James Gunn Isn’t The Obvious Choice For Superman Director, But He’s The Right One

James Gunn can turn Superman into a human figure, rather than a distant, potentially terrifying god.

By Nathan Kamal | Updated

james gunn dc superman

It is safe to say that the beginning of James Gunn’s role as steward of the DC Universe has been controversial, with the filmmaker and new co-CEO (with longtime producing partner Jonathan Safran) inheriting a whole mess of projects in various stages of development and the lingering aftertaste of Zack Snyder’s DC Extended Universe. As of right now, the only project that James Gunn is personally directing is Superman: Legacy and, though the filmmaker’s often crass, gory style is not what many fans would pick for the most iconic of superheroes, it is necessary for one big reason: James Gunn can make Superman human.

Both James Gunn and Peter Safran have stated that they feel Superman: Legacy is the true start of their new DCU, leaving behind the remnants of Zack Snyder’s grim vision of the franchise. As such, it is reasonable to view the film as something of a thrown gauntlet, a demonstration of purpose to fans, many of whom are still very vocally smarting from the loss of Henry Cavill as the Man of Steel. Whatever tone James Gunn chooses for Superman: Legacy can be considered the tone of the DCU as a whole.

If James Gunn’s resume provides any hint as to Superman: Legacy’s direction, the movie can be expected to be profane, full of unexpected violence, and prone to deflating concepts of superhero idealism. Both his Guardians of the Galaxy franchise and his first foray with DC, The Suicide Squad, are movies that squarely place opportunistic, misfit antiheroes at the center of the narrative. Clearly, this does not line up with the popular image of Clark Kent, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist from America’s heartland and superpowered defender of truth and justice. 

superman x-ray vision

But, aside from his Troma-trained instincts for blood and guts, the real core of James Gunn’s filmmaking is emotional vulnerability and, more than ever, audiences need a Superman who has a real connection with the world. After a decade of Zack Snyder’s vision of the Last Son of Krypton as a morose, troubled god-figure destined to become the worst version of himself under Darkseid‘s control, we could use a Superman who seems like he can actually relate to people. 

That’s not a dig at Zack Snyder, whose work portraying superheroes, ancient Greek warriors, and talking owls as untouchable, unknowable icons is largely successful on its own terms. But James Gunn likes to have fun with his heroes in a way that Snyder never does and is clearly interested in them as people, not just as totemic figures of modern pop culture.

More than anything else, it might be useful to look to James Gunn’s most recent DC project, the critically acclaimed HBO Max series Peacemaker, which stars John Cena as the bullheaded, ultraviolent, and deeply troubled vigilante. While the show never shies away from the intense violence characterized by previous James Gunn movies like Slither, it also treats a cartoon figure like Peacemaker as a person with his own regrets and trauma. And if you need any reassurance that James Gunn can turn basically anything into goofy fun, check out that opening title credit sequence dance.

As is his habit, James Gunn recently took to Twitter to both confirm that he was directing Superman: Legacy and explain his complex feelings around taking on the job, which involved the death of his father and his own insecurity about whether he could get a firm grasp on the material. He also revealed that the film will be primarily about Superman looking to reconcile his humble Kansan upbringing with the legacy of his illustrious Kryptonian heritage, which sure sounds like he is looking to explore the complexity of Superman other than he is a Christ-like figure to be feared. Plus, maybe he’ll give him a fun dance too.