Somehow it feels like James Gunn is a true veteran director, but actually he has only directed six feature films in seventeen years. That’s not nothing and is in itself impressive (how many people have actually directed six features?).
Of course, his career is so much more than just six movies. He has directed a bunch of shorts (most of which I’ve never seen), TV series, a Holiday special, a segment in a movie and a weird web series called PG Porn. Before becoming a director, he worked for Loyd Kaufman at Troma and also wrote several movies, such as The Specials, Dawn of the Dead remake and the early 2000s Scooby Doo live action movies. He has also produced a bunch of movies and is now the co-head of the DC studio, in which role he will be directing the next Superman movie. He has already made The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker for them.
Yes, he is accomplished. I doubt anyone else who started at Troma has been able to have such a distinguished career. He is also loyal. He has his collaborators, such as Michael Rooker, his brother Sean, and his former mentor Kaufman.
But these things don’t make him interesting enough to write about. What I find especially fascinating about him is personal growth.
I mean, we’ve seen attitudes change before. When Spielberg became a family man, he went back and removed the guns from ET and his last Indiana Jones was (according to other sources, I’ve never seen it) much less gory than the original three. But there doesn’t seem to be a deeper understanding of the universe. He became older, but has he really matured in his thinking? In many cases directors just become more egotistical and lose sight of what they are doing, like Paul Schrader. Sometimes you see attempts at doing something more meaningful, but they just fail, like Adam McKay with Don’t Look Up. With many directors, there’s the immediate step between their early microbudget attempts and their later movies, but that’s just that one step. Some directors start out as very mature and never look back, like Pasolini. For many, the only evolution is getting that opportunity to do the big budget movie after proving themselves with an indie first, which sort of Gunn did as well.
I’m not saying Gunn is the only director with this kind of a trajectory, but he is the most prominent as far as I can see.
Early on in his career, Gunn was basically just an asshole or at least played that role to be funny and notorious. That was the Troma legacy in him speaking. If you are not aware of Troma, they are a small company that has been making irreverent and transgressive movies since at least the 80s, with titles like Toxic Avenger and Tromeo and Juliet, the latter of which was Gunn’s first big project, as he wrote it as well as worked a number of other roles behind the camera and one small role in front of it. This attitude is the reason he was fired from Disney at one point before returning to do the Guardians of the Galaxy, vol. 3, although apparently, that firing worked out for him, as Warner immediately snatched him up. One case where I agree with failing upwards.
He did a lot of other work before finally finding a project as the director. I don’t know whether this was the plan. Did he want to direct earlier or did he wait until he had enough of an understanding of the craft before stepping into those shoes. Whatever the case, Slither was released in 2006. It’s a decent effort. There is already tha hint of wanting to insert more interesting themes, but it’s nothing memorable. Actually, I’m glad I checked, because I was pretty sure his directorial debut was Teeth, which actually has nothing to do with him.
His second movie was Super, a sort of superhero movie, but not really. It’s more of a genre deconstruction before the genre really even existed. Iron Man came out two years earlier and of course the original trilogies of Spider-Man, X-Men and Dark Knight were already in existence, but the genre was still in many ways in it’s infancy. Neither MCU nor DCEU had really started. The movie had very mixed reviews and it is a problematic movie. A young woman raping an adult man is still a rape, not just a joke. At the same time, Gunn is using humor in many ways to explore deeper themes and while our hero is victorious in the end, he doesn’t get the girl. The girl instead decides to do her own thing and the real reward for the hero was that he managed to free her to go her own way and he learns that this was perhaps the best thing he could possibly do all along.
Now, I don’t really know how Disney, of all companies, decided that this guy, who had worked for Troma and made these two movies was the right person for their family friendly brand, but Gunn’s next movie was Guardians of the Galaxy. While there’s still problematic themes here (like how Drax addresses Gamora), this is still an interesting take on “losers” as Quill calls them (people who have lost something), especially considering the limitations of working with a $170 million budget, which makes the upper echelons quite jittery about the appeal of the movie.
Gunn’s next film was the immediate sequel or Vol. 2. In some ways the relationships between the characters are reset, but during the movie these relationships are explored much further. I guess the key is a quote from Yondu: “He may have been your father, boy, but he wasn’t your daddy.” Why should the relationships we were born with be more important than the ones we have built ourselves? This is a message that hits me personally quite strongly.
Because of the aforementioned firing from Marvel, Gunn moved to making a DC movie, which was The Suicide Squad. In a way he had to reset here. He has to start over, so he can’t get very far with his characters, but he is able to give them some growth. He is able to build the world much better than the previous Suicide Squad movie, especially with the starting sequence. This did, however, birth a great series in the form of Peacemaker.
When I first heard of Peacemaker, I was more than sceptical about the whole thing. I did not like the character except as a foil for Bloodsport, but the series is actually just great. It’s all about Peacemaker just learning that perhaps his dogmatic approach is not the best in the actual world. He has become isolated and lonely, with his few existing relationships being quite toxic. After meeting his father, we understand him much better and see where his worldview comes from. The bad guy is also just perfect for the themes, whereas so often the bad guys in this new generation of superhero movies is just an afterthought.
And finally we have Vol. 3. Gunn doesn’t seem to be happy with everything that went on with his characters in the other MCU movies that happened between vols 2 and 3, but at least he didn’t have to reset these characters once again (mostly). The resolution to the Starlord/Gamora situation might not be satisfactory to everyone, but at the same time things don’t go as one might want in real life. His hand might have been forced, but that was an excellent ending to that relationship.
Here’s a take on that movie or perhaps the whole trilogy: Rocket is how Gunn sees himself, while Starlord is what he wants to be. Here comes the realization that perhaps being Starlord is not all that great, but maybe if he just learns to accept himself, he will be fine. Also, we see that the Guardians are actually the second family Rocket has built for himself after losing his first family in flashbacks. I don’t want to read too much into this, but again, we see how important these relationships are to Gunn.
Overall, we see a flawed person, but also someone who is able to work on those flaws, which is as much as we can ask of anyone. Those toxic traits he had earlier on are now gone and he has found himself being able to tackle various topics in a very interesting way. Peacemaker discusses many things in a subtle way. Gunn finds humanity in this character that was depicted in a very inhumane way in the previous movie.
Gunn’s personal arc is now a big selling point to his movies for me. I don’t have much interest in Superman, but I do have interest in Gunn’s take on him. I even feel like I should at some point try to marathon all his movies just to see his personal arc better.