I suppose a man with a name like James Gunn was always destined to be the town’s new sheriff. That “city” is DC Studios, and two months ago Gunn – a filmmaker and producer – was announced as its new co-president and co-CEO. The nomination made sense on paper: Gunn is an established presence in the superhero game thanks to his Guardians of the Galaxy movies (for Marvel) and offbeat DC movies. The Suicide Squad (2021). For roughly a decade, DC has languished in its efforts to build a cohesive film franchise, despite owning the rights to many of the most valuable and recognizable fictional characters. There have been successes, of course – the warmly appraised wonder woman; billion dollar turnover Aquaman – but they have been fragmentary, shackled in a woolly matrix of failures and grudges. In the meantime, DC’s main rival Marvel has been ramping up, turning its production line into an efficient soulless 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. Now his decisions — what movies to make, which comics to adapt, which actors to choose — have a human face. Not just any face, but that of a modern online celebrity, with a social network followed by 1.4 million people. In the weeks since being hired, Gunn has already proven to be quick on the trigger, upending fan expectations for what the DC Universe has in store. Henry Cavill’s Superman? Outside. A third Wonder Woman movie? Binne. A sequel to black adam? Don’t hold your breath. All the while, Gunn chatted enthusiastically with fans on Twitter, answering questions and hinting at plans – denying some rumors while fueling others. People throw their two cents at it as if it were the Trevi Fountain. But anyone hoping for a “town hall” approach to filmmaking should know that it will never fly. There’s nothing less conducive to art than the cacophony of social media.
Sure enough, Gunn’s early decisions touched a nerve with certain subsets of the DC fan base, with Cavill’s departure being a particular bone of contention. On Monday, he took to Twitter to respond to some fans’ “nasty” backlash. “We knew we sometimes had to make difficult and not-so-obvious choices, especially in the wake of the restless nature of what came before us,” Gunn wrote, adding, “A 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 “unleash the Snyder cut” that led to a costly reimagining of Zack Snyder’s flop in 2016. Justice League. The Snyderheads got their win, I guess. It wasn’t the film they needed, but the one they deserved: a harrowing four-hour black-and-white indulgence released on HBO Max in early 2021. The film pulled in good numbers for a streaming debut , but reports later claimed that studio executives regretted the capitulation to fan demands: the “Snyder cut” movement gave way to other campaigns calling for re-releases and sequels (“#ReleaseTheAyerCut and “#RestoreTheSnyderverse”) from an emboldened fan base. Hiring Gunn is an attempt to draw a line through the whole mess, but it won’t be that simple. When the company boss personally responds to errant tweets from Twitter randos, fans are inevitably going to feel like they already have a seat at the table.
Over the past few weeks, Twitter users have been able to watch a similar dynamic unfold in real time, via the website’s new owner, Elon Musk. A much-derided and polarizing figure, Musk appeared to navigate much of his corporate decision-making through informal interactions with his supporters, sometimes bringing decisions of multi-billion dollar significance to a poll of impromptu straw. Gunn is of course a different case, but each testifies to a change in the way people view corporate structures. Even those at the top are now objects of parasocial fascination.
Gunn has, of course, had a somewhat mixed history with social media: In 2018, his criticism of Donald Trump led to a right-wing “cancel” campaign over remade jokes about pedophilia and the Holocaust. It worked, at first: Disney fired him from producing the third Guardians of the Galaxy movie. But after a defiant fan campaign and support from a plethora of actors and creatives, he was finally rehired.
With his career now solidly in the dark, Gunn has been sold as DC’s answer to Kevin Feige. For those who don’t know, Feige is the creative director of Marvel Studios, the man whose knack for the “big picture” has transformed the Marvel Cinematic Universe into the money-printing giant. that he is today. But Feige is a much more elusive figure than Gunn, with minimal social media presence – something that works to his tactical advantage. Marvel fans will hear of a “brainstorming retreat” or such a buzzword from time to time — bunkered powwows between executives at which grand five-year plans for arcs story are set up. But the actual decision-making process remains opaque. There is nothing to do but wait and see the results.
This is, ultimately, the only way this can all work. Creatives need to be able to make decisions – good, bad, controversial and unpopular – without feeling beholden to millions of whiners online. At the moment, it looks like Gunn is trying to straddle both worlds. But it’s a big ask to balance the whims and demands of an incisive comic book fan base with its wider commercial and critical aspirations; someone will inevitably end up being disappointed. The thing about Twitter is that there are always thousands of voices all ringing out at once. His first task must be to drown them.