James Gunn is one of the most fascinating up-and-coming directors in Hollywood today. He only has three directorial credits under his belt, but he has already established an incredibly unique sense of comic and storytelling prowess that makes him a force to be reckoned with. Now, I won’t go so far as to claim that Gunn’s filmography has a single unifying theme that illuminates the mind of the auteur; his catalog is still too small and his films too disparate from one another in genre and tone for them to be reduced any further than their own individual narratives. What does unify Gunn’s work, however, is a singular stylistic sensibility that has built him a loyal fanbase and a vision unlike most of his contemporaries, which is a quality to be cherished.
Though serving as a writer for many years prior on films such as Scooby-Doo and Zack Snyder’s Dawn Of The Dead, Gunn’s directorial debut was on the 2006 horror-comedy Slither. In a small southern American town, an alien presence arrives and infects one Grant Grant (played by Michael Rooker—and yes, Grant’s first name is the same as his last), the town’s center of wealth who completely lacks for class and sophistication. As the alien takes over his mind and body, it begins amassing materials—namely meat—in order to hatch a hive-minded brood to take over the townspeople and eventually the world, while simultaneously discovering the joys of physical love with Grant’s wife Starla (Elizabeth Banks). As shit hits the fan, the local police, led by the stoic Bill (Nathan Fillion), must deal with an alien force they aren’t prepared to face.
What’s immediately striking about Gunn’s work in Slither is how he takes a lighthearted tone with the horrific events we’re about to see unfold. Gunn celebrates the bizarre with fast comic cuts and upbeat musical cues, even as people are being mutilated and transformed. The bloated monstrosities of Gunn’s Americana are juxtaposed with images of celebration and communal bliss, and the aliens are pretty unsettling as well. The people of this town are gross, so Gunn is able to punish them for their inadequacy by giving them a more literal communion than they could ever have asked for, and the situation therefore becomes as darkly comedic for the audience as it is horrific for the characters living through it. In the end, it’s Starla and Bill, the two characters with aspirations and intellect beyond the limiting confines of their hometown, that save the day and move beyond the city limits as their lives lay in ruins. And somehow the quips and snarky observations about the absurdity of the situation never get old.
But if Slither was a subtle subversion of who we’re supposed to sympathize with in a horror film, 2010’s Super is a blatant reversal of how we’re supposed to view a superhero narrative. Following his wife’s leaving him to hook up with a drug dealer, the emotionally unstable Frank (Rainn Wilson) tries to piece his life together from the ruins of everything he’s ever known. After finding inspiration from a Biblical superhero television show and a vision from God, Frank dons a costume and becomes Crimson Bolt, beating wrongdoers to brutal degrees with his trusty wrench. This in turn inspires an even more brutal young woman (Ellen Page) to take up the mantle of his sidekick, which may just push Frank too far off the deep end.
The level of violence in Super is comically absurd, particularly as Frank beats people nearly to death for infractions as minor as cutting places in a line. There’s a deadpan commitment to the tacky jokes and awkward moments of inhuman interaction that make Frank a relatable character even as he continually crosses the line from vigilantic heroism into mad chaotic beatings. Frank is clearly mentally unwell, as he hallucinates demons and believes himself divinely ordained to deliver violence upon evildoers, but looking at the basic outline of Frank’s arc and adventure, it’s no different than most superhero narratives except that it’s more honest in depicting its violence. Gunn trains the lens on what exactly we cheer for in a superhero story, and it isn’t nearly as clean cut and pretty as we like to pretend it is—or at least it wouldn’t be in the real world beyond the comic panel.
It then seems like an odd choice on the part of Disney and Marvel to bring in Gunn to co-write and direct Guardians Of The Galaxy, a PG-13 entry into the Marvel franchise machine that had thus far rejected the kind of genre subversion and bloody R-rated sensibilities that had made Gunn a cult figure up to that point. And yet, Guardians turned out to be just the canvass to put Gunn to work on. Starlord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot are a collection of characters that by their very definition subvert traditional notions of superheroism and teamwork, each of them criminals driven by their own motivations but all just good enough characters to put aside their differences to fight to protect the galaxy.
Guardians is arguably Gunn’s best film because he finally had the budget to go as big and as weird as he wanted. He continues his subversive bent by making a space opera that isn’t as interested in exploration or sweeping epic arcs as it is in the complex characters caught up in the maelstrom bouncing off one another. Starlord in particular is constantly acting cooler-than-thou with nothing to back it up, making him an unconventional audience perspective character, particularly because he doesn’t need the mechanics of the setting explained to him. But if Guardians Of The Galaxy showed us anything about James Gunn, it’s that he doesn’t need blood and violence to deliver his sly and quirky sense of humor; he can work just as well through implication and a parent company’s characters as he can through his own, and being unable to push a hard R is less a detriment than it is a creative challenge.
James Gunn is a brilliant locomotive that doesn’t seem to be showing any signs of going off track or slowing down. This month, the Gunn-written The Belko Experiment hits theaters and Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 follows in May. Who knows what’s coming after that, but we can be assured that whatever Gunn has in store is going to be subversive, sly, witty, and maybe just a bit bloody. And it’s going to be great. Obviously.