James Gunn, on the eve of The Suicide Squad’s release, has had some words to say about superhero movies.

Warning: spoilers follow for The Lord of the Rings.

As personal makeovers go, James Gunn, the director of the soon-to-release The Suicide Squad, and the soon-to-shoot Guardians Of The Galaxy Volume 3, has undergone quite the physical metamorphosis of late. Gone is the mess of dark, spiky hair and clean-shaven jawline, replaced instead by a lustrous white locks with a matching beard. For a storyteller so steeped in Tolkien’s works, (he’s previously cited Middle Earth as a keystone for the birth of his own impressive imagination,) I can’t help wonder if he’s channelling a little Gandalf lately.

Think about it for a moment: like the famed wizard, Gunn was likewise cast down from a mountaintop, dismissed by Disney from directing the Guardians series whilst he was at the peak of his powers. 

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Gunn was of course fired by Disney in 2018 for historic tweets that he’d already acknowledged and apologised for. He retreated into darkness and contemplation, a bit like Gandalf, following the wizard’s plunge into darkness at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. Happily, both would return victorious, somewhat empowered and well, with slightly less colour in their locks than when we saw them last. 

Giving the metaphor once last spin, Gunn has taken a couple of steps out of the returning wizard’s playbook too. When the newly christened Gandalf the White mounted his triumphant return, he was far less eager to treatise diplomatically with the power-brokers of Middle Earth, electing instead to take matters into his own hands, and telling rulers and kingmakers alike how things were going to go down. Gunn, sporting new white locks of his own, appears to have returned from his time in the wilderness in a similar state of mind. 

Perhaps it’s the reinstatement by Disney. Maybe it’s the fact that Gunn is the first director to ‘walk between worlds’ and make a film for both Marvel and DC (no, we don’t count Whedon’s Justice League and nor should you). It could be that upon the commencement go the Guardians 3 shoot, he’ll become only the second MCU director to complete a trilogy helmed solely by a single filmmaker (after Peyton Reed and the Ant-Man films).

Most likely though, it’s that he’s probably feels like he could walk away from superhero films following Guardians 3 with nothing left to prove. Whilst Warner Bros will surely be desperate to tempt him deeper into the DC Extended Universe fold, and whilst that may well happen, he’s at a point in his career where he’s achieved so much in the genre that they need him far more than he needs them.

As such, Gunn has blazed of late, offering criticisms of not only the wider superhero movie ecosystem, but also of his contemporaries’ work: “They’re really dumb. And they’re mostly boring for me right now,” Gunn told the Irish Times last week, serving up the kind of disdainful barb that you’d expect to hear from a Scorsese, a Coppola or a Meirelles. In short, filmmakers so scornful of superhero films that you wouldn’t find them directing a comic book movie no matter how many money trucks Marvel backed up onto their front lawns. 

What’s so interesting about these comments is that Gunn isn’t one of the detractors of modern superhero films, but rather one of its central architects, his two Guardians films so far influencing both the look and tone of the MCU and the wider superhero ecosystem. That’s without even mentioning 2011’s Super. Sure, although his brilliant superhero deconstruction may have released 12 months after Matthew Vaughn’s iconoclastic Kick-Ass, it was arguably even more daring and was an original screenplay of Gunn’s too (the excellent Kick-Ass being based on an existing Mark Millar book).

When some trash superhero films, you get the sense that it’s because they don’t really understand it, or rather, they don’t understand what makes it so special to its legions of fans. Gunn however, does understand them, better than most of us ever will, and so his proclamations of doom carry greater weight. “We know about the way cowboy films went,” Gunn told the Irish Times, “and the way war films went. I don’t know, I think you don’t have to be a genius to put two and two together and see that there’s a cycle to those sorts of films, you know and that the only hope for the future of the comic book and superhero films is to change them up… but if the movies don’t change, it’s gonna get really, really boring.”

Perhaps hearing somebody who has contributed so much to the success of the films predict their possible demise might just be the wake-up call that the companies behind these movies need. Certainly, Gunn believes that for superhero films to avoid stagnancy, filmmakers working within that area of cinema must want to (and be allowed to) take risks, telling The New York Times a couple of weeks ago that with The Suicide Squad, “I knew I had a chance that very few filmmakers have ever had, which is to make a huge-budget film with no holds barred in terms of the plot, the effects, the sets. I felt a responsibility to take chances.” 

How many chances Gunn has taken remains to be seen, with the release of The Suicide Squad just around the corner. But with the fate of history’s most lucrative cinematic franchise in their hands, it is easy to see why Disney and Kevin Feige, the unifying creative force behind the Marvel films, might not wholeheartedly agree with Gunn’s belief that is is the “responsibility” of creators to take chances.

Whilst both Feige and the Mouse House might see greenlighting Deadpool 3 and bringing Ryan Reynolds’ much-loved character into the MCU as evidence of them taking a creative gamble – following two incredibly successful films already in the Deadpool franchise made at Fox – that’s hardly the case. In fact, the real gamble, given the popularity of the character’s current incarnation, would be trying to change or sanitise the character (not that we’re recommending that approach, just to be clear.) 

More telling regarding Marvel Studios’ direction, was Feige’s announcement back in April that there are no plans for any other MCU R-rated films, meaning that Bassam Tariq’s planned Blade film for Marvel, starring Mahershala Ali, is set to be PG-13. If there was ever a film for Marvel Studios to experiment with skewing towards an older audience, Blade is surely the one,  given the character’s proven success and existing visibility with older audiences outside of the MCU. But as Disney continues its four-quadrant rampage towards world domination, homogenised superhero cinema, as enjoyable as it may be, may well be the future. Unless Deadpool 3 does the kind of money that can persuade a company with a clear and successful business model (that pretty much allows it to print money) to reconsider its approach.

Perhaps that’s why Gunn’s comments feel like a mild rebuke to Marvel, with his claim that he was given creative carte blanche to make The Suicide Squad a marked contrast to ‘the Marvel Method’, A method he has described by stating “there’s no doubt Kevin Feige is way more involved with editing than people are at Warner Bros. He gives more notes.”

The filmmaker has also referenced 2019’s Joker as an example of Warner Bros being more creatively open than its competition, name-checking the film when discussing ways in which the genre can evolve, remarking, “the fact that they did Joker which is a totally different type of movie, that to me is cool.”

Whilst it’s far too early to say, it seems to us like Gunn could be hinting at a future within the DCEU, a career move he’s not likely to cop to as he commences shooting his next Marvel movie.  After Guardians Of The Galaxy 3, Gunn has already hinted that his future lies in blockbuster filmmaking rather than a return to his indie roots, telling The New York Times “I love toys and the explosions and the cameras, frankly. I love to be able to work on a big playing field.”

They say that real change has to come from the inside and perhaps whatever Gunn’s next superhero project is after Guardians 3 will be the one to redefine things. Rewriting the rules of engagement for studios and directors and blazing a trail for other filmmakers to follow as the recently-departed Richard Donner did with 1978’s Superman, or as Jon Favreau did with 2008’s Iron Man, both films that Gunn has recently expressed admiration for.

It’s an approach that Gandalf – yep, he’s back – would certainly agree with.

After all, if you know your Lord Of The Rings, you’ll recall that the wily wizard had to supplant Saruman’s position as Head Wizard, taking his title of ‘the White’ to gain the necessary authority to travel between disputing kingdoms and effect meaningful change upon Middle Earth. With his newfound status, Gunn is also now able to travel between rival factions and impress upon them the power of his vision. Gandalf of course, reappeared memorably in The Two Towers just when the need was at its direst, following self-destructive years  of calcification and inaction. Likewise, perhaps Gunn’s imminent return, accompanied by his ‘second wave’ of superhero films, can save the movies from themselves.

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