The man who turned underdog Marvel Studios’ characters into an unlikely smash is now taking over the biggest underdog of all in the superhero film business: Marvel’s archrival, DC Studios.
For over a decade now, Marvel has ruled the roost when it comes to capes on screen, while DC, home of the original superheroes Batman and Superman, has trailed behind in box office and critical reception. Much of Marvel’s success is attributed to the super-producer who shapes the so-called cinematic universe, Kevin Feige, and DC is turning to one of Feige’s protégés.
James Gunn gained worldwide recognition after helming the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s highly successful Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy, a space opera featuring characters obscure even to many comic fans. That series is now drawing to a close, with the final installment set to hit theaters next May, but not before Feige fired Gunn over a series of inappropriate tweets before rehiring him after a cast uproar.
Gunn will become co-chair and co-CEO of DC Studios, according to a Tuesday press release from parent company Warner Bros., alongside film producer and long-time Warner Bros contributor Peter Safran. They will lead the studio’s film, television, and animation departments according to the company’s statement.
Their appointments will be effective Nov. 1, and the pair will be tasked to “spearhead the development and execution of a long-term plan for the many properties licensed from DC Comics.”
It’s been a remarkable turnaround for Gunn, after Feige and Marvel parent Disney removed him from his role as director of the third Guardians movie in 2018, after decade-old controversial and offensive tweets that seemed to trivialize rape and pedophilia were resurfaced online by Mike Cernovich, a right-wing conspiracy theorist who once criticized Hollywood as being “rotten to the core.”
Warner Bros’ decision to give creative control of their DC properties to Gunn in spite of past controversies comes as the company attempts to engineer a complete rehaul of its most famous brand, which, despite the pedigree of its characters, has failed to match the commercial and critical heights set by its main competitor at Marvel.
Gunn’s Marvel fame and his similar success with DC’s The Suicide Squad last year has made him a household name in the comic book movie industry, Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at media analytics firm Comscore, told Fortune. And that reputation may give Warner Bros. the consistency it needs to tap into its treasure trove of characters and storylines.
“[DC] has done a brilliant job in terms of getting great filmmakers and great talent in the mix, but there hasn’t been that consistency. So I think having a creative vision that is forward-thinking and consistent can get the DC brand on a good trajectory,” Dergarabedian said.
“One way to shake things up is to plug in someone who really creatively knows what audiences want,” he added.
Despite boasting the rights to a cache of beloved and potentially lucrative IPs—including Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Joker—DC and Warner Bros. have so far failed to truly capitalize on them.
The DC Extended Universe—modeled to emulate the success of the rival Marvel Cinematic Universe, the most popular movie franchise of all time—has underperformed by most metrics since launching in 2013. Disappointing box office receipts in spite of huge budgets, widespread critical disapproval, a number of controversies and sexual abuse allegations levied against a star actor, and a wave of cancelled or unfinished projects mean that the fictional universe has never felt as consistent and stable as that of its rival. The recent reception of Black Adam, starring Dwayne Johnson in his widely anticipated first superhero role, was no exception.
“The DC world offers so many amazing creative opportunities, and they really need to exploit those opportunities, I think, in a more profound way,” Dergarabedian said.
It doesn’t help that the most well-received and commercially successful movies based on DC Comics in recent years, 2019’s Joker and 2022’s The Batman, were not even under the purview of the DC Extended Universe.
With Gunn at the helm, DC and Warner Bros. are hoping to bring more solidity to the franchise, and tap into its unrealized creative promise, Dergarabedian says.
“It’s sort of hitting the reset,” he said. “No one’s ever going to give up on DC. They offer some of the greatest characters, the potential for some of the most amazing storylines in film. So this is about reconfiguring and reassessing and then hitting the reset.”
Gunn’s controversial history was certainly a consideration at Warner Bros. before his hiring, Dergarabedian said, although the promise of a more consistent and coherent long-term vision for the studio may have been the priority.
“I think they just want to move forward and put that in the rear view,” he said. “Certainly they looked at that and made the calculus that it’s worth moving forward with James Gunn, because of what he brings to the table.”
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