The war of the superheroes: Will DC disputes give Marvel an edge?

James Gunn has been tasked with rebuilding the Superman and Batman movie house, but has faced a backlash over his decision not to include certain characters in his plans

(l-r) Joel Kinnaman, James Gunn, Margot Robbie and John Cena at the August 2021 premiere of 'The Suicide Squad' in Los Angeles.
(l-r) Joel Kinnaman, James Gunn, Margot Robbie and John Cena at the August 2021 premiere of 'The Suicide Squad' in Los Angeles.Kevin Winter (Getty Images)

For nearly 90 years, Marvel and DC have been locked in a battle for market dominance. The race between these two superhero brands has always been close, but infighting at DC appeared to be giving Marvel an edge. That, however, might change, thanks to James Gunn, who has been appointed the new co-head of Warner Bros’ DC Comics film and TV unit, alongside Peter Safran.

The filmmaker, who has worked for both companies, has confirmed he has a plan for the next eight to 10 years. But he admits it’s not going to be an easy journey. “We know we are not going to make every single person happy every step of the way,” tweeted Gunn in December after taking up his new role.

DC started off in 1934 under the name National Allied Publications. Three years later, it changed its name to DC, for Detective Comics. Marvel began in 1939 as Timely Publications, and was rebranded in 1961. Marvel Studios was founded in 1993, and in 2009, Disney bought the company for $4 billion – a high price considering the disappointing results of last year’s big releases: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Thor: Love and Thunder, which made around $2.5 billion combined at the box office.

As for DC Studios, it made $1.7 billion, despite big-budget releases such as Batman and Black Adam. The vision of filmmaker Kevin Feige and his two right-hands, Victoria Alonso and Louis D’Esposito, has been sorely missed.

Since 2008, Marvel Studios has released around 30 films that can be watched independently or as part of a saga, and this has helped it to build audience loyalty.

The Flash, Superman, Cyborg, Wonder Woman, Batman and Aquaman.
The Flash, Superman, Cyborg, Wonder Woman, Batman and Aquaman.

Gunn’s appointment to DC Studios was initially celebrated by the industry. The 56-year-old director, who was a fan of zombie movies as a child, has been steadily rising in the ranks of Hollywood. After founding the horror company Troma, he wrote the screenplays for Scooby-Doo and Dawn of the Dead. And although his first attempts as a director were not very successful, he wowed both critics and crowds with Guardians of the Galaxy. Not much was expected from the 2014 movie, but with its nostalgic soundtrack, funny script and pop culture nods, it became a box office and critical success.

In 2018, however, he was at the center of a scandal after a conservative website uncovered old tweets he had written joking about pedophilia and rape. Disney, the parent company of Marvel, fired him in July of that year. But in December, Warner announced that Gunn would direct The Suicide Squad and the TV series Peacemaker. In March 2019, Disney also rehired him to direct Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, which will hit cinemas in May.

But since the beginning of December, Gunn has been ruffling the feathers of actors in the DC universe. Ray Fisher, who played Cyborg in Justice League, accused Gunn of deleting tweets in which the filmmaker expressed his solidarity with the actor over his complaints against director Joss Whedon. “Refusing to apologize for toxic behavior seems to be a job requirement for WB/DC,” Fisher tweeted. Gunn replied: “ALL my tweets automatically delete every few months, Ray.”

Fans of Wonder Woman also reacted badly after Gunn said a third installment of the superhero movie was not on the horizon. “Our choices for the DCU are based upon what we believe is best for the story & best for the DC characters who have been around for nearly 85 years. Perhaps these choices are great, perhaps not, but they are made with sincere hearts & integrity & always with the story in mind,” Gunn tweeted in response.

He continued, “We were aware there would be a period of turbulence when we took this gig, & we knew we would sometimes have to make difficult & not-so-obvious choices, especially in the wake of the fractious nature of what came before us. But this means little to us in comparison to our jobs as artists & custodians in helping to create a wide & wonderful future for DC.”

There was a similar difference of opinion over Black Adam, which delivered disappointing results at the box office. Despite this, the movie’s star, Dwayne Johnson, was keen for there to be a sequel. But no such plans are in sight, Johnson himself admitting on Twitter: “Black Adam will not be in their first chapter of storytelling.” But the story had a more amicable ending, with Gunn replying: “Love The Rock and I’m always excited to see what he and Seven Bucks do next. Can’t wait to collaborate soon.”

But the outlook is less promising for Henry Cavill, the Superman actor who appeared at the end of Black Adam (he and Johnson have the same agent). Gunn is not considering Cavill to play Superman, not even as an older version of the superhero. As much as Cavill tried to build support online, the new co-heads of DC Studios were clear that Superman would only return as his younger version.

Batman’s future will also be decided shortly. Matt Reeves, director of The Batman, will meet with Gunn and Safran in the coming weeks to discuss planning for the Batman universe. “They have been great,” Reeves told Collider. “They want to talk to me about the broad plan, and then they want to hear the BatVerse plan.” These include an HBO Max series about the Penguin, starring Colin Farrell. And a new Batman film with Robert Pattinson.

Gunn said he will announce his plan for the next three years at the end of the month. This year, however, he will have to oversee the releases of movies made under the previous direction: Shazam! Fury of the Gods (March 17), The Flash (June 16), Blue Beetle (August 18) and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (December 25).

In the meantime, the filmmaker is keeping busy. Just in one day, he wrote a third of a new DC TV series, approved 100 special effects shots for Guardians of the Galaxy and had two big meetings for DC Studios.

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