At the end of last year, it was announced that James Gunn would be taking the reigns as co-CEO of the newly formed DC Studios. After creating one of the most beloved trilogies in the MCU in Guardians of the Galaxy and a handful of DC’s best film adaptations, Gunn had built up more goodwill in the fan community than just about any director working in the genre. Throughout the Guardians franchise, Gunn honed his uncanny talent to create tonally diverse narratives, rich character dynamics, and unique visual aesthetics. Gunn’s strong suit has always been marrying humor with tragedy without the hamfisted clunkiness that so often plagues comic book films – particularly DC’s recent output.
DC and Warner Bros first put Gunn’s skillset to use in 2021’s The Suicide Squad and 2022’s Peacemaker series on Max. While these projects shared characteristics with Gunn’s previous MCU offerings, DC made the savvy decision to allow Gunn R-ratings for both. The longer studio leash afforded to Gunn paved the way for a more graphic, adult tone, standing in stark contrast against the highly sanitized and often stale atmosphere of the MCU. A late pandemic release prevented The Suicide Squad from being a smash hit at the box office, but both projects still received adoring praise from fans and critics alike.
On paper, this pairing makes perfect sense. DC has a diverse back catalog of instantly-recognizable characters, and Gunn has the left-field sensibilities and steady directorial hand. But in practice, there might be some trouble in paradise. The phrase “superhero fatigue” has been thrown around entertainment media and film forums for over a decade. Even before Marvel Studios’ 2012 global blockbuster The Avengers, comic book film doomsayers were predicting the genre’s demise. Admittedly, these prophecies have more often resembled the boy who cried wolf than Nostradamus, but in the post-Endgame era, they’re starting to hold water.
Will Gunn be able to create a thriving cinematic universe around a genre that audiences seem to be less and less interested in? How will the turbulent transition of power from Zack Synder to Gunn affect the future of the fledgling DCU? Only time will tell, but we can make a few educated assumptions.
Trouble passing the baton
So far, every DC project Gunn has had a hand in could be considered a success. But that doesn’t mean the transition from DC’s Snyder-verse yesteryear to Gunn’s new vision has been without its hitches. Despite its management changes, DC still had a few massively expensive holdovers from the Snyder era left in the barrel. Last year’s Dwayne Johnson-led Black Adam lost a significant chunk of change at the multiplexes, and earlier this year, the multiverse mega-movie The Flash didn’t fare any better. Even the sequel to 2019’s respectably successful Shazam! flopped this year for DC.
And considering the muddled continuity issues currently plaguing DC’s film adaptations, it’s no mystery why this might be happening. Nowadays, audiences expect their superhero films to possess some level of connectivity. Black Adam and The Flash were delineated as separate entities existing outside of Gunn’s new continuity, with Black Adam going so far as to feature a post-credit scene with Henry Cavill’s Superman – who has since parted ways with the role. Hiring Gunn as DC Studios’ new Kevin Feige-like puppeteer in 2022 only to release a slew of unconnected content the following year has undoubtedly caused a bit of confusion amongst fans. It’s been tricky for DC super-fans to parse this transitionary period, let alone general audiences who aren’t keyed in to back-channel studio updates.
It seems DC Studios and Gunn have taken note of these concerns and decided on a new strategy to coincide with their latest film, Blue Beetle. Although Gunn didn’t explicitly plan for Blue Beetle to be involved with his new cinematic universe, he and the studio have stated that the character will appear in future DCU outings. It’s too early to tell how Blue Beetle will fare at the box office, but early indicators seem to point towards a more promising return for the studio.
Still, it’s hard to envision the future for Gunn at DC Studios as anything but an uphill climb. After all, building a profitable and artistically viable cinematic universe has proven near-impossible for almost every studio that has attempted it. Even his former employers at Marvel Studios, the forebearers of the very concept, have been having trouble keeping their enterprise from toppling over.
A systemic problem
These post-pandemic box office blunders and critical disasters haven’t been unique to DC and Warner Bros. Even superhero outings from Marvel Studios and Disney have been garnering diminishing returns as of late. Discounting 2021’s Loki and WandaVision, almost every entry in the MCU’s growing list of streaming series has been met with disappointment, and in some cases, even ridicule from fans and critics. MCU films have fared better, but only marginally so. Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3 was an undeniable success, but it still failed to top the earnings from its 2017 predecessor. Films like Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania and The Eternals marked a milestone in mediocrity for the MCU, as they earned the franchise its first two rotten scores on Rotten Tomatoes.
Even highly anticipated films loaded with juicy cameo rumors and fan speculation like Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Thor: Love and Thunder couldn’t reach the box office norms of the MCU’s Infinity Saga. The only true blue blockbuster mega-hit the MCU gave us in recent years was Spider-Man: No Way Home and that film had three Spider-Men, Doctor Strange, and Willem Dafoe’s inimitable Norman Osborn to bolster it.
Throughout most of the 2010s, it seemed impossible that superhero films would ever be unprofitable. But like any art form, cinema is not immune to shifting trends. For instance, Western films comprised the largest slice of America’s cinematic output in the early 20th century. By the 1960s, however, they gave way in popularity to allow new modes of expression to take their place. Is the superhero genre doomed to the same fate? James Gunn begs to differ.
Gunn’s remedy for superhero fatigue
In an interview with Rolling Stone in April, Gunn commented extensively on the perceived issue of superhero fatigue. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he doesn’t think it’s that big of a deal.
“I think it doesn’t have anything to do with superheroes,” says Gunn, “it has to do with the kind of stories that get to be told, and if you lose your eye on the ball, which is character.” To some, this might seem like the rationalization of a guy who just booked a giant gig in a dying industry, but let’s hear him out.
“We love Superman. We love Batman. We love Iron Man,” Gunn continues, “Because they’re these incredible characters that we have in our hearts. And if it becomes just a bunch of nonsense onscreen, it gets really boring. But I get fatigued by most spectacle films, by the grind of not having an emotionally grounded story.”
Undoubtedly, there is truth to what Gunn is saying here. All one has to do is compare the successes of emotionally impactful films like Avengers: Endgame or Spider-Man: No Way Home to the failures of muddled, CGI-ridden, tonally disastrous affairs like The Flash and Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania. As long as the audience can find an emotional anchor in the narrative and the character beats, the superpowers and mustache-twirling villains are all set dressing.
It’s hard to tell for certain whether superhero fatigue is a real phenomenon or simply a reaction to a recent chain of lackluster films. But in either instance, perhaps the real issue is how we determine box office failures and successes in this genre in the first place. If these films were allowed to be smaller and more personal as Gunn alludes, maybe they wouldn’t necessitate the ungodly budgets they so often require. There’s no reason any film making $476 million at the box office should be considered a box office flop, but in the case of Quantumania and its $200 million budget, that’s exactly what came to pass.
With Gunn at the helm of the new DCU, we could bear witness to the birth of a new age in superhero filmmaking or the beginning of its demise. Ultimately, it comes down to whether or not he is willing and able to take his own advice.