Director James Gunn has spent the last few years going back and forth between DC and Marvel, enjoying a unique position in the world of blockbuster franchises that on Tuesday led him to the biggest day in his career.
Roughly two hours after Gunn proudly touted the trailer for his “Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special” from Marvel, Warner Bros. Discovery announced that the writer-director would go from Kevin Bacon (subject of the “Guardian”‘ special) to Krypton (Superman’s doomed home), joining Peter Safran, his producing partner on DC’s “The Suicide Squad,” as the co-chair/CEO of the newly renamed DC Studios.
As Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has been telling his fans for the opening of his DC movie “Black Adam”: The hierarchy has changed.
The move was a major statement by Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav following the exit of Walter Hamada this month, showing Hollywood and DC’s passionate fan base that he’s serious about revitalizing the DC onscreen universe that has mostly dwelled in the shadow of Disney’s Marvel hit factory.
All theatrical movies, TV series and animated shows involving the heroes of the DC Universe will be overseen by Safran and Gunn, providing them an enormous power base in blockbuster film. Agents and producers told TheWrap that the move not only changes the hierarchy of DC but could finally get the franchise to reach the potential expected of its pedigree.
There is, however, a lot of work to be done. ”It’s logically and objectively what makes the most sense,” a top agent told TheWrap. “Safran has been a trusted big film/DC producer for a long time. And Gunn can be the creative one.”
In Safran, DC gets a producer who has created hit films at multiple budget levels and has experience building a franchise and a cinematic universe alongside a creative mind like Gunn’s. At Warner’s New Line division, Safran worked closely with director James Wan to turn “The Conjuring” into a series that has grossed $2 billion worldwide from both direct sequels and spinoffs like “Annabelle” and “The Nun.” He also has produced several DC films, including “Shazam!” and “Aquaman” — both of which will get sequels next year.
Meanwhile, Gunn gives DC one of the most important creative minds in the Marvel Cinematic Universe outside of Marvel chief Kevin Feige. While Gunn didn’t have Feige’s job of binding all the different threads of the MCU into an overarching narrative — experience that the Warner Bros. Discovery CEO reportedly tried to find in his search but failed — Gunn has become known in Hollywood and among fans for using his extensive knowledge of comic book mythology to find the most obscure DC and Marvel heroes and make them memorable — notably in Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise and DC’s “The Suicide Squad.”
But the first order of business for the new chiefs will likely be meetings with the other big creative minds at DC working on sequels to their hit comic book films, according to a Warner insider. These include “Joker” director Todd Phillips and “The Batman” director Matt Reeves, who have produced two of DC’s biggest recent hits with a darker style that, while far different from Gunn’s, is rooted in the same auteur-driven approach to interpreting comic book characters.
There’s also the question of how Gunn and Safran’s approach will mesh with the vision of “Black Adam” star Dwayne Johnson, who publicly has been selling his own ideas for the DC Universe while promoting his new movie. The Safran-produced “Shazam!” had filmed a deleted scene teasing the arrival of Black Adam in a potential sequel, but Johnson and “Black Adam” producers Dany and Hiram Garcia asked the studio to move the antihero away from his comic book rival.
“Safran needs to win over all the other filmmakers,” the Warner insider said. “And Dwayne Johnson’s thinly veiled disdain for ‘Shazam’ means he probably isn’t loving the idea that his boss is now the guy that produces ‘Shazam.’ Safran is pretty diplomatic, so I think he will pull it off but it won’t be easy.”
Another complication is Gunn’s remaining work on Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” which is currently in postproduction ahead of a release this May. While Safran, who’s already on the Warner lot, will be able to hit the ground running when he officially starts in his new duties on Nov. 1, Gunn has several more months of editing and effects work to complete this winter, followed by press tours in the spring.
And then there’s the question of how Gunn and Safran’s DC, in whatever form it takes, fits into the current finance-driven strategy that Warner Bros. Discovery has adopted since completing its $43 billion merger last spring. On Monday, WBD reported that it would write down up to $2.5 billion worth of film and TV programming, including the canceled $90 million HBO Max “Batgirl” movie, in an effort to dramatically cut costs.
At the time “Batgirl” was scuttled, studio insiders said that Zaslav envisioned DC films as big-screen blockbusters of the highest order rather than streaming films, so it’s still possible that Warner will spare no expense when it comes to making films with Batman and Superman.
But if the company wants to put a limit on production budgets for a lesser known hero, Safran knows how to deliver. 2019’s “Shazam!” was a financial and critical success while being produced on a reported $100 million budget, half of what “Black Adam” and “The Batman” cost. This could give DC the flexibility it needs to remain profitable as it takes risks on more obscure characters the way Gunn did with the likes of Polka Dot Man and Peacemaker in 2021’s “The Suicide Squad.”
Given the number of DC projects already in production and active development, it will be at least a year, maybe two, before we begin to see how Gunn and Safran leave their mark. Gunn will have all of 2023 to mine the depths of the DC canon for characters and stories to adapt and for Safran to find writers and directors to work on them while films from the previous regime get rolled out, starting with “Shazam: Fury of the Gods” in March, followed by “The Flash” in June, “Blue Beetle” in August and “Aquaman 2” at Christmas 2023.