to generations of fans. Warner and DC’s lengthy second phase has been wildly uneven at best, yet produced a few examples of defining superhero cinema like Nolan’s films and fun, character-bolstering series like Arrow, The Flash, and Supergirl.
Now, with Gunn and Safran at the helm—established veterans with an understanding of the film, TV and comics industries AND its fandoms—Warner and DC seem ideally poised to make the most of their next evolution and take it to the next level. Here’s to hoping it’s up, up, and away, at last, from here.