James Gunn and Peter Safran Unveil Vision for the New DCU: Locked Scripts, a Unified Storyline and Wiggle Room

The co-CEOs laid out how they plan to set up their DCU to succeed

peter gunn james safran dc
James Gunn and Peter Safran (Getty Images)

The future of the DC Universe, as it is now known, has been revealed.

Peter Safran and James Gunn, the co-CEOs and chairmen of the newly formed DC Studios, unveiled their grand vision for the first batch of television series and movies for TheWrap and a small group of reporters on Monday. And it’s a doozy, with brand new animated series, HBO Max events and, of course, big movies, coming in the very near future.

This is a very different outlook for the DC properties, which up until Safran and Gunn’s appointment have been in complete disarray, with competing versions of the same characters appearing on television and in movies and a singular, interconnected vision forfeited for a reckless grab-bag of conflicting storylines with wildly varying tones and styles.

And yes, DC has announced similar plans a few times before. Remember when they said we’d be getting a “Cyborg” movie alongside Joss Whedon’s “Batgirl” and whatever “Green Lantern Corps” was supposed to be?

This time around, the company has enlisted a couple of feisty creatives in Safran and Gunn, executives who seem very much in control of their vision for the properties and talented enough to see them though. But how is their vision different from what came before? What’s their recipe for success?

Here’s the nitty gritty straight from Gunn and Safran on what to expect from the new DCU.

Fun, Inclusive Stories That Make People Happy

Gunn started the presentation with a long, deeply personal story about how as a child he didn’t feel a connection with his parents. After seeing a professional, it was suggested that Gunn’s parents show interest in what he was into – primarily reading comic books. One weekend his dad took him to Creation Comic-Con in Chicago, a weekend Gunn still says is the “best weekend I’ve ever had in my life.” He wants to replicate that connection he had with his father (and, later, with other people in his life) with the unified DC Universe that he and Safran are mapping out with DC Studios.

“I want the world to be a better place than it is and I wish that I was a scientist or that I could go into politics. And I can’t do any of those things,” Gunn said. “The best thing I can do is to create stories about love and acceptance and everybody, no matter how diverse, being a part of one group.”

Now, at least initially, this might not sound like a revolutionary concept (these are based on comic books, after all). But considering the dark and dour tone established by Zack Snyder’s movies and disseminated across the rest of what was once known as the DC Extended Universe, it is different. And the fact that Gunn chose to lead with this sentiment, mere moments into his presentation for press, tells you how important it is to him.

A Unified Vision

Safran touted that the DC Universe will be “centralized under one creative vision” – namely that of himself and Gunn. He also said that they were “medium agnostic” and since DC Studios encompasses film, television, animation and video games, these characters and storylines could appear in a number of forms. “If we wanted to eight hours to tell it as a series, great, but if it fell into two hour movie, also great,” Safran said.

Gunn was much more pointed, especially when it comes to analyzing the DC adaptations of the past. “The history of DC is pretty messed up. It was f–ked up. There was the Arrowverse, there was the DCEU, which then split into the Joss Whedon ‘Justice League’ at one point and the Zack Snyder version,” Gunn began. And he didn’t spare himself, either, saying that he came along with “The Suicide Squad” which led to the “Peacemaker” series and the introduction of the off-the-wall character of Batmite. (Gunn also said that Warner Bros. “were just giving away IP like they were party favors to any creators smiled at them.” Ouch.)

Under this new regime, Gunn and Safran are making a promise: “Everything from our first project forward is going to be unified.” And they intend to keep that promise.

Finished Screenplays

Another commitment Gunn is making: to only go into production on movies with fully finished screenplays.

“This is a Hollywood thing, this isn’t only a superhero movie thing,” Gunn said. “But people have become so beholden to getting movies made no matter what. And we are not going to be making movies before the screenplay is finished. And if that means our plan has to shift a little bit, well, it’s going to happen, we know it’s going to happen. But we’re not going to be making movies and putting hundreds of millions dollars into a film where a screenplay is only two thirds of the way done and we have to finish it while we’re making the movie. I’ve seen it happen again and again. And it’s a mess. And I think it’s the primary reason for the deterioration and quality of films today, versus 20, 30 years ago.”

Gunn went on to say that “The Suicide Squad” didn’t have any reshoots and the latest “Guardians of the Galaxy” film for Marvel Studios only needed a handful of pick-ups, and that he isn’t interested in making a movie for hundreds of millions of dollars and spending even more on reshoots. Still, he will be taking something from Marvel Studios – the idea that the movie isn’t done until the very last second. Gunn just wants to do it cheaper and more efficiently.

Casting for Animation and Live-Action

Part of the cross-platform consistency Gunn and Safran are trying to cultivate includes casting. It’s their idea that characters and storylines will shift from animated series to live-action and back again. And one performer will guide that character on their journey.

Gunn cited “Creature Commandos,” an upcoming animated series for HBO Max that Gunn has written and will feature characters like Weasel and Rick Flagg, Sr., who connect to his version of “The Suicide Squad.”

“These characters will then play out in other stories as themselves in live-action. Most of the people that we’re casting, we’re casting them so they can play them both in [animated] and in live-action,” Gunn said. (Usually a character is cast in live-action and then, for animated series, either a soundalike is hired or an actor is cajoled and begged to reprise the role, oftentimes gumming up already complicated contracts. This leads to the relative inconsistency on something like Marvel Studios’ “What If …?” where different performers appear alongside the actual actors from the films.)

Another thing they are looking to do is erase the confusion that has been built up over the years by having characters played by different characters in the live-action series and movies. There has been a long-running “Flash” TV series and there’s a “Flash” movie opening in theaters this summer. That’s a lot. This new approach is simple: the characters on TV and in movies will be played by the same actor, something Gunn employed on “Peacemaker” and will extend in the upcoming “Waller,” where Viola Davis will play the character she has played in several DC projects.

Allowing for Wiggle Room

One of the more refreshing aspects of Gunn and Safran’s plan is that they full acknowledge that things can shift and slide, with things appearing or disappearing from their calendar. Beyond Gunn’s commitment to getting the scripts right prior to production (something that he knows will undoubtedly cause hiccups somewhere along the line), he was refreshingly honest about making sure the quality is there and not just rushing something to meet a release date or streaming obligation.

“Some of the stuff might take a little bit longer and then other things might come in there along with that,” Gunn said at one point.

The current plan is for two big, event movies a year and two series for HBO Max. But they are totally willing to listen to feedback and gauge reaction. The “Peacemaker” show, which became one of the best streaming shows, was born because Gunn liked John Cena’s performance in “The Suicide Squad.” Nobody was particularly asking for a spinoff. But Gunn saw the opportunity and took it. And that freedom will continue under this new regime.

Separate But Interconnected

Comparisons to Marvel Studios — where Gunn has made three “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies, a Christmas special for Disney+, a pair of rides for Walt Disney World and Disneyland, and who was being courted to run the entire “cosmic” side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — were inevitable, especially given what Gunn and Safran are attempting to accomplish. And there was one aspect that Gunn was more than happy aligning with his former home – the fact that the movies and streaming series can be enjoyed on their own and in the context of the larger, overarching storyline.  

“It is very important to Kevin [Feige], as it is to me, that movies and TV shows are essentially standalone,” Gunn said. “They don’t only exist in addition to something else. We need the movie to make sense, watching it by itsetlf. And if somebody comes in and sees ‘Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3,’ they’ll understand basically what was going on whether or not they’d ever seen another Marvel movie before. That’s a tradition that we are definitely keeping from Marvel.”

There you go. The DC Universe can be enjoyed alone. Or together. Your choice really.

Assembling a Writers’ Room

There weren’t many details Safran and Gunn could share about who will be starring in or making these movies and television series, although, given Gunn’s emphasis on the screenplays, there has been a writers room that has been assembled.

“We had basic ideas for what the story could be. That were very basic. And then I grabbed a group of writers that I really respected who have all done marvelous work. We sat down in a room for a few days and like any writers room, we started to bash out what the basic overall plan could be,” Gunn said. “Not so much that it ties your wrist, but enough that we know what the basic story is, where we’re going, and it’s something that we’ll continue to do.”

This, too, recalls Marvel Studios’ technique, at least in the early years, of corralling a bunch of writers to a retreat to map out the various arcs of the movies. And after a little cajoling, Gunn and Safran revealed who was in their writers room – Drew Goddard (“The Cabin in the Woods”), Jeremy Slater (“Moon Knight”), Christina Hodson (“Birds of Prey”), Christal Henry (“Watchmen”) and acclaimed comics writer Tom King. Not too shabby.