In recent years, James Gunn has had one of the most influential roles in the world of superhero movies. With the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise being a major success for the MCU and The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker being some of the few positives that have come from the inconsistent conveyor belt that is DC, Gunn has shown that he is the right man for these types of projects.
However, he is about to take on his biggest project yet as he ventures into creating his own cinematic universe for DC as co-CEO of DC Studios, alongside Peter Safran. Having already worked within the MCU for several years, Gunn is sure to have plenty of experience when it comes to projects of this magnitude. As of April 2023, there were 25 projects already in production for DC Studios.
The MCU has been a blueprint for what to do and what not to do. While Gunn will want to put his own stamp on things, here’s what his DCU can learn from the MCU.
Updated January 7, 2024: It has been almost a year since James Gunn announced his plans for the DCU, and this article has been updated with what lessons he can learn not just from the MCU but from the rough year both Marvel and DC had in 2023.
Unfamiliar Characters Are Often the Best
There was a lot of excitement about the DCU slate announcement from Gunn in January 2023, and rightfully so. Chapter One of the DCU, which is called Gods and Monsters, will be made up of several different movies and television series. Some of the more notable announcements were a Superman reboot, a new-look Batman on the big screen, and a Green Lantern series. Considering the DCEU failed to achieve success with their versions of Superman and Batman, and the 2011 Green Lantern resulted in the character being overlooked, these are announcements fans are excited about as this fresh start could lead to great things. Despite these household names being key figures in DC, sometimes the less popular characters are the ones that make the biggest difference.
The MCU started without Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, or any members of the X-Men. While the likes of Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America were popular in their own right, they weren’t at the top of the Marvel food chain. The MCU increased these characters’ popularity to the point of fan favorites. The first Iron Man movie is still one of the best solo films of the MCU. To go a step further, characters such as Ant-Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy have become incredibly popular and now have very important roles in the MCU, even though there was a time when they were fairly unknown to mainstream audiences. Obviously, Gunn himself has been a major reason for this, as his work in the MCU has introduced us to the misfits and oddballs that are the Guardians of the Galaxy. And it seems he has already used what he learned to help the DCU get off to a good start.
In The Suicide Squad, we got to see less popular characters shine, and they stole the show. From that, we got the Peacemaker show, which is a pretty solid start to this new universe without some of the bigger names such as Superman or Batman. The experience Gunn has with working with these lesser-known characters will be essential going forward. While everybody loves the mainstream characters, it is these unfamiliar characters that help create a successful franchise, and it is something that the MCU has done very well. With The Suicide Squad, Peacemaker, and announced shows such as Booster Gold, Waller, and Creature Commandos, it looks like Gunn is going to use this same winning formula for his DCU.
Keep The Characters Populating the Universe
One unspoken element of how the MCU worked so well is that the characters would pop in and out of stories, even in minor roles, making the universe feel interconnected. From 2015 to 2019, Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man appeared once a year in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). Captain America: Civil War (2016), Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019). Despite not having her own solo film until 2020, Black Widow appeared in Avengers movies, Iron Man 2, and two Captain America films. It kept the universe feeling alive and interconnected as it made it feel like these characters had lives while also keeping them in the minds of the audience.
That is part of the reason the Phase 4 and 5 lineup of the MCU has felt so odd. Shang-Chi had a movie three years ago, and nobody has heard of his character or seen him. Nobody knows when She-Hulk, Moon Knight, or the Eternals will show up again. Meanwhile, DC struggled hard to keep their characters connected after Justice League. Shazam! featured a headless Superman cameo, and Birds of Prey and The Suicide Squad featured no major DC character connections. By the time characters started to pop up, it felt too late. Wonder Woman showed up in both Shazam! Fury of the Gods and The Flash and Ben Affleck’s Batman appeared at the beginning of The Flash while Aquaman showed up for the end credit scene; it all came along as the series was closing up.
Gunn’s DCU already appears to be a world populated with heroes. Superman: Legacy will feature not only Superman but also Hawkgirl, Metamorpho, Mr. Terrific, Guy Gardner’s Green Lantern, and The Engineer from the Authority, who will then spin off into The Authority film. Guy Gardner will likely connect to the Lanterns television show, while Supergirl is also rumored to appear in Superman: Legacy before appearing in her own film. Characters from the various films can likely crossover and appear together in small minor roles to make the universe feel far more connected.
Less Is Always More
While there always seems to be a demand for more and more superhero content, sometimes less is better. The MCU began its journey by slowly introducing us to the members of the Avengers. This slow and steady approach allowed us to get to know the characters better and become invested in their stories. This approach was highly successful and resulted in the Infinity Saga being one of the most interesting stories we have seen develop on screen in recent years. By the time the MCU entered Phase 3, the franchise’s popularity was at an all-time high. It was capped with an extremely satisfying climax to the saga with Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. This was made possible due to the patient approach to storytelling that encouraged viewers to invest in the characters and the pay-off was more than worth it. But Phase 4 saw the MCU do things a bit differently.
Phase 4 was the MCU’s biggest slate up to that point, and it was the introduction of the MCU television shows on Disney+. With the introduction of new characters, stories, and a new way to watch our heroes, it all felt like a bit too much. There seemed to be no focus on specific characters or stories, and instead, it was just new episodes of different shows with no real depth. This lack of direction and a need for quantity over quality was a big reason as to why Phase 4 was disappointing. The characters didn’t connect with the audience as well as the previous ones did because there were simply too many different things going on for us to care about.
Thankfully, this seems to be changing in Phase 5 with slightly fewer shows released on Disney+. But the damage is already done for Phase 4, with some of the films and shows being below the standard we are used to seeing. Often the CGI didn’t look up to scratch because of the increasing workload and several Marvel VFX artists have spoken out about this.
These are definitely issues James Gunn will have an eye on as he goes forward with his DCU. Having an insight into things in the MCU, he is in a good position to learn from these mistakes. Gunn already seems to be managing the workload. Creature Commandos is set for 2024 but that appears to be the only major DCU project. So far the only DCU film slated is Superman: Legacy for July 2025. While films like Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow, The Brave and the Bold, Swamp Thing, and The Authority are all in development, none have an official release date, and it appears Gunn and the studio are taking the time to make sure each project is up to par before rushing for a release date.
Standalone Projects Have Value, Too
Of course, the whole purpose of a cinematic universe is to place all the stories in the same universe so they can be connected and characters can join up for epic crossovers. However, jumping off the less-is-more point, it can be exhausting as a viewer (especially a new viewer) if you feel you need to watch twenty other projects to understand the latest superhero flick. James Gunn has already said how the DCU will be connected (via X). There is storytelling value in that, but if Gunn wants to expand the DCU’s reach to more than just the superfans, he needs to create some standalone, non-connected projects that take place in the same universe but are independent of other DCU stories.
Werewolf by Night, one of the MCU’s special presentations, is a modern Halloween classic and earned 89% on Rotten Tomatoes — proving that stories that take place in a universe without being directly connected to the main stories can be just as successful. The special presentation efficiently introduced viewers to the world they were stepping into without info-dumping exposition. Also, anyone who hadn’t seen previous Marvel adventures likely didn’t feel confused watching the project since it was a mostly self-contained story about the supernatural side of the MCU.
Thankfully, Gunn may be aware of this already — he mentioned how Marvel has had a difficult time making good movies after Avengers: Endgame and acknowledged how superhero fatigue can exhaust audiences. That hopefully means Gunn has a plan on tackling the DCU that won’t feel overwhelming. Part of this is by making DC projects that are not connected to the main DCU but in their own sub-franchises. Joker: Folie à Deux and The Batman – Part II are still being made and will not be forced to tie into a larger universe. This means there will be DC projects that can stand apart from an interconnected universe.
After years of inconsistency, it is an exciting time to be a DC fan. The MCU has shown what works and what doesn’t work, and it looks like James Gunn is the perfect person to lead the DCU in the right direction.