With hindsight, this feels like it was inevitable. But when James Gunn took to social media in early March to announce he would direct Superman: Legacy, the first major film in the new DC Studios initiative devised by himself and producer Peter Safran, the news came as a complicated surprise to fans — and, it seems, to the filmmaker himself.
Gunn, known for his frankness on social platforms, previously admitted a hesitancy to direct the film. “Just because I write something doesn’t mean I feel it in my bones, visually and emotionally, enough to spend over two years directing it,” he said on Twitter. “Especially not something of this magnitude.” That’s not exactly a reassuring display of confidence for fans who have waited (and waited) for a new solo Superman film to spring forth from Warner Bros. since Man of Steel muscled its way into theaters 10 years ago. Gunn’s reticence would seem to dim the prospects for Superman: Legacy.
But Gunn is selling himself short. Heck, we all might be. Over the years, the 56-year-old filmmaker has become more than a Troma provocateur or the former golden boy at Marvel Studios; he’s become a thoughtful, capable storyteller through the projects he’s made, be they grody, goofy, or great. The Suicide Squad, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, and soon Vol. 3, plus low-budget fare like Super, The Specials, and Brightburn have all played a role in the development of Gunn’s distinctive voice as a producer, writer, and director. For me, it all adds up to Superman: Legacy having the chance to be the movie filmgoers have been hoping to experience since Christopher Reeve hung up his cape all those years ago.
Gunn’s path to Superman really began with superheroes. The Specials, his first credited post-Troma Entertainment work in which he wrote, produced and co-starred (as the shrinking hero Minuteman, not pronounced the way you think), featured an off-beat Justice League draped in late-’90s douchery. The Specials is a roil of Gunn proto-matter that froths with the sort of material that would later make him famous (or infamous): Ceaseless quips, fraught relationships, impromptu dance sequences, disappointment and ennui.
The Specials established other Gunn fixtures, like his affinity for misfits and needle drops. Specials is real Y2K lounge lizard super-stuff, fleshed out by an impeccable cast (including Thomas Haden Church, Judy Greer, and Rob Lowe) and boosted/hampered by omnipresent pop music, with a slight whiff of Daniel Clowes emanating from its skeezy innards. But threaded in its laconic Gen-X jadedness is a reverence for the weirdo superhero comics Gunn devoured as a kid. “I learned how to read on them and have been reading them ever since,” he posted on Instagram in 2018. “Few things give me the comfort that a good comic book does.”
Gunn seems like the kind of comics reader who absorbs his favorite writers’ tricks of the trade. As a fan of Alan Moore, he flexed grimmer storytelling chops with Super, a scuzzy, low-budget feature that juggled dirtbag comedy with a vigilante power fantasy akin to the Rorschach character Moore devised with co-creator Dave Gibbons on Watchmen. Super pulls all sorts of comic-coded tricks to maximize the twisted, sexually repressed mania of Frank (Rainn Wilson). While the motley crew of The Specials is made up of archetypes yanked from decades’ worth of cape comics, a deconstruction of those archetypes is what props up Super.
Frank, also known as the Crimson Avenger, is a step forward for Gunn as a storyteller. Super is a refinement of his misfit trope; Frank finds a fellow traveler in Libbie (Elliot Page), another eccentric who indulges violent urges commanded by darker desire. Through them, the film adeptly contends with themes of isolation and addiction, the latter of which Gunn has publicly said is something he has battled with himself. As the film’s director, Gunn exorcises personal demons with Super in the way he’s best suited to: through cinematic catharsis in all its myriad forms. Super is cathartic, and if its depictions of alienation feel honest, it’s because James Gunn was once a misfit himself. He may still consider himself to be one, who can say.
Then there’s Brightburn, an edgelord riff on the Superman origin produced by Gunn and written by his brothers Mark and Brian. It’s a vicious what-if that distorts lessons from Moore’s playbook by essentially plopping the British writer’s brutal Kid Miracleman character on the Kent family farm. The movie’s defacto “Kents” (played by Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) are depicted as self-interested rural-hip types who attempt an Old Yeller-style coup on their alien son (Jackson A. Dunn) when his strange abilities and alien heritage turn him hostile.
It’s a slasher movie with superpowers, and its clumsy execution bangs against any complex familial implications the Gunns were reaching for. Still, while many rightfully point to Brightburn as antithetical to the optimism of Superman, tucked into its framework exists elements that speak to the chaos of a family growing apart, and as the Superman character has acquired more depth as the years have passed, so too have various interpretations of his relationship with his parents — both terrestrial and extra. Brightburn makes gestures to that complexity, which is given additional heft through the life experiences of the Gunn family.
When he tweeted to the world that he would direct Superman: Legacy, Gunn noted that the film’s release date of July 11, 2025 lands on the birthday of his late father, Jim Gunn. “He was my best friend,” he says. “He didn’t understand me as a kid, but he supported my love of comics and my love of film and I wouldn’t be making this movie now without him.” His complicated relationship with his father and reverence for misfits informs more of Gunn’s work as he gets older. The Suicide Squad reaches its emotional crescendo as Ratcatcher II (Daniela Melchior) stands up to Starro the Conqueror, emboldened by a few words imparted by her dear, departed dad (Taika Waititi, in a surprisingly effective cameo). “Why rats, Papa?” she asks, in memory, to which her father replies: “Rats are the lowliest and most despised of all creatures, my love. But if they have purpose, so do we all.”
The concept of fathers teaching their children about purpose takes a corkscrew turn in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Here, the living planet Ego (Kurt Russell) attempts to use his son Peter (Chris Pratt) to imbue the cosmos with his influence through heightened sci-fi contrivances. As Ego manipulates Peter by appealing to his personal vanity, it takes the relationships he’s built with Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Groot (Vin Diesel), and Gamora (Zoe Saldaña) to pull him back down to terra firma. But what makes Peter resolve to destroy his biological father — the poignant killing blow of the entire movie — is the realization that he’d already had a full life with another father figure, thorny and fraught with emotional dangers though it was. “He may have been your father, boy,” Yondu (Michael Rooker) tells Peter as Ego finally implodes on himself. “But he wasn’t your daddy.”
The synopsis for Superman: Legacy tells of the character’s “journey to reconcile his Kryptonian heritage with his human upbringing as Clark Kent of Smallville, Kansas.” Superman, if nothing else, is comicdom’s quintessential misfit, an orphaned alien child raised on Earth who finds inner strength through relationships with those he cares about. Legacy will explore Superman’s struggles to find himself, and with Gunn at the helm, there’s little doubt the journey will be raw, messy, exuberant, and human in all the ways that James Gunn can make it. It’s not a leap to say his entire career has been building to this moment.
The imminent release of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 marks the end of another era in Gunn’s career. Troma taught him all he needed to know about filmmaking, The Specials on through to Super made him hone those techniques into something recognizably great, and his tenure at Marvel Studios, his most successful yet as a director, pushed him to a broader horizon with higher stakes. With Superman: Legacy, a new volume begins.