Superman III 4.20: The Coming of Gunn

And meanwhile, forty years later, Warner Bros. decides to throw away a perfectly good Superman who’s drop-dead gorgeous and full of crowd-pleasing potential, because they want to scrap everything they’ve been doing and embark on a new ten-year plan made up of twenty-seven serialized blockbusters. This is an utterly lunatic thing to do, and yet our entire system of pop culture entertainment has ground to a halt so that we can predict, discuss, analyze and make fun of this plan.

Now, I know that I haven’t been posting very much lately — the blog has slowed down to about Superheroes Three or Four Times a Month, which means we’re not getting anywhere. We’ve just been hovering around the Superman III bowling sequence for ages, which is a terrible place to abandon the people that I love.

It’s just that I’ve been on a roller coaster ride for the last few months about whether I’m ever going to see Henry Cavill play Superman again, and it’s been hard to focus. I mean, technically, I don’t actually like either of Cavill’s Superman films, so honestly what a third Cavill outing means to me in a material sense is a nice movie poster and another couple cover stories in mens’ fitness magazines. But still, it would have been nice, and this has been a trying period for me.

The problem, of course, is that DC Films’ unbelievably successful and profitable chain of interlocked comic book films has been slightly less successful and profitable than Marvel’s, and that is a crisis that needs to be resolved.

First, here’s a recap of the situation.

The story starts in 2008, when Marvel Studios released Iron Man, their first entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series. The movie did incredibly well, especially for a character who wasn’t very popular at the time — it made $319 million domestic, and was the #2 movie for the year. But Iron Man was crushed by DC’s The Dark Knight, the second film in the Batman trilogy starring Christian Bale, which hit #1, with $533 million in ticket sales.

But everything changed in 2012 with the release of The Avengers, which was the #1 movie of the year by far, with an incredible $691 million box office. The Avengers was the third most profitable movie of all time up to that point. That year, DC released their next Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, which was bumped to the #2 spot, making $448 million.

Now, the interesting thing here is that $448 million is still a tremendous amount of money. I’m pretty sure that nobody involved in The Dark Knight Rises went hungry in 2012. But somehow, Marvel had managed to top DC in a very obvious and public way, and the sense was that Marvel’s franchise was flourishing, while DC’s was not.

So Warner Bros. tried to construct their own connected “Universe” of movies starting in 2013, with Henry Cavill playing Superman in Man of Steel. The film got mixed reviews, mostly for its gloomier-than-usual tone that didn’t capture the bright colors and lightness of touch that people usually expect from Superman movies. Still, it was #5 for the year, with $291 million in ticket sales, which is incredibly successful by any normal standards.

But it was beat by Iron Man 3, which ended up at #2, with $409 million. Once again, a DC movie that made a crazy amount of money was seen as a low performer, which couldn’t even beat a Marvel threequel.

I’m not going to go into how it all played out from there, but the point is: DC was producing successful movies that reliably hit the top 10 for their year: Wonder Woman (#3), Justice League (#10), Aquaman (#5), Joker (#9), even Birds of Prey at #3. This would make any sane movie studio incredibly happy.

But since The Avengers, DC Films has suffered from an inferiority complex, and with good reason. Marvel Studios, Sony and 20th Century Fox were all producing more Marvel movies and producing them faster, so the sheer number of successful Marvel movies far outweighed the number of successful DC movies.

At this point in the story, I need to take a moment to address why I’m talking so much about the box office, and not the quality of the movies being produced, which is a side issue that does not matter.

Really, there are only two questions worth asking about a superhero movie: How much money did it make, and how hot are the people?

Those questions reflect the two sides of the superhero movie production cycle. The movie studio produces superhero movies in order to make lots of money, and the audience watches superhero movies in order to populate our fantasy lives with exciting images of hot people doing amazing things. That is what these movies are for.

So I’m not talking about how good a superhero movie is, as measured by critics or public opinion, or my own personal artistic evaluation. I’m talking about how successful it is, as measured by the only thing that matters: the box office take. A summer blockbuster is not designed to educate or uplift; it doesn’t heal the sick or feed the hungry. A superhero movie is designed to painlessly separate money from the public, and give it to the wrong people.

In 2017, DC’s Wonder Woman hit #3 at the box office, making it the most successful superhero movie of the year. The same year, the troubled Justice League film made it to #10. Both of those movies made a lot of money, and people actually liked Wonder Woman, so it should have been a good year for DC.

But Marvel countered that year with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (#5), Spider-Man: Homecoming (#6), Thor: Ragnarok (#8) and Logan (#11), which was enough to make the actually highest-grossing movie look like a disappointment. The dominant pop culture narrative was that Marvel was hitting a new level of quality and success, while DC was floundering and directionless.

In the five years since then, DC has produced eight films, and six of them have been in the top 10. That’s an amazing record, and it is apparently not good enough. Marvel has started headlining movies with characters that practically no one had even heard of before — Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Shang-Chi — and turned them into franchise tentpoles, while DC couldn’t even figure out how to make a movie about Superman.

And then last year, for a few months, it seemed like Dwayne Johnson was suddenly in charge of DC Films, which confused everyone. Basically, Johnson (aka The Rock) had been attached to a film about Captain Marvel (aka Shazam) since 2009 to play a villain called Black Adam, and that film drifted around in development for ten years until finally appearing as Shazam! in 2019.

But Johnson wasn’t in Shazam!, because in those ten years, he became an enormously bankable star, primarily thanks to his role in the Fast and Furious series. He made a Furious movie every two years from 2011 to 2019, plus a Hercules movie, Moana, Jumanji, and all kinds of stuff that positioned him as a weirdly flexible family-friendly action-adventure musclebound gun-toting comedy thriller guy, which is frankly too many things to build a persona around.

So Johnson insisted on having his own superhero movie, Black Adam, where he would play the Shazam villain as an antihero figure. And in April 2022, immediately following the Warner Bros. / Discovery merger, Johnson made friends with new CEO David Zaslav, and pitched a multi-year plan setting up the Black Adam movie and another movie for Henry Cavill’s Superman, followed by a third Superman vs Black Adam film. This plan progressed far enough to film a cameo for Black Adam‘s end credits, with Henry Cavill appearing in his Supersuit for the first time since Justice League.

But then Black Adam bombed at the box office, by which I mean that it was the #10 movie of the year and made $186 million domestic, which in this timeline is a disappointing result for some reason.

There were other disappointments last year as well, which somehow included the very successful film The Batman, which made $369 million and reached #7, and was the best superhero movie of the year.

But the problem was apparently that The Batman takes place in a different continuity from all of the other DC films, which confused nobody and doesn’t matter. This is the kind of problem that you have to deal with when you’re making runaway hit movies these days.

So Warner Bros. Discovery made the big decision in October to drop all of their existing plans except for the good ones, and hire James Gunn and Peter Safran to become co-CEOs of a renamed DC Studios, which is the first sensible thing that they’ve done since 2008.

I haven’t really had the opportunity on the blog yet to talk about my very strong feelings about James Gunn, but in my view, he is responsible for everything good that’s happened in superhero movies and television since 2014.

The short version of that story is that Marvel Studios made a string of eight MCU movies that were mostly fine but not great, and then James Gunn came along and showed everybody how this was supposed to work. 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy is really where the MCU house style came together, especially around the use of humor, music and emotional character arcs.

In the pre-Gunn period, Marvel was okay with making superhero movies that were serious and dark and contained very little humor, aka the first two Thor movies, the first two Captain America movies, and all the parts of the Iron Man movies when Robert Downey Jr isn’t speaking. Then Guardians of the Galaxy came along, and it was like Marvel Studios said, oh, I get it, they’re Pixar movies. And that’s what they became.

Following Guardians, practically every MCU movie has been a mix of comedy and drama, with emotional character arcs that are mostly about self-discovery and relationships with family and friends, which the audience can follow through a competent three-act structure. The movies haven’t all been great, but the base level of quality for MCU films is a lot higher than it used to be, and I believe that James Gunn has been a huge driver for that change, both as an active participant and as an inspiration for everyone else. And if, for consistency’s sake, I have to stop talking about quality and get practical again: the movies have been making even more money than the incredible amount of money they were making before.

A few days ago, James Gunn released a six-minute video explaining his plans for DC Studios, detailing the first ten projects that will make up part of the “first chapter” of an eight-to-ten-year plan. It’s an odd combination of corporate announcement, creative pitch meeting, pep talk and hostage video, and it is unlike anything that I’ve seen before.

The video is a static six-minute speech delivered to camera, without music, film footage or multiple camera angles. It’s just Gunn standing in front of a neutral background, looking directly at us and explaining what he’s been up to. The only visuals are pictures of the characters that he’s referring to, taken from comic book panels and covers.

They’ve clearly calculated exactly how casual they want this to be down to three decimal places, and this is what they’ve come up with: Gunn is wearing an open-neck unbuttoned cardigan over a black T-shirt that says Happy Birthday something which may be the title of a movie or who even cares, the point is that he’s a real person who’s making interesting creative decisions, and not some corporate Hollywood phony. “Hey everybody, I’m James Gunn,” he says, which is adorable.

“So as many of you know,” he explains, “DC has been disconnected in film and television for a long time, and it’s one of our jobs, mine and Peter’s, is to come in and make sure the DCU is connected, in film, television, gaming and animation — that the characters are consistent, played by the same actors, and it works within one story.”

This is not actually a problem that anyone has asked him to solve, and it’s unclear why this is such a focus for him. I guess he can’t really stand there and say, “most of the DC films haven’t been very good and haven’t made enough money, and it’s one of our jobs, mine and Peter’s, to convince you to come and see all of our movies on opening weekend.” So sure, talk about how things need to be connected across media. Why not?

“And if something is outside of that,” he continues, “like Matt Reeves’ Batman or Todd Phillips’ Joker, or Teen Titans Go, that it is clearly labeled as DC Elseworlds, outside the mainstream DCU continuity.” That is also not a problem that needs to be solved; I’m pretty sure everybody was clear on the status of Teen Titans Go, and both Matt Reeves’ Batman and Todd Phillips’ Joker were very well-received even without an extra bit of baffling nerd-branding. But, again, whatever. These are Gunn’s concerns.

Then he acknowledges that there are already four films coming out in 2023 that he has nothing to do with and can’t do anything about. Shazam! Fury of the Gods “connects really well,” The Flash is “a fantastic movie that I really love,” Blue Beetle is “a fantastic film”, and then there’s Aquaman 2, about which Mr. Gunn has absolutely nothing to say.

He goes on to describe the first ten projects on his slate: an animated TV show, four live-action TV shows and five movies. The first big one is a movie called Superman: Legacy, and there are also projects for Batman, Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Booster Gold, Green Lantern, Peacemaker, the Authority and, gulp, Swamp Thing, which I guess is a good idea.

But amid all the excitement, Gunn doesn’t mention the Superman casting concerns that blew up over the last few months, impacting my personal equilibrium like you wouldn’t believe.

You’ll recall that back in October, when Dwayne Johnson still ruled the Earth like a scowling bumpy god, he ordained that Cavill would return as Superman in an upcoming feature film. Here’s how that played out:

  • Oct 21: Black Adam is released, with Cavill as Superman in a surprise mid-credits reveal.
  • Oct 24: Cavill posts a breathless Instagram video confirming that he’s back. “A very small taste of what’s to come, my friends,” he writes. “The dawn of hope renewed.”
  • Oct 25: David Zaslav announces that James Gunn and Peter Safran are the new co-CEOs of DC Studios.
  • Oct 29: Black Adam’s box office collapses during its second weekend.
  • Dec 14: Gunn announces on Twitter that Superman is on the slate of DC projects. However, “in the initial stages, our story will be focusing on an earlier part of Superman’s life, so the character will not be played by Henry Cavill.” And then, in the next tweet: “But we just had a great meeting with Henry and we’re big fans and we talked about a number of exciting possibilities to work together in the future.”
  • Dec 14: Cavill posts an entirely heartbroken message on Instagram that is so painful that I can’t even quote from it right now. I try not to get emotionally involved with these things, but they made Henry Cavill cry, and I don’t know how to deal with that.

As everyone knows, there are all kinds of problems in the world, but the ones that really matter are the problems of drop-dead gorgeous, world-famous and insanely wealthy celebrities not getting exactly what they want. I am still recovering from this.

So let’s look at this from one more angle, and then close up for the day.

Of all the weird aspects of this singular moment in pop culture history, the weirdest of all is the first project on Gunn’s slate. Here’s what he says about it:

The first project is Creature Commandos. Creature Commandos is an animated series. I’ve written all the episodes.

Something we’re going to do that’s a little bit different at DC is we’re going to have characters move into animation, out of animation, usually having the same actor play their voice as who plays them in live action.

That’s it, that’s all he says. It’s an animated series, and he’s written all the episodes. The thing about having characters move into and out of animation does not appear to be directly related to this show in particular.

What Gunn doesn’t say is that Creature Commandos is a squad of World War II soldiers made up of Draculas, Frankensteins and Wolf Men, which was introduced in a 1980 issue of DC’s Weird War Tales and is unbelievably obscure. The team was revived during the unloved New 52 era in 2011 for 16 issues, and in 2014 there was a minor character in season three of Arrow who was named after one of the guys in Creature Commandos, but other than that, 100% of the people who are alive today have never even heard of them before.

So launching your new plan for domination of the modern entertainment industry with a cartoon version of Creature Commandos is one of the strangest plot twists I can imagine.

And the truly amazing thing is that I don’t believe that anybody else has ever done this before in the entire history of entertainment.

There are a lot of huge franchises in modern times: Star Wars, Harry Potter, Twilight, Transformers, Jurassic Park, Disney Princesses, James Bond, The Fast & the Furious. But none of those started with an eight-to-ten year plan, and an immediate slate of five movies and five TV shows. Yeah, the Marvel Cinematic Universe now has movies and TV shows scheduled through 2026, but they started with Iron Man and built from there.

Nobody has ever said, starting from scratch: here’s the plan for five blockbuster movies, four live-action TV shows, a cartoon about Creature Commandos for fuck’s sake and probably a video game, each one using different IP, but they’ll all connect up and continue to tell a coherent story over the next ten years, pulling in more characters and concepts as we go along.

This is a manifestly cracker-bananas thing to do.

So I don’t know, y’all. It feels like this history of superhero movies that I’m trying to assemble and explain is just going to get weirder and goofier as we go along, and I for one am extremely in favor of that. I’ve got kind of a new slate of projects in mind myself — or, you know, one new project, if that still counts as a slate — and I will be talking with you more about that in the days to come.

Meanwhile, let’s get out of this goddamn bowling alley and watch the rest of Superman III. What do you say?

4.21: The World According to Attila the Hun


— Danny Horn

24 thoughts on “Superman III 4.20: The Coming of Gunn

  1. Nothing succeeds like success or perception of success. I watch movies that are well-reviewed or starring actors that I like. Generally, I like quirky and James Gunn gave me that with Guardians of the Galaxy so I’m cautiously optimistic. I had never heard of the Guardians so the fact that he’s introducing more obscure (to me) characters is not a problem. My problem is committing to something for the next ten years.
    Avengers was the movie that grabbed me. It was the reason I went back and watched the earlier movies. I remember it as being the first funny one. Am I mis-remembering? I may need to watch it again.
    So sorry you had a trying time but glad you rallied and returned to us!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. The first and second Avengers were written and directed by Joss Whedon, who’s known for his punchy dialogue with lots of quips. I felt like this was the first change in tone for the Marvel films, before Gunn came along, because all the films after that point imitated their style of dialogue.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. The Avengers is definitely important, but Marvel still made three depressing movies after that: Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I think Guardians is the one that actually defined the MCU house style.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Guardians was the first film that figured out what directors during the Depression did–people don’t go to gigantic fantasy movies to be bummed out. That doesn’t mean the story isn’t taken seriously by the characters, but that said characters are fun to watch and follow around and get invested in whether they’re going to kiss or not.

        This is something that DC is really struggling with–not everything has to be Guardians, but they keep trying to copy off Marvel’s paper, with this animated series thing being the latest example.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait. Iron Man 3 – a movie where glowering generic scary bad guy Ben Kingsley turns out to be comedy relief Liverpudlian actor Ben Kingsley, and it’s the most delightful thing to ever happen in any MCU movie – is one of the depressing ones?

        I’m gonna need to see your receipts.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I was in Poland on a work trip when Iron Man 3 came out, and I went to see it in Polish without English subtitles. It was the most horrifying movie experience that I’ve ever had.

        People explode for no reason. Guy Pearce burns from the inside and breathes fire. Lots of people burn alive, apparently on purpose. Happy is grievously wounded. People get shot. Tony’s house is destroyed, and all of his stuffed animals fall into the water and drown. There’s a burning-alive woman who tries to kiss Tony while they’re fighting, and he explodes her with a microwave oven. Pepper is strapped to a metal machine and tortured until she burns alive from the inside. Everything is on fire the whole time and nobody makes any jokes and everyone is in pain.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. 1) There are a ton of jokes in that movie, you’re being ridiculous. Even if you couldn’t understand them in Polish, they’re there.

        2) You’re discounting all the work that opening with “Blue” by Eiffel 65 does to set a silly tone despite all the grim stuff.


      5. So much burning.

        But yes, watching it with effectively no dialogue made it a different movie. If I remember it right, they just say “Pepper’s okay” at the end, without showing her. So I left the theater thinking that maybe they killed Pepper.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. Obviously a lot was lost in (the lack of) translation.
        I’m not sure that even Monty Python and the Holy Grail would be funny if you were just going by visuals. So many deaths….


  2. I thought I knew a thing or two about comic books (and I briefly collected DC comics in my youth), but indeed I have never heard of the Creature Commandos. I can’t help but be a little cynical and see this as DC’s version of “You don’t need Guardians of the Galaxy, we have Guardians of the Galaxy at home.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think of it more as Gunn being able to indulge himself and create things that he personally likes. From what I’ve read, there are a couple characters who have a connection to Suicide Squad–Weasel and Rick Flag, Sr.–so he may be building out from that.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. The “We’re not going to Dairy Queen, we have ice cream in the freezer” take on spending the equivalent of the GOP of a nation on superhero movies.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Marvel has a group similar to Creature Commandos, named Howling Commandos, harking back to Nick Fury’s WW2 unit. You can always count on comic books to steal ideas from everywhere else, including each other.

    It’s possible that I might start watching this new DC ten-year plan, if it’s any better than the old ten-year nonplan, which I didn’t watch. In fairness, I haven’t seen any of the Marvel TV offerings on Disney+ either. Don’t watch anything with a +, it’s probably connected to that Zexlax guy.

    Welcome back, Danny! We missed you!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I think of it more as Gunn being able to indulge himself and create things that he personally likes. From what I’ve read, there are a couple characters who have a connection to Suicide Squad–Weasel and Rick Flag, Sr.–so he may be building out from that.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. “Meanwhile, let’s get out of this goddamn bowling alley and watch the rest of Superman III. What do you say?”

    I’d say you’ve gotten really bored with S III and we should wrap it up quickly and move on to a more interesting film.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. They’re trying to catch lightning in a bottle with a ten-year plan.

    It seems ill-advised, but I don’t really care for modern superhero movies (the only MCU one I’ve seen is Black Panther); however, my husband adores them. But both of us would probably feel the same if they weren’t going for big blockbusters (he’d still watch them all if they were small nerdy films & I would only watch if they had actors I adored or a story/POV I liked).

    Because of this blog, I did watch several of the pre-DCU superhero movies (from the 2000s) that I hadn’t seen before, so I’ll keep following both the on-screen and behind-the-screen drama.

    Thank you also for explaining the Cavill thing, I was getting whiffs of it on twitter & couldn’t make sense of it.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Welcome back, Danny!

    And yeah, DC basically keeps pulling defeat from the jaws of victory by going okay, the dark gritty Batman was a big hit, so we should do that with Superman! They keep reacting to whatever they did LAST time that worked and trying to combine it with Keeping Up With The Marvels, and it’s just embarrassing after a while.

    But at least even in darkest nights of their collective soul, when sleep is not and hope seems far away, every DC exec can whisper to themselves, “At least I didn’t helm that Universal Monsters universe boondoggle. Thank you, God.”

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Speaking of upcoming IP, Disney is premiering an animated series this week, “Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur.” It’s loosely based on the Marvel characters created by Jack Kirby.

    Never heard of them? They were originally Moon Boy and DD, a spinoff from Kirby’s spinoff of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

    Never heard of Kirby’s “2001” spinoff? How about Machine Man?

    The barrels are very deep at Marvel and at DC. You never know whose favorite character will show up next. MG&DD, for instance, is from Laurence Fishburne.


  9. First: Yay! Welcome back! To the thing you’re doing!

    But also: Marvel did have a multi-year plan when they initiated the MCU. They just figured it would take longer than it ended up being, and Iron Man sped things up unexpectedly.

    I don’t think Creature Commando will have the same impact, but then again I wasn’t expecting Guardians to be Marvel’s “we can get away with anything!” moment so I’m willing to be mistaken!

    Liked by 1 person

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