“You’re dealing with a 70-year-old universe with comic books and radio shows and TV and a [multitude] of series that will exist long after I’m gone. So, at some point, you have to just choose the things that meant something to you.”
That’s a quote from Superman Returns director Bryan Singer in the documentary Look Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman. Now, regardless of how one feels about that film — or certainly its problematic director — truer words have never been spoken. They’re also words that should be taken to heart by the mystery filmmaker who will ultimately direct the latest cinematic incarnation of Superman for DC Studios under the leadership of its newly-installed CEOs James Gunn and Peter Safran.
Superman is ingrained in our very culture, as the character is a key part of our own American mythology. In a nation of immigrants, Superman represents the ultimate immigrant story, one that has been passed down from one generation to the next since his first appearance in Action Comics #1 way back in 1938. He is a pop-culture icon known to and beloved by our grandparents, our parents, and now, us… and eventually our kids, too.
With that kind of lineage, everyone is going to have their own opinion of what should be done with Superman. Just go on Twitter, Facebook, or any fan forum.
Of course, these days, only two opinions matter — Gunn’s and Safran’s — even though running DC Studios is not necessarily a two-person job. Ask Marvel Studios’ big-cheese Kevin Feige, who Gunn has no question taken off-the-record advice from, or Kathleen Kennedy, who has anchored Lucasfilm for a decade now, to name just two examples of successful companies operative under the directive of a single creative leader (not that they don’t rely on other trusted voices).
With Gunn clearly positioned as the face of DC Studios, it begs the question of why, exactly, Safran is there.
That question is by absolutely no means a putdown. Safran is an accomplished producer with experience greasing the wheels and keeping them turning — maintaining the budget, sticking to their predetermined shooting schedule, dealing with meddling studio execs, and keeping the cast and crew fed and watered — just as any capable producer worth their salt would.
But why did Safran, specifically, turn his back on a lucrative producing career to play Robin to Gunn’s Batman as the other head of DC Studios? It’s because, as I suspect, Safran is not a sidekick at all, but rather there to actually run the company when his partner-in-crime is (up, up, and) “away” from the studio and preoccupied with doing the thing he now seems born to do — direct a Superman movie.
That’s right. The very one that he just so happens to be writing right now. The idea of him handing that script off to another director so he can cosplay “executive” is as likely as Superman wearing a kryptonite belly ring. Which is where Safran comes in.
See, a couple of decades ago, a filmmaker by the name of Steven Spielberg did this very thing. He launched a brand new studio, DreamWorks SKG, with directed Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen… and then he went off to direct The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Amistad, and Saving Private Ryan back-to-back-to-back. And yes, though Spielberg is renowned for being a master multitasker, he’s still only one man. So while he was on set calling “Action!” and “Cut!,” who was back at the DreamWorks offices minding the store and running the company? Katzenberg and Geffen.
We believe that’s the position that Safran will find himself in at some point next year. While Gunn has, of course, said that no director has been chosen for the Superman movie, we respectfully don’t buy that, as all signs point in this direction. Especially if Warner Bros. continues to develop a Black Superman project from producer J.J. Abrams and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, as has been reported. The idea that WB is willing to make two Superman movies and Gunn won’t direct either of them just doesn’t sound plausible to me.
If I were in Gunn’s shoes, I’d see this Superman movie for what it is — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make one’s own mark on the world’s most famous and influential superhero.
Yes, Gunn has been down this road before. As he told Newsweek during the press tour for The Suicide Squad, the previous Warner Bros regime run by Toby Emmerich and Walter Hamada once offered him Superman, and he declined. But is that because he doesn’t want to make a Superman movie, or because he didn’t want to make a Superman movie while working under their thumb?
Reading between the lines, it seems like Gunn simply didn’t want to work with the “damaged goods” of Zack Snyder‘s divisive trilogy, which Gunn and Safran are wisely moving on from, much to the dismay of certain fans. But why bother playing with someone else’s broken toys when you can bring in your own?
So when fate — in the form of David Zaslav — presented itself a rare second chance, what was the first thing Gunn did upon accepting? He decided to start fresh and sever all ties to the previous chapter of DC, from the parting of ways with Patty Jenkins to the decision to axe Henry Cavill, right down to the name change to DC Studios, which represents a new dawn, a new day, and a new identity for Marvel’s discombobulated rival. The Superman movie that Gunn is writing (but not officially directing yet) will reboot the franchise with an introductory installment that appears closer in spirit to The Batman — something we at Above the Line have been calling for since the launch of this site.
I can’t speak to Gunn’s personal, private motivations for taking the DC gig, but the chance to direct a Superman movie without having to answer to anybody has to be high on the list. Gunn has always liked a challenge, and I have a hunch that he yearns to be the guy who “cracks the code” and, if only from an ego standpoint, become the first filmmaker since Richard Donner to fully nail Superman in the eyes of both fans and general audiences. That’s easier said than done when one looks at Man of Steel and Superman Returns.
But this challenge might go even deeper for Gunn. The director has managed to sneak his own — admittedly warped — sensibilities into family-friendly films as both a writer (Scooby-Doo) and director (the Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy), Superman might force Gunn to “grow up,” as silly as that may sound, and shelve the pop-song heavy soundtracks, the over-abundance of gore, and the bathroom humor that has been a hallmark of his writing since his Troma days.
We all know he has it in him. Just remember those closing words Yondu tells his surrogate son Peter Quill towards the end of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. and how it broke the hearts of millions of Marvel fans around the world.
Were Gunn to get this Superman movie right, he would no longer have Guardians of the Galaxy on his tombstone, though that would be quite the accomplishment in its own right. In its place, that iconic “S” symbol would be there forever and always.
It’s hard to imagine Gunn is willing to merely write and produce a Superman movie, only to hand off his baby to another director who will get all the credit. Sorry, but we’re just not buying that. But we shall see soon enough, as Gunn and Safran are expected to reveal their master plan early next year. One imagines that the new Superman movie will lead their slate, possibly in time to hit theaters on Christmas Day in 2025.
Since Gunn himself has certainly made it a thing to call out various outlets — the grifters who, make no mistake, deserve to be tarred and feathered for purposefully spreading bogus intel, as well as trade reporters whose reputations speak for themselves and who, respectfully, didn’t pull their info out of thin air — he is more than welcome to say we’re all wrong here. Trust me, I’d consider it an honor to be “called out.” We’re all adults here, and there will be no hard feelings!
But that said, as the old saying goes, “Where there is smoke, there is fire.” And James Gunn is positively engulfed in smoke right now. May he bring the fire in the new year!