With the news confirming that James Gunn will be directing Superman: Legacy, we're looking again at why he's the perfect man for the job!
Don’t you just love the smell of a fresh multiverse in the morning? New beginnings may not ultimately mean anything, but how many of us start the new year with a laundry list of resolutions that we’re ready to tackle simply because of the universal illusion of a fresh start?
Enter James Gunn, Peter Safran, and their much anticipated and — up until very recently — extremely secretive upcoming slate. You’ll find the details for most of the projects in whatever way you like to engage with IGN stories, but here, right now, with me, we’re going to talk about Superman. He’s a precarious one, that Clark Kent, and his depiction can make or break your universe for a not-insignificant number of fans. With each passing year, Superman gets trickier and trickier to write in a way that’s true to character but also fits in a contemporary space. But, at a recent press preview of their upcoming DCU plans, co-CEOs Gunn and Safran had some very interesting things to say about the Kryptonian and his impact on the future of the franchise.
During the conference, Gunn asks the rhetorical question of what’s best for DC and its fans. Is it focusing on writing Superman or is it stepping aside for someone else to take the reins? “I'm just trying to learn as best as I can,” says Gunn. “How can we keep the quality? Because that's what matters.”
He’s right about what matters, but you don’t hear a lot of creatives say such a thing out loud. Not in a way that they really mean, at least. It’s certainly refreshing to hear someone say they’ll get out of the way if need be in service of their greater vision, but Gunn went on to say a lot more about Superman that has me very excited about Superman: Legacy.
While broad, Gunn and Safran’s statements on a unified canon signifies a new dawn for DC’s cinematic universe. Though there have been strong entries in the previous universe up to this point, the studio never could quite nail the cohesiveness of Marvel. And, while comparisons to the two franchises usually have little value, the lack of cohesion has certainly hobbled DC more than it’s helped them.
Cohesion is only a piece of the puzzle needed to create an incredible multiverse, though. Setting up your tone from the jump can do a lot for a shared universe and, thankfully, the co-CEOs seem to understand that. “We’re very confident that, by the time Superman: Legacy comes out, people will understand what the DCU is,” says Safran.
But what does that mean, really? DC is made up of many different characters with wildly different tones from one another. How can we understand the future of the franchise with just one story? It certainly helps that this isn’t just a character, it’s one of the characters (speak ing, of course, of the DC Trinity which, at the moment, is just a duo until the Wonder Woman situation gets sorted). The real answer boils down to one thing, though: Do the filmmakers understand the story that they’re trying to adapt and what part it plays in the greater universe that they’re trying to unlock?
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The Embodiment of Kindness in an Unkind World
The key to a good adaptation is that you engage with but still evolve the original source material. The goal should never be to create a carbon copy of one single story. But, at the same time, there’s no sense in adapting a character that you fundamentally misunderstand, either. How does one bring DC’s mild-mannered farm boy to the silver screen in 2023 (or, in this case, 2025)?
“It focuses on Superman balancing his Kryptonian heritage with his human upbringing,” Safran says of the upcoming film. “Superman represents truth, justice, and the American way. He is kind in a world that thinks of kindness as old-fashioned.”
When it comes to creating a contemporary version of Supes in our current climate, The CW has had plenty of success with Tyler Hoechlin’s incredibly warm iteration of the character on Superman & Lois. But the shift in setting from Metropolis to Smallville has also helped the creators approach the character on a smaller scale.
I like that sort of innate goodness about Superman as his defining characteristic.
The change in locale works wonders for the CW series, but probably wouldn’t bring the same level of intrigue for fans looking to see Clark navigate his life on the big screen (and sans two bratty teenage sons – sorry, Jonathan and Jordan, you’re both the worst). Meanwhile, though it’s not as egregious as watching Martha Wayne’s pearls bounce across the pavement for the umpteenth time, I can’t imagine anyone clamoring for another Superman origin story, either. Don’t worry, though — Safran and Gunn both confirmed that won’t be the case.
“He's a big old galoot. He is a farm boy from Kansas who is very idealistic,” Gunn continues on the Man of Steel. “His greatest weakness is that he'll never kill anybody, [and] doesn't want to hurt a living soul. And I like that sort of innate goodness about Superman as his defining characteristic.”
If that one-two punch of descriptions from the two dudes running the show for the next indeterminate number of years doesn’t make you let out a huge sigh of relief, you’re probably not going to have a great time through the rest of this. Because, as far as I’m concerned, if Gunn and Safran remain true to their vision here, there’s never been a more exciting time to be a contemporary Superman fan.
Understanding What Matters
Though the existence of the Arrowverse has made it clear that you don’t always need Superman to be your starting point to create a successful DC Universe, the Snyderverse is a pretty strong indication of what happens when you use Superman as a launchpad and do so poorly. While deeper problems with Zack Snyder’s DCEU became apparent over time, they started with the fundamental misunderstanding of Superman’s core defining traits in Man of Steel.
Killing Zod gets all the glory in the overarching debate over the film but, for my money, Snyder’s failure to get the hero that he wanted to be the bedrock of his universe occurred much earlier in the movie. For a character known for the line "It's not about where you were born or what powers you have, or what you wear on your chest. It's about what you do… it's about action,” Snyder’s Superman sure does watch his father get sucked up by a tornado like it was a reasonable path in any iteration of the multiverse.
Murdering a monster to save some folks? I don’t agree with it when it comes to a Superman story, but I see how some could have ended up on the opposing side of the argument. Standing idly by while your mother is far enough from harm to be safe and your father sacrifices his life solely to keep your identity hidden? That’s not Superman. That’s not good. And while Zod’s murder can be used as a defining moment in the young hero’s story where he decides to never kill again, paternal tragedy already existed in the loss of Jor-El and the rest of Krypton (and was at this point already well known) in Kal-El’s life. There’s not only no narrative purpose for the method of Jonathan Kent’s death in Man of Steel — no matter how fixed a story point the death itself must be — but writing Clark in a way that he stands by and watches said death ignores fundamental core traits in Superman’s character. Traits that James Gunn has just made sure to highlight before his version of the character is even cast.
Gunn being the one penning the Superman: Legacy script adds a certain level of excitement to the story not because of his successes in other superhero fare, but because of his understanding of how beauty can shine through in the most unexpected places in our messed up world. At first glance, folks might think that means that Gotham City is where he should be lending his pen first. But, while I won’t say that the nuances of Batman’s domain are easy, I can say that the small glimmers of hope and fierce determination that drive the Caped Crusader forward are a simpler mountain to climb than the sharp contrast of a Clark Kent trying to fight for truth, justice, and the American way when the “American Way” hasn’t been so truth-y or justice-y as our rose-colored glasses may lead us to believe it was in the past.
The Boys’ Homelander works so well in that archetype because a character like Superman existing in the modern day feels so farfetched that it can only be told as a joke. It’s easy to call the first Captain America the obvious 1:1 to the DC hero, but Steve Rogers benefits from being the man out of time — effortlessly justifying his old-fashioned ways — and a soldier who has zero qualms with killing.
In fact, the only real immediate example of a successful contemporary Kryptonian operating on a large scale does belong to the CW, but it goes to Supergirl rather than Superman & Lois. Melissa Benoist’s Kara Danvers was able to highlight the hope of the House of El while existing in contemporary America and protecting a major city with frequent success. Some folks made fun of the series for being too earnest, but, honestly, if “too earnest” is a deterring factor, Superman and any of his Earth-bound family just might not be for you?
Even still, Supergirl matches Superman in hope but is missing the — as Gunn called it — galoot-factor. Kara watched their planet die, spent years trapped in the Phantom Zone, and is slightly more grounded than her cousin because of it. He’s saving Metropolis at 8:00, delivering a dopey one-liner and flowers to cheer up Lois by 8:05.
The Man Over the Might
It’s often been argued that Batman and Superman are two sides of the same coin, a fact which both vexes Bruce and makes the two heroes the strongest of allies. Batman is the man who made himself into a god while Superman is the god who chose to become a man. While the truest distillation of Bruce is the symbol he created to protect his city — one that he often finds himself lost in much to the detriment of his loved ones — the truest version of Kal-El is the dork from the farm who just wants to give humanity space to be the best that they can be.
The two sides of the same coin analysis may sound like innocuous semantics but it truly does add another level of complicated dimension that is required to successfully nail the hero. There is no alter ego. Superman’s goodness is not stipulatory on the glasses or cape. It is a part of him always, and a failure to embrace that is a failure to embrace the character.
Gunn’s understanding that Supes’ fundamental, unwavering goodness is what makes the hero incredible gives me so much hope for the future of DC. Superman’s decision to be the man rather than the god — one that could easily wipe humanity out with little opposition — is solely driven by that goodness. To keep it absent in his character is to destroy the central tenet of his ethos.
DC Universe: Every Upcoming Movie and TV Show
Is it possible that, at the end of the day, the core of Superman is accurately represented but it’s at the center of a bad film? Certainly. Man of Steel managed to flip that to be a solid film that simply didn’t understand its title character, after all. I could be buying into all the pretty words and putting my faith back in a franchise that acted as one of the personal foundations in my youth immediately after they axed one of the most anticipated films of my life not months ago (RIP, Batgirl).
But, the thing is, a franchise can survive a bad movie. What it can’t survive — clearly — is a failure to understand the core tenets of its characters and the principle differences between them that drive those individual characters forward. Gunn has proven not just that he understands an ensemble of vastly different protagonists in the Guardians of the Galaxy films, but that he knows what makes each and every one of them tick. Given that the writer, director, and now co-CEO of DC Studios has made it his mission not to lie on main, I’m inclined to believe that the guy both has the right idea and isn’t just telling us all what we want to hear.
Besides, isn’t Superman all about hope?
Some quotes have been edited or condensed for clarity.
Amelia is the entertainment Streaming Editor here at IGN. She's also a film and television critic who spends too much time talking about dinosaurs, superheroes, and folk horror. You can usually find her with her dog, Rogers. There may be cheeseburgers involved. Follow her across social @ThatWitchMia