When James Gunn was in exile from Marvel, his angle on superheroes got dark.
In 2019, the writer-director produced Brightburn, a film that reinterprets the origin story of Superman — an alien orphan adopted by midwestern parents — into a demonic horror a la The Omen. The film was directed by David Yarovesky and written by members of Gunn’s family (Mark and Brian Gunn), but his signature touches of grindhouse gore and black humor are felt throughout the picture.
Ten years earlier, Gunn wrote and directed his own superhero film, the dark comedy Super starring Rainn Wilson. The story of a cook with no superpowers who fashions himself into the “Crimson Bolt” to save his wife, Super reads like Gunn’s treatise on “realistic” superheroes.
But while Super has an undercurrent of tenderness and sentimentality, Brightburn occupies a more sinister end of the spectrum. The movie is perpetually horrified by its title “superhero,” an antisocial preteen whose alien powers turn him from unlikable brat to unstoppable monster. Nearly all superhero media derives from Superman, and Brightburn reads like Gunn spray-painting a pentagram over old love letters during a bitter breakup.
The movie was in post-production during a trying chapter in Gunn’s professional career. He was fired by Marvel after a far-right campaign led by Mike Cernovich unearthed old offensive tweets. (Gunn was rehired by Disney in March 2019.) While Gunn insisted in interviews that Brightburn wasn’t fueled by resentment, the history of superhero media is littered with ousted talents who make their bones elsewhere.
Gunn knows the inner workings of superheroes better than most. Like a mad scientist, he has the expertise and deranged sensibilities to reimagine them to his own making. It’s what makes Gunn an exciting hire for the newly-formed DC Studios. But it also makes the prospects of a new Superman movie all the more curious.
Man of Steel 2 could be the first new movie greenlit by James Gunn. What will it look like under his DC Studios era? Will it be Brightburn with a bigger budget? Maybe not.
Ever since the underwhelming release of Justice League in 2017, DC’s stability as a shared universe has been in jeopardy. For years Cavill was seemingly left out of all future plans as Warner Bros. scrambled behind the scenes to reboot Superman once more. Then came the recent Black Adam, with its mid-credits scene that (spoilers!) features Cavill as Superman confronting Black Adam (Dwayne Johnson). It was the first time Cavill officially suited up as Superman in five years, and it seems he’s in it for the long haul.
In a recent live recording of the podcast Happy Sad Confused, Cavill said the Last Son of Krypton will be seen in a new light that stands in stark contrast to his previous moodier interpretations shaped by director Zack Snyder.
“There is such a bright future ahead for the character,” Cavill told host Josh Horowitz. “I’m so excited to tell a story with an enormously joyful Superman.”
As of this writing, there are no writers or directors attached to what will effectively be Man of Steel 2. The only individuals confirmed are Henry Cavill... and James Gunn, as producer and co-chair of DC Studios. This means speculation is wide open for what the next Superman movie will look like, and will likely be determined by other factors like DC’s big picture plans and what will become of the separate J.J. Abrams-produced “Black Superman” project.
It’s doubtful Gunn will let his unusual tastes dictate the direction of Man of Steel 2. Besides the fact that his new role is less about directing movies than it is directing traffic, Gunn has demonstrated a keen understanding of superhero stories and the way characters inherently dictate specific tones. His Star-Lord is nothing like Peacemaker, and his Gamora is nothing like his Harley Quinn. But Gunn’s takes on both Guardians the Galaxy and Suicide Squad are undeniably joyful in a way most other recent DC movies are not.
As a director, James Gunn has proved to possess a deep understanding of the action characters Marvel and DC let him play with. It’s not unreasonable to trust that he at least knows the basics of Superman enough to not make a monster out of him.
Gunn’s position over the DC Universe indicates that Superman’s future is in good hands. While Zack Snyder fans may mourn the days when Superman’s eyes glowed red in a torrential downpour, Gunn will at least let some sunlight in to make that classic red and blue suit all the more vivid.