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Charting James Gunn’s Unexpected Rise to Mainstream Glory

After an initial start as a shock artist and being the target of a 2018 smear campaign, the longtime creator now stands as the only director to ever helm films for both the MCU and the DCEU

Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

With Friday’s release of The Suicide Squad, James Gunn will reach a unique milestone as the first filmmaker to direct a movie for both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Extended Universe. (Joss Whedon infamously took over for Zack Snyder on Justice League, but the latter still received the sole directing credit for the film.) While it remains to be seen how The Suicide Squad fares at the box office with COVID-19 cases on the rise again, Gunn certainly held up his end of the bargain: The movie has earned overwhelmingly positive reviews and is the highest-rated entry in the DCEU on Rotten Tomatoes.

Neither cinematic universe shows any signs of slowing down as they both expand into the world of streaming—an HBO Max spinoff series for John Cena’s The Suicide Squad character, Peacemaker, will debut in 2022 with Gunn as creator, writer, and co-director—it may only be a matter of time before another director makes the same Marvel-DC leap. But the fact that Gunn has become the go-to guy for two of the biggest money-making enterprises in Hollywood—all within the same compressed period in which his career was almost derailed by an alt-right smear campaign—underlines his mass appeal. Considering that Gunn started his career as a fringe provocateur, though, it’s hard to imagine such a rapid ascent to mainstream glory.

Before churning out mega-budget superhero blockbusters, Gunn cut his teeth in the ’90s outside the studio system with Troma Entertainment, the independent genre-movie company with a reputation for schlocky films that piled on the profanity, gore, and other grotesqueries. Gunn’s first and most notable contribution to Troma was cowriting Tromeo and Juliet, the company’s Shakespearean comedy whose gross-out priorities are best encapsulated by a plot development in which Juliet drinks a potion that transforms her into a mutant cow with a three-foot penis. (The entire film is available on YouTube; don’t say I didn’t warn you.) Such boundary-pushing was, and remains, part of the Troma brand: tasteless, low-brow junk made with a winking self-awareness.

While Gunn couldn’t carry the transgressive antics he honed at Troma into the mainstream, the witty subversiveness of his work remained and became an early calling card. 2002’s live-action Scooby-Doo, which Gunn wrote, earned poor reviews upon release, but there’s a laudable, meta layer to the way the film treats the Mystery Inc. ensemble. Characters repeatedly call attention to their established tropes, like Fred always coming up with a plan where Daphne inevitably plays the damsel in distress. The Scooby-Doo characters are tired of the limitations of being Scooby-Doo characters, to the extent that the Scooby Gang temporarily disbands at the start of the film.

What’s more, Gunn embraced the fandom’s well-publicized dislike of Scrappy-Doo by making him the movie’s villain; the infamous puppy is revealed to be operating a robot posing as a tropical resort owner played by Rowan Atkinson. (An absurd disguise, then again, that’s pretty on brand for Scooby-Doo.) And sure, Scrappy-Doo emerging from Mr. Bean’s torso to consume the souls of a bunch of tourists and turn into a deformed monstrosity hellbent on killing the Scooby Gang doesn’t hold a candle to Juliet Capulet as a monster cow, but it’s still a bold swing for a kids’ movie. There’s even a world where Scooby-Doo could’ve received an R-rating had it adhered to Gunn’s original vision, which somehow doesn’t feel that far-fetched (#ReleaseTheGunnCut).

Gunn followed up Scooby-Doo by writing two films that came out in 2004: Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, which won the Razzie for Worst Remake or Sequel (like Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls, Monsters Unleashed was clearly ahead of its time), and the Dawn of the Dead remake, which is perhaps best remembered for putting another blockbuster auteur on the map. But the three films solidified Gunn’s standing as an emerging Hollywood wordsmith with a knack for clever banter that bounces back and forth among a group of misfit heroes. (Sound familiar?)

When Gunn was handed his directorial debut, though, he moved away from the well of preestablished IP to create something truer to his unabashedly schlocky Troma roots. The result was Slither, a 2006 horror-comedy about an alien parasite that crash-lands in a small South Carolina town and infects local rube Grant (played by Michael Rooker, who’d become one of Gunn’s most frequent collaborators). With the parasite in his system, Grant undergoes a grisly transformation straight out of the David Cronenberg playbook, sporting squid-like tentacles to go with an insatiable appetite for meat. Yet the most disgusting fate in the film falls to poor Brenda, a woman Grant effectively impregnates, and who swells up until a bunch of slug-like offspring writhe out of her ballooned body like a giant pimple being popped. (In a behind-the-scenes interview, Gunn is practically giddy when comparing Brenda to a giant boob.) The CGI hasn’t aged particularly well, but make no mistake: This isn’t for the easily squeamish.

Despite the abundance of repulsive moments—including one of the slugs trying to latch onto a teenager while she’s taking a bath—Slither is just as packed with Gunn’s reliably crass humor. When local police chief Bill (Nathan Fillion) discovers that anyone infected by the slugs becomes part of a hivemind that will meld their flesh into Grant’s increasingly blobby form, he wryly says, “Well, now that is some fucked-up shit.” It’s B-movie pulp that knows just how ridiculous it is; much like the alien parasite, the glee is infectious. But even with favorable reviews, Slither tanked at the box office. That result may be less a stain on Gunn’s reputation than a matter of bad timing—if anything, the film had the misfortune of preceding the horror-comedy boom of the 2010s. Nowadays, it would be right at home as part of a double feature with The Cabin in the Woods, Happy Death Day, or Midsommar if you have a morbid enough sense of humor.

Nevertheless, Slither remains an outlier in Gunn’s work—not for its box office shortcomings, but because it’s still the only movie he’s directed that doesn’t have anything to do with superheroes. His next film, 2010’s appropriately titled Super, wasn’t so much an MCU trial run as a bleak indie satire about the absurdity of vigilantism. Super stars Rainn Wilson as Frank, a middling short-order cook whose wife leaves him for sleazy strip club owner Jacques (Kevin Bacon, perfect casting). In Frank’s depressive state, he experiences what he perceives to be a divine message from God—that his destiny is to become a superhero.

On the surface, putting Dwight from The Office in DIY superhero spandex with the name “The Crimson Bolt” has a lot of potential for laughs, but while Super isn’t completely devoid of humor, it mostly deals in unexpected shock value. The punch line that The Crimson Bolt will punish any crime as he stalks his city is immediately undercut by the harsh reality of a normal guy whacking strangers on the head with a pipe wrench no matter how trivial the incident. Super highlights not just the inherent flaws of vigilantism, but how far off the deep end someone would have to be to think becoming an IRL superhero is actually a good idea.

Yet like Slither, Super failed to make an impression at the box office—it didn’t even manage to break the million-dollar mark. That the movie was released in the same year as Kick-Ass, a similar R-rated satire about amateur superheroes with more crowd-pleasing intentions, likely played a part in that. But Gunn’s work behind the camera was notable enough to land on the radar of MCU head Kevin Feige. In the years since he began collaborating with Marvel, the MCU has been commended for bringing acclaimed auteurs into the fold—Taika Waititi, Ryan Coogler, Chloé Zhao—but Gunn’s hiring is easily the biggest gamble Feige and Co. have taken, especially considering he was tapped to helm a story about a deep-cut superhero ensemble that only serious Marvel-heads had heard of. (Per The New York Times, Feige’s decision-making is partly influenced by the “vibe” of a meeting with a prospective filmmaker; clearly, the vibes with Gunn were good.) But for Gunn and the MCU, the bet paid off.

With 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Gunn had a bit more leeway to mold the titular, plucky ensemble with his signature wit. The likes of Iron Man and Captain America have built-in expectations and can be fiddled with only so much; by comparison, Gunn practically had carte blanche when scripting dialogue for a talking space raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper. Of course, Guardians still had to contend with the MCU’s constraints—as these things usually go, there’s a generic third-act battle against an even more generic villain. But Gunn’s master stroke is mixing the emotional authenticity of the Guardians’ friendships with a refusal to take superhero storytelling too seriously. It’s surely the only Marvel movie in which the hero (Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord) distracts the villain (Lee Pace’s Ronan the Accuser) by challenging him to a dance-off. Forget Guardians’ impressive box office haul or the critical acclaim: None other than Steven Spielberg was buying what Gunn was selling.

As enjoyable as Guardians was, though, there was the sense that Gunn was withholding some of his creative instincts in service of feeding the Marvel beast; the movie does plenty of future MCU table-settling, including Josh Brolin’s first appearance as Thanos. There’s a more freewheeling spirit to Gunn’s 2017 follow-up, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which, on repeated viewings, is a dark horse candidate for the single best MCU entry for the surprising depth hiding behind its conventional makeup. In the sequel, Star-Lord finally meets his father, Ego (Kurt Russell), a godlike being who invites him to his “home” planet that he’s molded in his image. But as his name implies, Ego is bad news for Star-Lord, and entirely self-serving. Along with a subplot involving Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and her adoptive sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) that hinges on their unsurprisingly awful upbringing under Thanos, Guardians 2 is about the difficulties of escaping the influence of abusive fathers—Marvel really loves its shitty dads—and the importance of the family you make along the way. (Vin Diesel, voicing Groot, would definitely give Guardians 2 the Dominic Toretto stamp of approval.)

Therein lies the winning chemistry of Gunn’s work—he’s unceasingly funny, sometimes even crude and irreverent, but at the heart of his stories are sentiments of empathy and compassion. By the time Guardians 2 was out, he’d begun embodying these values on Twitter, frequently criticizing the Trump administration and its followers. That vocal behavior would eventually lead to the (albeit temporary) end of his collaboration with Marvel. In July 2018, while he was in the midst of writing a third Guardians movie, Gunn was fired by Disney after a series of offensive tweets from the filmmaker were unearthed by conservative personalities like Mike Cernovich. “The offensive attitudes and statements discovered on James’ Twitter feed are indefensible and inconsistent with our studio’s values, and we have severed our business relationship with him,” Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn said in a statement.

While the contents of Gunn’s tweets—most of which revolved around rape and pedophilia—were inexcusable, they were being used by alt-right figures as bad-faith “evidence” that Hollywood was operating an underground pedophile network. Gunn was targeted not by people offended by his past remarks, but by people offended by his outspoken criticism of a divisive president. For his part, Gunn apologized for his tasteless and dated attempts at edgy humor: “I have regretted them for many years since—not just because they were stupid, not at all funny, wildly insensitive, and certainly not provocative like I had hoped, but also because they don’t reflect the person I am today or have been for some time,” he wrote in a statement, adding, “For the record, when I made these shocking jokes, I wasn’t living them out. I know this is a weird statement to make, and seems obvious, but, still, here I am, saying it.” Despite the apology, however, Disney was quick to concede to the smear campaign. As a result, the Guardians cast signed a petition supporting their director, with Dave Bautista going so far as to say he’d refuse to be in Guardians 3 without Gunn as its director. For months, the future of the Guardians franchise and Gunn’s career seemed uncertain.

Then in October 2018, Warner Bros., trusting in Gunn’s talent and declarations of remorse and accountability, hired him to write and direct a sequel to 2016’s universally reviled Suicide Squad. The saga officially came to an end in March 2019, when Disney reversed its initial rash decision and rehired Gunn to lead Guardians 3. (Though because of all the drama and his work on another superhero blockbuster, the movie won’t arrive until 2023 at the earliest.) Clearly, the House of Mouse didn’t love watching a talent whom it’d minted find a new home at its rival studio.

Now all that’s left is to see the results of the fracture. The DCEU won’t exactly be mistaken for an auteur’s playground, but compared to the rigidity of the MCU formula, they’ve shown a willingness to let individual projects be guided by a filmmaker’s distinct vision—be it the dour undertones of Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the Donner-esque optimism of Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman 1984, or the unapologetic camp of James Wan’s Aquaman. Gunn, who demanded that his sequel-cum-reboot of Suicide Squad be given an R-rating, brought the low-grade Troma sensibilities he forged in the ’90s into the modern superhero landscape. Between a man-eating shark brutally ripping soldiers in half, a giant alien starfish that takes over the mind of its victims à la Slither, and a bunch of oddball antiheroes bantering about how strange they all are, The Suicide Squad feels like James Gunn coming full circle.

It’s wild to think that someone who got his start writing a trashy Romeo and Juliet parody that traded in shock value would become one of the most sought-after blockbuster directors working today. But even when operating on massive budgets for major studios, Gunn’s filmography has remained consistent. Behind all the witty banter and stomach-turning viscera, and whether it’s a B-movie with squid-like aliens or a reluctant group of superheroes, Gunn’s projects have repeatedly demonstrated a soft spot for outsiders, weirdos, and underdogs seeking redemption.