James Gunn, Peter Safran Vow to Put Screenwriting First to Fix the Once ‘F—ed Up’ DC Studios

Peter Safran and James Gunn
Gunn: Courtesy Image / Art Streiber; Safran: Courtesy Image / Araya Diaz

Like a spaceship from the planet Krypton crashing into Earth, a sweeping new vision has landed at DC Studios from leaders James Gunn and Peter Safran.

At a press event on the Warner Bros. studio lot on Monday, the pair announced both a slew of new superhero projects and a bold philosophy for how to go about constructing a cinematic universe in an industry that has been dominated for over a decade by Gunn’s former employer, Marvel Studios.

In fact, Gunn is still on the hook to finish Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” which due to open in May, and the filmmaker frequently cited his past experiences with Marvel in general and the “Guardians” movies specifically when discussing his and Safran’s plans for the DCU. But after three months on the job, both men also drew sharp contrasts between how they intended to approach superhero storytelling and how other studios — including Marvel and previous regimes at Warner Bros. — have, in their view, fallen short.

First and foremost, Gunn and Safran were adamant that they would not greenlight a movie until it was ready.

“People have become beholden to [release] dates, to getting movies made no matter what,” Gunn said of the modern studio habit of scheduling tentpole films and sequels for theatrical release long before creative teams come together. “I’m a writer at my heart, and we’re not going to be making movies before the screenplay is finished.”

Gunn said that even films with front-loaded release dates will be pushed down the calendar if the script is not ready prior to production. “I’ve seen it happen again and again — it’s a mess” he said. “It’s the primary reason for the deterioration in quality of films today, versus 20-30 years ago.”

To that end, of the 10 DCU titles Gunn and Safran presented on Monday, only one has a release date: “Superman: Legacy,” which Gunn is writing, is set to open on July 11, 2025. Otherwise, the feature films (including a new Supergirl movie and a Batman & Robin movie) and TV series for HBO Max (including a Green Lantern detective series and a “Wonder Woman” prequel series set on Themiscyra) are undated, and will remain so, Gunn said, until their scripts are solid.

“The degradation of the writer in Hollywood has been a terrible story,” Gunn said. “It’s gotten much worse since I first moved here 23 years ago. Writers have been completely left out of the loop in favor of actors and directors, and making the writer more prominent and more important in this process is really important to us.”

Gunn added that he believes superhero fatigue is a real thing largely because of the lack of care given to the writing process.

“They make these movies where they don’t have third acts written,” he said. “And then they start writing them during [production], you know, making them up as they’re going along. And then you’re watching a bunch of people punch each other, and there’s no flow even to the action.”

Added Safran, “It’s bad movie fatigue.”

In order to avoid that issue, Gunn and Safran said they are aiming to diversify the kinds of stories they’re telling at DC Studios, taking a not-too-thinly-veiled swipe at a plot model familiar to fans of Marvel Studios.

“You can’t be telling the same ‘good guy, bad guy, giant thing in the sky, good guys win’ story again,” Gunn said. “You need to tell stories that are more morally complex. You need to tell stories that don’t just pretend to be different genres, but actually are different genres.”

The desire for a more wide-ranging stories could also translate into a greater variety of filmmaking voices.

“It’s not the Gunn-verse,” Gunn said. “What makes it so fun is to see is to see stories that are completely different as the individual expression of the writers and the director that are making those projects … and not about me superimposing something on top of that.”

The struggle for DC to connect to fans and earn the tens of billions that its rival Marvel has made over has been well documented, and Gunn had a pretty blunt assessment of how the litany of random, disconnected and often undercooked DC adaptations had diluted the overall brand.

“As everyone here probably knows, the history of DC is pretty messed up, it was fucked up,” Gunn said.

Gunn name-checked TV series spearheaded by TV super-producer Greg Berlanti, like “Arrow” and “The Flash”; the feature films run by Zack Snyder, until Joss Whedon took the reins of the widely panned “Justice League,” leading to a fan campaign that resurrected Snyder’s original vision, which debuted on HBO Max in 2021; and more recent adaptations by Matt Reeves (“The Batman”) and Gunn and Safran themselves (“The Suicide Squad”). Peppered throughout were disappointments and busts such as last fall’s “Black Adam” or “Birds of Prey.”

“No one was minding the mint,” Gunn said. “They were just giving away IP like they were party favors to any creators that smiled at them.”

The co-leaders rejoiced at having one unified creative force behind DC, one that will encompass movies, series, animation, and gaming. But given their parent company CEO David Zaslav’s commitment to shedding debt and cutting costs, there’s wiggle room in how and where these projects manifest — especially for series.

“We have the ability to sell outside of HBO Max, if that makes sense,” Safran said. “So we’ll figure out if there are certain shows coming up that would be better served elsewhere, or [if] there’s not real estate on HBO Max for us. But we like the idea of having shows on Amazon and Hulu and Netflix. It just broadens the DC audience.”

The men understand that the DC projects which predate them, upcoming films like “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” and Jason Momoa’s “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom,” have their loyalists. They underscored how “lucky” they were with what remains, Gunn said, and said the door is not closed on possible returns for Momoa’s Aquaman or the character The Flash, who will have a solo film this year starring the embattled Ezra Miller. Similarly, the pair will file several notable projects into a folder called “DC Elseworlds,” which aim to stretch the limits of what comic book adaptations can be. This includes a sequel to Reeves’ “The Batman” with Robert Pattinson, a sequel to Todd Philips’ “Joker” which teams Joaquin Phoenix with Lady Gaga, and a possible spin on Superman from J.J. Abrams.

Despite a considerable amount of housekeeping, the Monday presentation was upbeat. And even if Warner Bros. Discovery CEO Zaslav wasn’t present, Gunn and Safran know they have his support where it counts — at the bank.

“Their investment in content creation is spectacular. It s huge. There, they haven’t cut back, ” Safran said. Getting DC Studios in fighting shape will not only call for A+ screenplays, but billions in investment.

“There’s no question of ‘Do we have the resources?'” Safran said. “I have zero doubt that they will commit.”

Perhaps the most striking point of difference between DC and Marvel was in Safran and Gunn themselves. Marvel Studios is famously one of the most secretive creative entities in the industry, and while its president and chief creative officer Kevin Feige is second-to-none in his ability to communicate with fans, Feige also has a well-earned reputation for keeping his cards so close to his chest it’s not clear if he’s holding any cards at all.

Gunn and Safran, by contrast, were open books with the press on Monday, answering any and every question put to them over the relatively loose and easy going hour-long presentation, including about the controversies dogging “The Flash” star Ezra Miller and “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” star Zachary Levi. Gunn said that kind of transparency is how he and Safran plan to run DC Studios overall.

“If somebody is doing something that isn’t working, we’re going to be honest,” Gunn said. “One of my primary focuses is being honest with everyone. Somebody brings me an idea that doesn’t work, I’m honest about it. We’re building right now the foundation for a studio that we want to last, and it just can’t last if we haven’t built on anything other than rigorous honesty.”

Take Gunn’s answer to the question about whether he’s going to have to keep swatting down untrue rumors on Twitter.

Have to?” Gunn said incredulously. “That’s my joy!”

VIP+ Analysis: Why WBD’s Gunn Grab Is Crucial for DC