At last, the DC Universe has found a hero. James Gunn, the writer and director of modern superhero hits like Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, DC’s The Suicide Squad, and spin-off HBO Max series Peacemaker has ascended to the top of the DC universe.
The reveal broke Tuesday from The Hollywood Reporter, which confirmed the end of DC Films (overseen by Walter Hamada until recently) and a neater consolidation of all of DC media going forward. While Gunn will oversee the creative vision of the newly-established DC Studios, recurring producing partner Peter Safran joins him as co-chair to manage the business and production end.
This is arguably the best step in development for DC in a very long time and a move that Warner (now merged with Discovery) should have taken years ago. While DC’s films have been more director-driven than those from rival Marvel Studios and boasts its own mega-hits like 2017’s Wonder Woman and 2018’s Aquaman, the franchise is visibly outmatched by the sheer expansiveness and cultural cache of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. No matter what DC does, it lives under the towering shadow of Marvel.
The difference between the MCU and the DC Extended Universe is, and always has been, Kevin Feige. A rare breed of executive who loves movies and comic books in equal measure, Feige has long been a major part of the equation that’s allowed Marvel to assert dominance through its shared universe efforts. It’s no surprise to hear from Marvel’s directors how involved Feige is in the creative process in ways most studio executives are not. He has a background and learned knowledge, something few in the upper echelons of Hollywood can honestly claim.
DC has always lacked a Feige, and it wasn’t until recently that the company — through new CEO David Zaslav — openly acknowledged it. In the beginning of DC’s cinematic universe efforts, Zack Snyder was positioned to be a Feige-type figurehead. the Man of Steel and Batman v Superman director once had an “inordinate amount of influence” over DC in the early going, according to THR. But Snyder is primarily an artist. After his exit, DC operated well enough but never to the same degree as Marvel.
James Gunn is as close to a Feige figure as you can get. He has been open about his genuine interest in comic books, imbuing in his superhero movies his own personal attachments. (It was Gunn’s idea to use Starro in The Suicide Squad, based on the fact Gunn was fearful of the villain as a child.)
But the head of a studio like Marvel and DC should have both an artistic eye and a business brain. So it’s no surprise DC didn’t hire one person but two to lead the new DC Studios. While Gunn will engage with directors, writers, and talent over plots and story beats, Safran can manage the less enticing side of the biz in doing what he’s already been doing for Warner as producer of genre hits like The Conjuring, Annabelle, Aquaman, and Shazam.
Regardless of one’s feelings towards Gunn and his talents as a filmmaker, there’s no denying he’s capably weaponized his punk Troma heritage into the basis for blockbuster success. (That same bleak sense of humor got him into trouble in 2018, but it was hardly enough to keep him out of directing forever.) It’s unlikely Gunn will force all DC movies from now on to have his imprints. Whatever becomes of Man of Steel 2, it probably won’t look or feel like another James Gunn movie. Neither would a sequel to Black Adam, which hovers closer to the overpowering orbit of Dwayne Johnson. Other future DC movies like Shazam! Fury of the Gods and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom are also so deep in post-production that it’s unlikely Gunn’s role will lead to any costly, last-minute changes.
While Feige hasn’t directed any movies of his own to indicate any artistic signatures, it’s clear the job isn’t about prioritizing any one artist’s expression but reinforcing the identity of a brand. That might be bad for cinema but it’s good for business.
It would be incorrect to imply that Warner Bros. and DC should simply do everything that Disney-owned Marvel does. If anything, DC already isn’t. Gunn is reportedly not involved in all of DC’s future projects, such as Todd Phillips’ sequel to his 2019 awards-winner Joker, titled Joker: Folie à Deux, or Matt Reeves’ budding universe centered on his hit The Batman. It remains to be determined if other in-development projects, like the J.J. Abrams/Ta-Nehisi Coates “Black Superman” project, will also fall under Gunn’s supervision.
But when something works, it works. Now, it’s only up to those in charge of DC to make sure it isn’t anything like Marvel can offer. Back in the day, Stan Lee used to slyly refer to DC as the “Distinguished Competition.” We’ll soon see if DC can live up to that reputation.