In what felt like the best alternative outcome for writer/direct James Gunn after his dismissal from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, word broke on Tuesday that the filmmaker is in talks to write and possibly direct the next installment of Warner Bros. Pictures’ Suicide Squad series. Mirroring major repositioning of talent between Marvel Comics and DC Comics over the decades, Gunn is moving to the crosstown rival.
Talent moving between the Big Two publishers is nothing new to comics fans. Jack Kirby infamously left Marvel several times. During a period in the 1970s, he found a home at DC and created enduring characters like Darkseid, the rest of the New Gods, and OMAC. Happy! co-creator Grant Morrison switched between the two frequently, creating books like Skrull Kill Krew and Marvel Boy at Marvel and The Multiversity at DC. More recently, Brian Michael Bendis decamped from Marvel after nearly two decades to write Superman, and anything else that strikes his fancy, exclusively for the “Distinguished Competition.”
In film circles, though, driving the few miles between the Disney and Warner studio lots in Burbank, CA is unusual. Actor Djimon Hounsou will appear in both Captain Marvel and Shazam! next year – cementing another connection between the title characters – but behind-the-camera creative talent seems to stay put or leave the superhero business altogether. No one at Warner Bros. tried to poach Kenneth Branagh when he declined to return for the Thor sequel, for example. Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins may come the closest, as she was once scheduled to direct that Thor sequel, but left over creative differences with Marvel. Gunn is the first case of a key creative Marvel Studios participant taking an active hand in a DC film project.
Of course, Gunn’s case is unusual both in the circumstances of his departure and the connection between Suicide Squad and Guardians of the Galaxy. Snapping him up may be one of the savviest things Warner Bros. has done for its DC Entertainment properties in some time. But what does he really bring to the table? Here are just five reasons Gunn could be the perfect choice to direct the next Suicide Squad movie.
While Suicide Squad is an old DC Comics concept – it began its life as a science fiction/adventure strip in the 1950s – the tone of the eventual 2016 film was very much a reaction to Gunn’s first Guardians of the Galaxy film. As originally conceived, director David Ayer’s concept for the film was more in line with his previous picture Fury and the tone established by Zack Snyder in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
The reasons for the change in tone were two-fold: Guardians of the Galaxy’s box office success, and a trailer for Suicide Squad cut with Guardians’ use of color and classic rock in mind. As both films are about a gang of ne’er-do-wells trying to do good, the Suicide Squad trailer attempted the playful tone of Gunn’s movie and earned a huge reaction from those who saw it. Anticipation was high, but the film Ayer delivered did not match the look or feel of the trailer. Reshoots were commissioned to align the film with the buzz from the trailer and the Guardians tone. The end result was a film that introduced its characters three times in three different ways, including the use of the stylized lettering featured in the trailer.
Though successful at the box office, no one at the studio seemed to be in a rush to realize Suicide Squad’s next mission. Ayer walked away, later decrying the strictures of the “standard issue PG-13 studio movie,” and the studio courted people like J.A. Bayona to take his place. Gavin O’Connor was scheduled to direct the sequel, but in hiring Gunn to write the new version, it seems pretty clear Warner and DC Entertainment want to chase his particular vision of bad guys turned good.
At this point, it is hard to remember just how weird Guardians of the Galaxy seemed prior to its 2014 release. It featured Marvel characters only die-hard readers knew about, and only a fraction of them loved characters like Groot or Star-Lord. It introduced a talking raccoon, a former wrestler, the new Uhura from Star Trek, and the smiley buffoon from Parks & Recreation as an action hero. It seemed like a confluence of risky ideas, and yet it’s pre-release hype began with a poster boldly proclaiming “You’re Welcome.”
When audiences finally saw the pictures, they fell in love with Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Drax (Dave Bautista), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and Peter (Chris Pratt). “I am Groot” became the catchphrase of the summer and Baby Groot became the must have trinket from the film. And while comic book writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning should get some credit for bringing these previously unrelated Marvel characters together in 2008 (screenwriter Nicole Perlman also deserves a shoutout for the initial drafts of the screenplay), Gunn’s writing and directing made this odd assortment surprisingly lovable in their faults and their quips.
Since writer John Ostrander re-imagined the concept in the 1980s as a press-ganged corps of criminals doing black bag work for the U.S. government, Suicide Squad has been, by its very nature, an odd assortment of surprisingly lovable villains and anti-heroes. Deadshot is one of the great all-purpose baddies in DC’s library, but he proved to be an ideal fit in Suicide Squad. Parts of his charisma and complexity made it to the screen – in fact, Will Smith was probably the best choice for a big screen version of Floyd Lawton’s swagger – but Gunn’s sensibilities could make him just as beloved a character in film.
Well, that’s assuming Gunn even chooses to use any of the established Squad members from the first film. Just as the Guardians lineup was in the comics when Gunn set to work, Suicide Squad‘s Task Force X – the team’s designation in government circles – is an interchangeable group, even if Deadshot and Captain Boomerang (played by Jai Courtney in the film) are mainstays. Gunn could turn around and have Amanda Waller build a new task force with the likes of Catman (yes, he’s real), Poison Ivy, Killer Frost, Copperhead, Silver Banshee and Shade the Changing Man. And, like the Guardians, he could also turn them into household names.
As mentioned before, Suicide Squad realigned its tone in an attempt to be more like Guardians of the Galaxy, and one of the key areas of this change was the use of classic rock to set the mood a la the Awesome Mix Vol. 1. But Suicide Squad lacked one key aspect of the Awesome Mix: Gunn’s ear for the rock and pop of the ’60s and ’70s.
While Guardians’ marketing strategy lead big with arguably the best known track on the mix, Blue Swede’s cover of Jonathan King’s cover of B.J. Thomas’s “Hooked on a Feeling,” the film made great use of Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love,” 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love,” and The Five Stairsteps’ “O-o-oh Child.” It also used film soundtrack staples like Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” and Rupert Holmes’ “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).” But it took all of these songs to give Guardians’ soundscape a unique identity while tying it directly to Peter Quill and his journey in the plot. As superhero movies lean heavily on specially-produced scores by the likes of Hans Zimmer, Ludwig Goransson, and Michael Giacchino, it felt revolutionary.
Suicide Squad’s response was to employ tracks like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” and, yes, “Spirit in the Sky” – seriously, you cannot get away from that song! But its most successful use of sourced music was probably Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” as a theme for Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). Other than that, the classic rock or pop choices lack the precision of Gunn’s selections and do not map to scene or characters as effectively. In the cases of The Animals’ “The House of the Rising Sun” and The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” they feel like obvious classic rock choices because they appear in a lot of movies. Almost as many as “Spirit in the Sky.”
But with Gunn, particularly if he ends up directing the picture, music becomes part of the writing process and a vital character in the film in its own right. Even if Gunn avoids creating some equivalent of the Awesome Mixes, the film will likely still feature your next favorite classic rock discovery. The Crazy World of Arthur Brown’s “Fire” and The Electric Prunes’ “I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night)” seem like good choices.
While Pratt’s dedication to physical fitness certainly helped, Gunn turned Andy Dwyer into Peter Quill. Both characters are doofuses to be sure, but Gunn’s way with actors gave Pratt an agreeable screen charisma that he’s used outside of Guardians to become a leading man. Transforming a screen persona is no small feat, but it is something Gunn seemingly does regularly. See also: Dave Bautista.
The relationship between actor and director is hard to define – asking about it will get you more impressions than anything quotable – but Gunn definitely has a way with his troop, inspiring them to deliver emotionally affecting performances while wearing blue make-up, a motion capture harness, or while standing in an empty blue set. Consider the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 scene in which Gamora and Nebula finally talk to each other about growing up in Thanos’ household. It’s genuinely devastating, and scenes like that just keeping happening throughout the film. The actors get to act even when one of the scene partners is filling in their role months later in a lonely recording booth.
Suicide Squad has exactly one scene like that: the discussion in the bar before the group decides to take on the Enchantress (Cara Delevingne). It is a good scene, particularly when El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) finally bares his soul to the group, but it’s one of the few scenes when the characters relate to one another and the actors actually get to act.
As a director, Gunn could guide his cast to truths about the characters much more quickly. Even if the group ends up reticent to share with one another, they will still be sharing their truths with the audience.
Peter Quill’s story in Vol. 2 can be looked at in two equally valid ways: he fights a living planet for the fate of the galaxy, or he finally faces the truth about his absentee father. Both have the potential to be very different stories, and yet Gunn married them in such an organic way that the moment Peter uses his Celestial power to conjure up a giant Pac-Man, it feels perfectly natural. The resolution in the first film has a similar resonance even as it goes for planet-sized stakes: the Guardians, finally realizing they are something of a team, work together to contain the energies of the Power Stone.
While the ability to make emotional connections resonate in an expensive fight scene is a standard job requirement for filmmakers in this genre, Gunn appears to have a special facility with it. Part of it may be his connection to the characters — working them into aspects of his own traumatic experiences and giving them the opportunity to find a family. It may also be a unique facet of his abilities as a storyteller.
Suicide Squad nearly pulls off the emotional resonance it wants during the final battle, thanks to El Diablo’s sacrifice. But like so much of the rest of the film, the lack of a certain subtlety keeps it from being as affecting as, say, the funeral scene at the end of Vol. 2.
Considering balance between character and spectacle is at the heart of Warner Bros.’ problems with many of its DC Comics-inspired films, bringing on someone who truly understands the needs of this sort of filmmaking may finally fix what ails the company’s superhero universe. At the very least, it means the potential for a great Suicide Squad film has never looked brighter.