James Gunn’s plans for DC are brave, bold and bereft of Batfleck – apparently

<span>Photograph: Broadimage/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Broadimage/Rex/Shutterstock

Farewell then, to the DCEU and all that. Hello to the newly monikered DCU, James Gunn’s attempted transformation of Warner Bros’s DC comic book macro-verse into the very thing it really should have been in the first place: an interconnected web of superhero film and TV tales in which the only far-out, cosmic nuttiness can be found on screen rather than among the men in suits.

During a presentation on the Warner Bros lot in Los Angeles, Gunn and his creative partner, Peter Safran, suggested they, too, had been flabbergasted by the utter mess made of the DCEU by their predecessors over the past decade. “As everyone here probably knows, the history of DC is pretty messed up,” Gunn said. “No one was minding the mint. They were giving away intellectual property like they were party favours at any creator who smiled at them.”

He added: “There is the Arrowverse, there was the DCEU, which then split and became the Joss Whedon Justice League at one point and the Snyderverse. At another point there is Superman & Lois, there is Reevesverse, there are all these different things. And even us. We came and did Suicide Squad and that became Peacemaker and all of sudden Bat-Mite is a real thing.”

So what’s the solution, the big Gunn plan to switch everything up and usher in a brave new DC future? It sounds very much like the film-maker plans, first and foremost, to simply make it clearer when a movie is intended to be part of something bigger and when it is a standalone entry that doesn’t necessarily need to be spun off into gazillions of additional episodes. Five new movies – Superman: Legacy, The Authority, The Brave and the Bold, Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow and Swamp Thing – will be the first official entries in the new DCU, while the upcoming sequel to Matt Reeves’ The Batman, as well as films like Todd Phillips’ Joker: Folie à Deux, will be labelled DC Elseworlds entries to distinguish them from the main timeline.

Moreover, the upcoming The Flash will serve as an apex between older DCEU movies – Shazam! Fury of the Gods, Blue Beetle and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom are also due out in 2023 and have zilch to do with Gunn and his grand plans – and the coming revolution.

“I think that we’ve got lucky with the next four movies, frankly, because we have Shazam, which leads into Flash, which resets everything, which then goes into Blue Beetle, which is totally disconnected,” Gunn said. “He can totally be a part of the DCU. [That] goes into Aquaman, which leads into Superman, our first big project.

“But the one thing that we can promise is that everything from Superman forward ... will be canon and will be connected. We’re using some actors from the past. We’re not using other actors from the past, but everything from that moment forward will be connected and consistent.”

Except, of course, the bits that aren’t going to be connected because they are part of the Elseworlds branch of movies. It all sort of makes sense, and is certainly less confusing than the old DC approach, which rather resembled a sports team that has had 11 different managers in the past decade, each having hired players who suited their own entirely idiosyncratic playing methods. The result is the horrifying mishmash of contrasting styles that seems like it has been the story of DC pretty much for ever now.

Chapter one of the great reset will be titled Gods and Monsters, and it is promising that Gunn and his team aren’t steering clear of the big tasks they need to tackle if the studio is to get back on track. No DC roster would be complete without a movie about the last son of Krypton, and Superman: Legacy will apparently attempt to reframe Kal-El as a big blue boy scout who’s struggling to balance his alien and human natures. Even better, Gunn is writing it himself.

Naturally, there’s also a Batman movie, The Brave and the Bold, and this one will represent a challenge. Not since 1997’s execrable Batman & Robin has there been a live action attempt to bring the Bat family to the big screen, and we all know how that one ended up. The DCU take will borrow from Grant Morrison’s acclaimed seven-year comic book run, with a special focus on a Robin we’ve never seen before in the multiplexes. “This is the story of Damian Wayne, who is Batman’s actual son, who he didn’t know existed for the first eight to 10 years of his life,” Gunn explains. “He was raised as a little murderer and assassin. He’s a little son of a bitch. He’s my favourite Robin.

Batman holding a spear next to Robin, both in masks
George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell in the much-derided Batman & Robin. Photograph: United Archives GmbH/Alamy

Ben Affleck, meanwhile, looks set to retire the cape and cowl (again) for a final time after The Flash, though he will be tapped up to potentially direct for the new regime. This sounds like the right call, as the Oscar winner is up there with George Clooney and Val Kilmer in the race to be the worst dark knight ever.

There is also more esoteric fare on the slate. Swamp Thing, which James Mangold has just signed on to direct, is described as a movie that will focus on the monstrous hero’s dark origins. Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow will centre on Superman’s cousin, Kara Zor-El, and is based on the recent Tom King and Bilquis Evely comic book of the same name, a vengeful space western in which Superman’s bitter cousin leaves Earth to help an alien woman track down the murderers who killed her father.

The Authority will adapt Wildstorm Comics’ team of “cynical, brutally pragmatic superheroes” who are famed for taking a rather aggressive and no-nonsense approach to the whole “protecting the Earth” fandango. Gunn is clearly excited about the prospect of bringing an ensemble often described as an anti-Justice League to the big screen, though given how weirdly knuckle-headed the DCEU Justice League were at times (here’s looking at you, gun-toting Batfleck), it’s possible the person in the street won’t notice much difference.

Questions still remain, not least: can Gunn really reinvent DC while retaining stars from the many diverse creative regimes that preceded him? Viola Davis is staying on as Amanda Waller in the Peacemaker spin-off DCU TV series Waller, and won’t be the only one. Then again, rival Marvel never really had a problem with occasionally cribbing from, and somehow retrospectively improving, not-very-good pre-MCU movies such as The Incredible Hulk – as Tim Roth’s wonderfully wry performance in She-Hulk: Attorney at Law proved recently.

Moreover, this is ultimately an exciting, brave and appealingly unexpected slate, brought to us by a man who clearly has immense passion for the comic book universe he is creating. Only time will tell if he winds up as just one more bright-eyed creative brought low by overambition and an inability to evade the corporate forces that seem to work constantly behind the DC scenes to turn comic book gold into big screen lead. But let’s hope it goes the other way and Gunn can wrangle the studio into something approaching brilliance. Frankly, it’s about time DC got its day in the sun.