Warner Bros’ decision to hire the recently ousted James Gunn to write a new Suicide Squad movie looks, at first sight, like the Hollywood equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. Gunn was fired by Marvel following the republication, by a vengeful “alt-right” commentator, of some very old (if undoubtedly abhorrent) tweets. And yet the Guardians of the Galaxy director’s standing as a film-maker and geek icon remains relatively untarnished.
This is, firstly, because his cast members stood firmly (in some cases furiously) behind him, and secondly because most Marvel superfans felt Disney ought to have tut-tutted a little over the repugnant attitudes expressed by Gunn more than a decade ago, then kindly given him a second chance – rather than figuratively throwing him straight down the gaping maw of that horrendous psychedelic space-beastie thing from Guardians of the Galaxy 2.
One studio’s loss is another’s gain, then. Yet we have been here before, gazing at a Marvel icon who made the jump to DC and was expected to achieve great things, yet somehow never managed to quite join the creative dots in pastures new, like a star footballer who just can’t gel with his new team-mates, or Batman shoehorned into The Powerpuff Girls.
After successfully shepherding two enormous Avengers movies into multiplexes, Joss Whedon was expected to do great things at DC. In the event, he was unable to rescue Zack Snyder’s Justice League as a high-profile “ghost” director, following the former’s departure for personal reasons, and eventually even found himself forced to admit defeat in his attempts to bring a Batgirl movie to the big screen.
Whedon’s first failure was to be expected: adding humour and brio to a DCEU episode burdened by its po-faced, meat-headed predecessor (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) was always going to be a tough ask. But we still don’t truly understand why Whedon couldn’t bring his trademark smarts and knack for developing strong female characters to an origins story for Barbara Gordon, especially given DC studio Warner Bros’ famed “director-first” mantra. Here was a film-maker who moaned to high heaven about the strictures he faced due to Age of Ultron’s complex place at the heart of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, admitting defeat when given carte blanche to direct his pet project.
Is it possible Whedon backtracked after learning firsthand that there is something rotten at the heart of DC? Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman remains the one decent film to have so far emerged from the nascent DCEU, and even that movie was hampered by weak special effects during the final battle scenes between baddie Aries and Diana of Themyscira. Why is everything always on fire in these climactic DC mega-meltdowns, when Marvel seems perfectly capable of staging fights against backdrops that don’t look like the seventh layer of Hades?
Picking on the studio’s special effects team might seem unfair. But these films are so digitally-led that this becomes a vital area. If the Thanos we saw in Guardians of the Galaxy had not vastly improved by the time we saw him again in last year’s Avengers: Infinity War, the Russo brothers would never have been able to pitch an entire movie around the giant purple Titan. The idea of a film as effects-heavy as Guardians of the Galaxy 2 being released with weaker digital work under the DC banner almost doesn’t bear thinking about.
There is no doubt that Warner Bros needs Gunn, who is being pitched to direct if he can nail the screenplay, to make us care about one-note characters such as Harley Quinn, Deadshot and Killer Croc in the same way Marvel fans warmed to the ebullient and lively Groot, Rocket Raccoon and Star-Lord. In an ideal world we would see Suicide Squad shorn of the latent sexism surrounding Margot Robbie’s Quinn and the clunky plotting that ruined David Ayer’s movie. Cara Delevingne need not return as the gyrating Enchantress, and it might even be better if Gunn starts with an entirely new team – there is plenty of potential to shake up the crew, given the vast number of baddies who inhabit the DC universe.
Gunn has the gravitas to stand up to the Warner suits who chose a zippy but under-thought final cut led by the team behind Suicide Squad’s popular trailers over the director’s version. But if he ends up being hampered by the simple fact that Marvel is a better studio to work with – has better effects teams, planning and support crews, and interferes at useful moments – all of this might well mean very little.
Gunn may well have saved his career by swapping one high-profile superhero ensemble for another. Only time will tell whether he has chosen the right team.