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I suppose a man with a name like James Gunn was always destined to be the new sheriff in town. That “town” is DC Studios, and two months ago, Gunn – a filmmaker and producer – was announced as its new co-chair and co-CEO. The appointment made sense on paper: Gunn is a well-established presence in the superhero game thanks to his unexpectedly popular Guardians of the Galaxy films (for Marvel) and DC’s offbeat The Suicide Squad (2021). For around a decade, DC has languished in its efforts to set up a coherent film franchise, despite owning the rights to many of the most treasured and recognisable characters in fiction. There have been successes, sure – the warmly reviewed Wonder Woman; the billion-dollar-grossing Aquaman – but they have been piecemeal, strung together in a woolly matrix of duds and also-rans. In the meantime, Marvel, DC’s main rival, has sped ahead, slickening its production line into a soullessly efficient churn where even obscure releases are all but guaranteed box-office success.
Gunn’s arrival (alongside his co-boss, producer Peter Safran) signals a massive strategic overhaul for DC. From now on, its decision-making – which films to make, which comics to adapt, which actors to cast – has been given a human face. Not just any face, but that of a modern, online celebrity, one with a social media following 1.4 million strong. In the weeks since his hiring, Gunn has already proved quick on the trigger, upending fans’ expectations of what the DC Universe has in the pipeline. Henry Cavill’s Superman? Out. A third Wonder Woman film? Binned. A sequel to Black Adam? Don’t hold your breath. All the while, Gunn has been enthusiastically engaging with fans on Twitter, answering questions and hinting at plans – rubbishing certain rumours while fuelling others. People have been hurling their two cents at him like he’s the Trevi Fountain. But anyone hoping for a “town hall” approach to moviemaking should know it’s never going to fly. There’s nothing less conducive to art than the cacophony of social media.
Sure enough, Gunn’s early decisions have struck a nerve with certain subsets of the DC fanbase, with Cavill’s departure a particular bone of contention. On Monday, he took to Twitter to address the “unkind” backlash from some fans. “We knew we would sometimes have to make difficult and not-so-obvious choices, especially in the wake of the fractious nature of what came before us,” Gunn wrote, adding: “Disrespectful outcry will never, ever affect our actions.”
DC fans could be forgiven for overestimating their own power of influence. It was, after all, a belligerent and protracted fan campaign to “release the Snyder cut” that led to a costly reimagining of Zack Snyder’s 2016 flop Justice League. The Snyderheads got their victory, I suppose. It wasn’t the film they needed but the one they deserved: a taxing, four-hour-long black-and-white indulgence released on HBO Max in early 2021. The film pulled in good numbers for a streaming debut, but reports have subsequently claimed that studio execs regretted the capitulation to fan demands: the “Snyder cut” movement gave way to other campaigns calling for re-edits and sequels (“#ReleaseTheAyerCut” and “#RestoreTheSnyderverse”) from an emboldened fanbase. The hiring of Gunn is an attempt to draw a line under all this mess, but it’s not going to be that simple. When you’ve got the boss of the company personally responding to errant tweets from Twitter randos, fans are inevitably going to feel like they’ve already got a seat at the table.
For the past several weeks, Twitter users have been able to watch a similar dynamic play out in real time, via the website’s new owner Elon Musk. A much-mocked and polarising figure, Musk has appeared to navigate much of his corporate decision-making through casual interactions with his followers, sometimes putting decisions of multibillion-dollar significance down to an impromptu straw poll. Gunn is a different case of course, but each attests to a shift in how people perceive corporate structures. Even those at the very top are now objects of parasocial fascination.
Gunn has, of course, enjoyed a somewhat mixed history with social media: in 2018, his criticism of Donald Trump led to a right-wing “cancellation” campaign over resurfaced jokes he made about paedophilia and the Holocaust. It worked, initially: Disney fired him from production of the third Guardians of the Galaxy film. But after a defiant campaign from fans, and support from a plethora of actors and creatives, he was eventually rehired.
With his career now solidly in the black, Gunn has been sold as DC’s answer to Kevin Feige. For those who don’t know, Feige is the chief creative officer of Marvel Studios, the man whose knack for “bigger picture” thinking turned the Marvel Cinematic Universe into the money-printing behemoth it is today. But Feige is a far more elusive figure than Gunn, with minimal social media presence – something that works to his tactical advantage. Marvel fans will hear talk every so often of a “brainstorming retreat” or some such buzzword – bunkered pow-wows between executives at which grand five-year-plans for story arcs are put in place. But the actual decision-making process remains opaque. There is nothing really to do except wait and see the results.
This is, ultimately, the only way the whole thing can work. Creatives need to be able to make decisions – good ones, bad ones, controversial ones and unpopular ones – without feeling beholden to millions of online whingers. At the moment, it seems like Gunn is trying to straddle both worlds. But it’s a big ask to balance the whims and demands of a trenchant comic-book fanbase with his broader commercial and critical aspirations; someone’s inevitably going to end up disappointed. The thing about Twitter is that there are always thousands of voices all chiming in at once. His first task has to be drowning them out.