James Gunn Is in Charge of the DC Universe Now—As He Should Be

Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

In the battle of DC and Marvel movie universes, there’s long been a clear victor: Marvel. Marvel, for one, has established a consistent cinematic universe (its own term)—one that boasts humor, action set pieces, and a comic book-appropriate sense of fun. DC, on the other hand? It had Zack Snyder, a director allergic to every color of the rainbow and then some.

But this week, DC made the best move it's ever made: handing the keys to James Gunn. The Guardians of the Galaxy director proved his comedy-action bonafides under House Marvel, and when it briefly fired him over some bad old tweets (trés classique), DC smartly swooped in. The Suicide Squad was an unrelated redux of 2016’s awful Suicide Squad, and it was not only delightfully gross, hilarious, engrossing watch, but it did what DC has needed to do this whole time. It created a world of multi-dimensional characters worth investing in.

Literally the night before the news broke that James Gunn would join Aquaman producer Peter Safran as the new head of DC Films, I was talking about how he deserves exactly that job. I still think about the ballsy opening of The Suicide Squad, after all; not even 10 minutes in, Pete Davidson’s face gets blown off. You think that his character, Blackguard, is going to be one of the leads of the film, being that he’s Pete Davidson and all. Instead, Gunn disposes of him in a hilariously gruesome, totally shocking way. It’s gross. It’s vicious. It’s exactly what we need more of in action movies today. (Sorry, Pete.)

Between The Suicide Squad and its HBO Max spinoff Peacemaker—easily one the best shows of 2022—Gunn has already done a better job at getting me to care about DC in one year than any of his predecessors could in the last 10 years.

‘Peacemaker’ Is a Funnier, Leaner and Meaner ‘Suicide Squad’

DC has had some non-Gunn wins here and there, like the $1 billion-grossing Aquaman and Patty Jenkins’ well-received Wonder Woman. And it’s not like Snyder’s films didn’t print money either; for as maligned as Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and the controversial OG cut of Justice League were, people saw them. People didn’t like ’em, but they saw ’em.

But for years, DC’s wan storytelling and poorly connected heroes failed to win over the mainstream—flopping in all of the areas where Marvel excelled. It’s telling that the most successful DC movies of late, critically speaking, are the ones that subvert or lie outside of its expanded universe. Joker won two Oscars! Birds of Prey was a delightfully female-focused Harley Quinn vehicle! The Batman made the 30-year-old Nirvana track “Something in the Way” extremely popular again! None of them have anything to do with the Snyderverse, and thank goodness for that.

Bringing someone in with Marvel experience is not just smart, but also crucial. Your enemy’s enemy is your friend, right? After Marvel dumped James Gunn, it sowed seeds of discord in the MCU fanbase. Guardians of the Galaxy was beloved for blending a colorful visual and comedic style with a fun, previously unknown set of heroes. Yeah, the sequel was pretty bad, but unlike other bad Marvel movies, Vol. 2 shared its predecessor’s silly spirit, making it fun if forgettable. And no one who didn’t live and breathe Marvel comics knew who sentient super-tree Groot was before 2014, and thanks to Gunn, every little kid now has a Groot doll and backpack.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Marvel Studios</div>
Marvel Studios

For Marvel to kick Gunn to the curb while in pre-production for Vol. 3 for tweeting dodgy jokes about pedophilia several years back was an unpopular decision. It took fans rallying for Gunn’s reinstatement, alongside his cast’s pledge not to work with anyone else on the next Guardians movie, for the studio to bring him back in. So things worked out in the end, but it wasn’t a great look.

Gunn is the rare auteur working in the superhero genre who has earned plaudits for his style. Zack Snyder’s polarizing, dimly lit, slow-motion-loving, mid-2000s-style edginess is an acquired taste. Gunn’s camp-inflected comedy, drawn on a career making gross-out horror B-movies prior to his Marvel work, is a more palatable aesthetic. It’s why The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker work so well: Their brutal, bloody gore is tempered by a wink at how ridiculous it all is. Their humor is not cloying or forced, but character-based and well-suited to the over-the-top tone.

Peacemaker (John Cena) himself is the perfect embodiment of this aesthetic, a muscley, no-holds-barred anti-hero with a penchant for sex jokes, hair metal, and two brain cells. Few directors could make a character like him likable; just look at Black Adam, DC’s latest entry into its main cinematic storyline. That movie was a complete misfire, leaning on its grim-dark vibe and tenuous connection to better-known DC heroes. But Gunn’s Peacemaker is as empathetic as he is super-strong (and silly). Buoyed by a great, diverse cast of weirdos, legitimately thrilling action, and a story begging for a comic book adaptation, Peacemaker is one of the most fun superhero projects I’ve seen in years.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Warner Bros. Pictures</div>
Warner Bros. Pictures

As DC trudges forward with projects in the works well-before Gunn takes over on Nov. 1, questions remain as to when and how his imprint will appear. Black Adam ends with—spoiler alert!—a tease for Superman’s return. Superman actor Henry Cavill has since confirmed that a new Superman movie is in the works. But Snyder isn’t attached to that one, freeing up an opportunity for Gunn and co. to revamp the DC Universe’s current take on Superman. Out with the gritty, woe-is-me Clark Kent. In with … a man who wears a cape and tights, and can have a little sense of humor about how wacky that is.

Giving Gunn full control over DC’s future is an incredibly smart move for DC, especially as Warner Bros. Discovery faces heat from superhero fans for trashing a bunch of projects. Batgirl’s cancellation in August won the studio no fans, alongside other streaming-exclusive superhero shows and movies. The DC world needs a reset, creatively and commercially. Gunn’s got a vision that he’s already proven out—one that fans have shown up for time and again. It’s time to give DC lovers something to look forward to again, and James Gunn is the best possible person to provide that.

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