In 2011 James Gunn, the man who now controls Superman, was asked by an interviewer if he’d ever like to do a movie for Marvel or DC. “There’s a few I’d consider,” he answered. “But my problem is I’m more interested in lesser known entities.”
At the time, Gunn’s most recent movie was a gory sendup of comic-book vigilantes called Super, in which The Office’s Rainn Wilson plays a costumed vigilante who becomes so intoxicated by the prospect of meting out justice that he splits a man’s skull with a pipe wrench for cutting in line. But in the years since, the lesser-known entities called the Guardians of the Galaxy have made Gunn one of the prime movers in the world of comic-book movies—which is to say American culture, which is to say, arguably, the world. And as with Obi-Wan Kenobi before him, the end of Gunn’s tenure in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which wraps up with this weekend’s release of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, has only made him more powerful. His next gig is as the co-head of DC Studios, a position that puts him on par with his old boss Kevin Feige and has given him the ability to reconceive the MCU’s inconstant competitor from the ground up. Among other things, he’ll be picking the next Man of Steel, the star of the movie Superman: Legacy, which Gunn is also slated to write and direct for a 2025 release.
Rags-to-riches stories are a dime a dozen in Hollywood, so the fact that a Catholic schoolkid from small-town Missouri is now at the helm of one of the industry’s most valuable franchises is not especially noteworthy. But the way Gunn made his way to the top is of note, not as an indie darling given a shot at the brass ring or even a geek made good like his old pal Joss Whedon, but as a purveyor of unrepentant schlock, a gadfly whose early forays into superhero storytelling are designed to mock the genre’s clichés and expose its sometimes repellent underpinnings. In short, he’s not a mythmaker but a demythologizer, one who’s now charged with reinventing the most potent comic-book myth of them all.
James Gunn entered the movie business via Troma Entertainment, the legendary-slash-notorious exploitation studio best known for the Toxic Avenger series. It might not have been the obvious entry point for someone who’d just gotten an MFA from Columbia, but Gunn saw an opportunity to get his hands dirty, literally: As he told Rolling Stone earlier this year, his primary job on the set of his first movie, Tromeo and Juliet, was “to choreograph the sex scenes and pump blood through [a] guy’s neck.” Gunn also co-wrote the screenplay, a Shakespearean riff—timed to capitalize on the release of the DiCaprio/Danes version—in which drinking the apothecary’s potion turns Juliet into a mutant cow-monster with an oversize penis.
Gunn stayed in the Troma fold for years, even co-authoring the autobiography of the studio’s legendary co-founder Lloyd Kaufman, with a title that could have applied to them both: All I Need to Know About Filmmaking I Learned From The Toxic Avenger. But by 2000 he had written the script for his first non-Troma feature, a superhero satire called The Specials. He’d also sold his first novel, The Toy Collector, whose protagonist is an orderly who steals drugs from the hospital to feed his true addiction: vintage toys, which connect him to the rare happy moments in his otherwise difficult childhood. (The character’s name is James Gunn.)
With a script by Gunn, a cast that includes Judy Greer, Thomas Haden Church, and Paget Brewster—not to mention a cameo by Gunn’s future wife Jenna Fischer—and direction by The Last of Us and Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin, The Specials boasts so much talent it’s almost shocking how far wide of the mark it falls. (The only clue to Gunn’s future success is the presence of executive producer Peter Safran, now his co-head at DC Studios.) The core idea, a no-budget look at the humdrum life of the world’s “sixth- or seventh-greatest” superhero team, has promise, but the satire feels flat and nonspecific, as if it has nothing to push against. Perhaps that’s because the movie, released three years after the franchise-killing Batman & Robin and two before the first Spider-Man, was released at a relatively fallow period in the history of comic-book movies. The year’s most popular superhero release, X-Men, barely edged into the year’s top 10, placing behind such films as Dinosaur and What Women Want—a performance that hardly foreshadowed the genre’s future dominance.
Then Scooby-Doo changed everything. Gunn wrote the script for the first movie, which ruled the American box office on its opening weekend in 2002, and its sequel, which did the same in 2004. But it was a coincidence of timing that truly set his career ablaze. The week before Scooby-Doo 2 went to No. 1, another Gunn-penned movie did the same: Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead. At that point, Gunn told me in 2011, “I could have done whatever the fuck I wanted. And I did what I wanted.”
What James Gunn wanted was to make an homage to the low-budget creature features of the 1950s, with Troma-esque levels of gore and a 21st-century sense of self-awareness. That movie was Slither, in which a malevolent alien falls to Earth outside a small Southern town and infects its inhabitants with hordes of large, sluglike creatures that wiggle in through their mouths. The movie is gross and disturbing—a scene in which an alien-possessed Michael Rooker punctures a woman with fleshy tentacles is deliberately staged as a rape—and also comically over the top, a gonzo mixture of tones that characterizes much of Gunn’s pre- (and post-) Marvel work. (This edgelord phase would also come close to costing him his career, when jokes from the period reemerged and got him fired from Marvel.)
Slither was a modest box-office failure, but it became a cult favorite on home video and firmly established Gunn among the Comic-Con set. The trouble was that the kinds of movies he wanted to make, genre pictures with budgets small enough to avoid studio scrutiny but large enough to prevent every day on set from being a struggle, were drying up as studios shifted toward a greater reliance on franchise films. That year, 2006, only three movies in the domestic top 10 weren’t based on some sort of preexisting property. Within five years, the number would be zero.
Gunn turned to alternative channels, shooting an Xbox Live short about a female superhero who fights crime alongside a talking raccoon, and a web series for Spike TV called PG Porn. But his movies weren’t getting made, and he and Fischer, now one of the stars of The Office, divorced in 2007. Still, it wasn’t long after the divorce that Fischer suggested that Gunn try to make Super, a script he’d initially written between the two Scooby-Doos, and that she knew the perfect person for the leading role: her TV co-star Rainn Wilson.
Gunn could scrape together only a few million to make Super, and he’s called the shoot the hardest of his career. The movie has a harsh, almost disreputable look to it, as if it’s the kind of thing you don’t want anyone to catch you watching. But that fits its story, in which Wilson’s character, a short-order cook in the world’s greasiest diner, is pulled toward greater and more brutal acts of violence as his obsession with becoming a costumed crime-fighter consumes his sense of self. The movie plays up that brutality, especially once Wilson’s Frank, who christens himself the Crimson Bolt, is joined by Libby (Elliot Page), a comic-store clerk who appoints herself as his sidekick, Boltie, and is quickly revealed as a gleeful psychopath. Boltie practically howls with joy after cutting a thug in two with Frank’s car, and she lustily slices up another henchman with a pair of suspiciously Wolverine-like claws.
Super is a dark and angry movie, but it’s also deeply funny, as long as you have the right sick-stupid sense of humor. (Frank decides that the perfect catchphrase to strike fear into the hearts of evildoers is “Shut up, crime!”) It’s both an embodiment and a satire of the way comic-book fantasies can provide an outlet for a particular form of impotent male rage, although Gunn has taken care to point out that Frank is not a stereotypical comic-book nerd, and stumbles onto comics only after he’s decided to take the law into his own hands. It’s also deeply personal, in surprising ways. The inspiration for Frank’s vigilante turn is a quasi-religious hallucination in which his brain is touched by the finger of God—or rather the tentacle, since the visitation is modeled on a racy anime Frank was watching earlier in the night. That vision, Gunn has said, is patterned on ones he experienced himself, attributed to temporal lobe epilepsy. “The story of Frank is the story of me,” he once said. “The question of whether Frank is crazy or not, in some ways, applies to me as well.”
Super was an even bigger flop than Slither, proof that the audience that once sustained the filmmakers Gunn loved—B-movie auteurs like George Romero, John Carpenter, and Sam Raimi—had become accustomed to glossier fare. But Gunn had gotten the attention of the superhero industrial complex, and his ability to connect with characters on the margins was enough for Marvel’s Kevin Feige to ask if he might be interested in taking on a group of no-name superheroes called the Guardians of the Galaxy. Gunn’s initial answer was no. “I was like, ‘I don’t know, it seems like Bugs Bunny with the Avengers,’ ” he recalled. But one of the characters stuck in his head: a precociously intelligent, haphazardly violent talking raccoon named Rocket.
You can see bits of Gunn’s previous movies poking out of the first Guardians of the Galaxy: There’s a dash of Libby’s comic bloodlust in Dave Bautista’s Drax, and the relationship between the garrulous Rocket and the trisyllabic Groot has more than a touch of Shaggy and Scooby. (There’s also the telltale presence in the cast of several Gunn regulars, including Michael Rooker and Gunn’s brother Sean.) But it’s also a massive leap forward, the result of a director accustomed to the rigorous discipline of no-budget filmmaking given what Orson Welles called “the biggest electric train set any boy ever had.” Fifteen years in, it’s one of the few MCU movies with its own distinctive look, not to mention a full color palette.
Working with virtually unknown characters gave Gunn the opportunity to threaten them with fates that savvy viewers knew would never befall Marvel’s more valuable pieces of two-legged intellectual property: You knew they’d never kill Captain America, but Peter Quill was a much more fungible asset. Gunn got to send up genre conventions, as when Rocket outlines an elaborate plan for the Guardians to escape from a maximum-security prison while, in the background behind him, we can see Groot about to dash it to pieces. But you don’t get the sense that the movie’s doing it the clever way merely because that’s the only way they can afford to do it.
In retrospect, Guardians of the Galaxy feels like a pivotal moment for the MCU, proof of concept that audiences would turn out for a Marvel movie because it was Marvel, not just because it was Thor or Iron Man. But three movies in, the Guardians’ plot armor is as thick as Tony Stark’s Hulkbuster suit, and the underdogs no longer feel like quite so much of a long shot. In a Facebook post upon the release of the second Guardians movie, Gunn wrote that the movies were informed by his painful experience of childhood isolation. But the outsider stance is more difficult to maintain the further inside he gets.
Gunn was, briefly, all the way out. After off-color tweets from the Super era were resurfaced in 2018, Gunn was fired by Disney, with chairman Alan Horn saying that Gunn’s jokes were “inconsistent with our studio’s values.” But after nine months of support from the movie’s cast and its fans, he was rehired to make the third Guardians, and in the meantime, he’d signed a deal to write and direct The Suicide Squad, making him the first person to earn a directing credit in both major comic-book universes.
Gunn’s Suicide Squad, as well as the Peacemaker series with which he followed it, make it feel as if he’s just about out of variations on the band of fuckups. The characters aren’t just misfits, they’re morons, and the movie’s attempts to insert sentiment amid its gags about buttholes and bodily fluids feel rote and insincere. It’s a smart person’s version of a dumb person’s movie, trying to find joy in the crude provocations Gunn would once have relished but has since outgrown. It’s as if he’s purging the last of those impulses from his system before moving on to fresher pastures.
The third Guardians was written before Gunn’s public ordeal—even when he was fired as its director, Marvel still planned to use his script—but it’s hard not to notice that the movie finds Gunn’s alter ego Rocket being brutally tortured by a superior being who is fixated on his imperfections rather than his talents. As the movie was released on Friday, Gunn tweeted out, “Rocket’s journey is my own.”
You could call it The Passion of Rocket Raccoon, a movie in which a social exile endures almost unimaginable pain and loss in order to prove that he is worthy to stand among his friends.
But James Gunn has a new alter ego now. “I completely relate to Superman because he’s everything I am,” he said last month. “He’s somebody who is an outsider who feels like an alien, but also the ultimate insider, because he’s fucking Superman. And that’s kind of like what I feel like.” In the period between the second Guardians and The Suicide Squad, Gunn produced Brightburn, a dark riff on the Superman mythos written by two of his brothers in which an alien falls to Earth, is raised by a kindly Kansas couple, and eventually murders them both on his way to ruling the entire world as a violent despot. It’s the kind of movie the Gunn of Super might have made, informed by a desire to subvert the old stories rather than reinvigorate them. But the Superman he’s looking for now, he explained last week, will be “somebody you want to give a hug.”
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the most dominant franchise in the history of the movies, perhaps even history, period. But even though we’re decades past the era when every article about a comic-book property began with a smirking riff on “Biff! Bang! Pow!,” the movies’ makers and their fans have clung to the idea that they’re scrappy upstarts fighting for respect, bristling at every Scorsesean slight without acknowledging their unprecedented cultural clout, or the way their rise has crowded other kinds of films out of the marketplace. (In in-universe terms, they’re not the Guardians of the Galaxy. They’re Thanos.) Gunn’s journey from schlockmeister to studio head traces the same arc. But you can only wield so much power before the outsider stance becomes a put-on, a way to avoid reckoning with the fact that you have become the authority you rebelled against. It’s one thing to make a Superman we want to hug, but you have to be careful when Superman hugs back.