The DC Universe cannot be fixed in a day. They’re staring down Marvel’s intercontinental trillion-dollar blockbuster machine—with a nexus of power consolidated under the eternal stewardship of Disney, a corporate broker so rich with influence it can make She-Hulk a household name and flagrantly reskin California Adventure’s esteemed Tower of Terror into some sacrilegious Guardians of the Galaxy ride.
That’s daunting enough, but Warner Brothers’ stewardship over the IP has also made countless unforced errors as they managed what is, and always will be, the most iconic cast of superheroes on the planet. Some of those mistakes are buried in the past—like the 2011 Ryan Reynolds Green Lantern film, or Zack Snyder’s weirdly spartan, uncanny take on Superman—while others will continue to dog them in the future. (The forthcoming Flash debut, headlined by noted Hawaiian felon Ezra Miller, will surely unleash some of the worst days any of us have had online.)
All of this is to say that the DC creative team has earned absolutely zero credibility in any of the promises it can make to those of us who have been waiting, patiently, for a filmic superhero canon commensurate with the Marvel-Russo pedigree. I am too old to be innervated by heedless hype; we’ve all been hurt too many times before. That said, when I watched James Gunn, the newly anointed chairman of DC, calmly elaborate on his plans for the franchise in a video released this week, I couldn’t help but buy what he was selling.
James Gunn did not unveil the future of DC while haloed by floodlights at a Comic-Con keynote. He did not adapt a horrifically twee YouTuber voice, or offer any Black Adam-sized ultimatums about the Balance of Power. Instead, he stood in front of a camera in his office and talked about some of the movies he wanted to make.
Serving as a soft-launch for the new incarnation of the DC Universe will be 2025’s Superman: Legacy, which will be about a young Clark Kent hanging out with Lois Lane, while evoking the bright, blue-sky vibes of Grant Morrison’s iconic All-Star Superman, which honestly might be the greatest superhero story ever told in comics. That was a good start. Then Gunn mentioned that there’s going to be a Green Lantern series on HBO Max, and a film involving The Authority, an esoteric team that dates back to DC’s old ’90s Wildstorm imprint.
Under previous regimes, these projects would’ve exclusively been announced by an expensive, Easter egg-laden, and ridiculously overheated teaser trailer. But at last, DC has been humbled, and that’s why Gunn is simply telling us what the plans are. With no bullshit. Hallelujah.
Throughout the video, Gunn speaks about both box office megatons (we’re getting a Batman and Robin movie!) and the sort of uber-niche fetish material that only the most unrepentant comics fans care about. (God, I can’t wait to see who they cast as Booster Gold.)
He even goes out of his way to clarify one of the vexing questions that has dogged the DC brand throughout this confusing decade; namely, what, exactly, counts as a DC movie? We’ve got our answer. Matt Reeves’ Batman films and Todd Phillips’ Joker films (and, yes, Teen Titans Go!) have all been grouped under a “DC Elseworlds” imprint. Everything else serves the grander DC cosmology. I think we can set our anxieties aside about the carnivorous franchise-ification of all pop-media brands and admit that if you must do it this way, it’s important to know what falls under the umbrella. No, that isn’t Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker cackling to himself in Robert Pattinson’s Arkham Asylum. I can sleep easy for the first time in months.
Again, there was no pomp or circumstance throughout the announcements. Gunn’s tact was dulcet, soft, and almost ASMR-like. He seems to understand more than anyone that DC is the underdog in this fight, and if they’re going to make inroads back into the heart of the culture, it is going to be a slow boil. I hope he keeps it up as we learn more about the forthcoming reboot.
Yes, I’m sure Warner Bros. will demand the Hall H spectacle when it officially announces that Ryan Gosling is the new Superman. (Let me dream.) But that isn’t going to move me nearly as much as James Gunn in a cardigan, talking about how much he loves the Alan Moore Swamp Thing books. The DC Universe’s biggest problem was overpromising and underperforming; it desperately needs a sedate presenter. Gunn is the man for the job.
I even enjoyed the way Gunn addressed the minor Zachary Levi controversy—when the actor (and unabashed Jordan Peterson fan) made some world-historic, deep-QAnon comments about Pfizer. Levi is not wrong that we shouldn’t live in a world where private corporations stand to make billions of dollars off a global pandemic. His thoughts about vaccine efficacy are another story.
Here’s Gunn, in an interview about Levi’s comments on the Warner Bros lot: “Just real simply: Actors and filmmakers that I work with are going to say things that I agree with and things that I don’t agree with. And that’s going to happen. I don’t have a list of things that somebody should say because of what I think. And you know, I can’t be changing my plans all the time because an actor says something that I don’t agree with.”
It’s a quote that essentially translates to, “Actors occasionally saying something mind-numbingly dumb is a cost of doing business, and I’m unable to recast Catwoman or whoever every time it happens.” He is absolutely correct in that ascertainment. If James Gunn’s DC allows us to disentangle any sort of moral superiority from those who play superheroes on screen, then it’ll be a boon for the society writ large.
Still, a tough road looms on the horizon. The next Shazam movie, starring the aforementioned conspiratorialist Zachary Levi, hits theaters in March. Then we trek through the Flash debacle, a stupefyingly anonymous Blue Beetle joint, and a sequel to the first Aquaman film—which has enjoyed a weird cult appreciation based solely on how good the water animations were, and how it felt like your brain was actively getting smaller while watching it. It’s going to be bleak for a while, but at long last, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Still, this is DC. Even with Gunn at the helm, there’s always a chance that the light is actually an oncoming train.