When James Gunn was sacked as director of Guardians of the Galaxy 3 in 2018, he must have wondered if his career in Hollywood was over just as it had really started to catch fire. The filmmaker had been behind both incredibly successful previous instalments of the superhero saga before coming under attack when old tweets resurfaced that made light of 9/11, rape and paedophilia. The Walt Disney Studios chairman, Alan Horn, called Gunn’s behaviour “indefensible” and severed ties with him.
Fast forward four years and Gunn, now 56, has just been announced as creative head of DC Studios, a newly minted division of Warner Bros that will take over the studio’s film, TV and animated superhero properties. DC is of course the moody bridesmaid to Marvel’s preening, annoyingly perfect bride. But Gunn last year directed the former’s most celebrated movie in years, the irreverent, brash and smartly configured The Suicide Squad, a film he would ironically never have taken had he not been sacked by Marvel. He is also directing Guardians of the Galaxy 3, due out in May, after the stars of the saga threatened to walk if he was not reinstated.
How do you recover from cancellation? Well, it turns out you apologise fervently, and wait for somebody else to point out that the main proponents of your demise are all furious rightwingers angry at your criticism of Donald Trump. You then take advantage of the opportunities that come your way and emerge, almost inconceivably, as master of both DC and Marvel universes.
What Gunn does now is anyone’s guess but the idea of him overseeing DC’s forthcoming slate is a beguiling one, even if it means he will be obliged to steer clear of future Guardians of the Galaxy episodes for at least a half-decade or so. The Suicide Squad is a movie that offsets its brutish, macho vibe (borrowed from early DCEU episodes such as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) with the welcome sense that it doesn’t take itself at all seriously. Finally, DC seems to have found a space in the creative echo chamber that it can call its very own: this is a movie that Marvel would never have made, deeply intelligent and well-written, bloodthirsty and at times downright dishonourable. A comic-book film that exhibits a wonderful Tarantino-esque vibe of just not giving a damn.
Gunn won’t be responsible, according to the Hollywood Reporter, for integrating movies like the forthcoming sequel to Joker or Matt Reeves’ proposed Batman trilogy, into the mainstream DC universe. And this is probably a good thing. Nobody wants to see Robert Pattinson’s languid, arty caped crusader and Joaquin Phoenix’s Scorsese-esque clown prince of Gotham suddenly recruited into the knuckle-headed Suicide Squad. Any movie that tried to unite such dissonant tonal elements would be doomed to failure.
Gunn may not be the Kevin Feige-style macro-universal uber-producer that DC seems to think it needs. But he has already shown a propensity for rare, razor-edged comic-book irreverence. In his hands, Warner Bros’ superhero movies just might manifest as more than just a cold money-making machine. There is light at the end of a very dark tunnel, and the canary’s lungs still retain just enough oxygen to get us to the next madcap level of the DC journey.