(Photo by ©Universal, ©IFC Films courtesy Everett Collection)
In late 2012, when it was announced that James Gunn was going to write and direct the Marvel superhero movie Guardians of the Galaxy, the immediate response from a lot of folks was either “What?” or “Who?” The people who exclaimed the former were hardcore Troma fans who passed around copies of Tromeo and Juliet on VHS, who showed up to watch Slither on its opening weekend in 2006, and who drove to one of the mere 39 theaters that played Super in 2011. The people who thought “Who?” were likely already familiar with Gunn’s work — as the writer of movies like Scooby-Doo, Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, or Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead — even if they didn’t recognize his name.
Disney and Marvel displayed creative, outside-the-box thinking by hiring Gunn, and the decision has since proved lucrative, as the two Guardians of the Galaxy films have grossed over $1.6 billion at the worldwide box office. But if you’ve seen Super, a film about a short-order cook with a short temper who bludgeons criminals with a pipe wrench, it’s easy to wonder how Gunn’s profane, violent streak would gel with a PG-13 Marvel blockbuster. In the end, Gunn mustered up all of the pelvic sorcery (for Groot’s dance moves) he built up during 20-plus years in the industry to create an awesome mix of comedy, action, and protagonists who claim their sexual exploits aboard a filthy ship have left the walls/floors/ceilings(?) looking like a Jackson Pollock painting when inspected with a black light.
To celebrate the 15th anniversary of Slither (March 31st, 2006) and the 10th anniversary of Super (April 1st, 2011), we look back at how Gunn’s pre-Marvel films helped prepare him for big-budget success.
(Photo by (c) Universal courtesy Everett Collection)
What’s refreshing about James Gunn is that he’s always been open about his directorial style and how he tells his stories. In an interview for the release of the Slither DVD in 2006, Gunn said, “I think that all of my movies have sort of a contrast between ugly and beautiful in them.” Then in 2011, while doing press for Super, Gunn gave another interview during which he said, “I can’t be told life is beautiful through a normal positive thinking book or a Hallmark movie; that language doesn’t work for me. The language that works for me is the language of f—ed up cinema and comics and things like that. To find the beauty, I really need to go through a darker channel than most people.”
Looking through his filmography, these statements make a lot of sense; he has consistently crafted movies about broken characters finding their way with the aid of music, crass humor, and ultra-violence. For example, there’s an “ugly and beautiful” moment in Slither that cuts between a dance party to celebrate the opening of deer-hunting season and a woman being attacked by tentacles that will turn her into a vessel for alien leech babies. In Super, Gunn treats us to a murderous rampage scored by the peppy Monsters song “God Knows My Name” that features brightly-lit animated segments and a concrete block falling 20-feet onto an unsuspecting drug dealer’s head.
These contrasting scenes are nothing compared to the “ugly and beautiful” mayhem that would appear in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. During one scene early in the film, three protagonists absolutely murder the living daylights out of hundreds of space pirates who were dumb enough to stage a mutiny. Fueled by the Jay & the Americans song “Come a Little Bit Closer,” the rampage depicts the heroes, led by Michael Rooker, smiling like maniacs while they blow holes through their victims’ chests. Sure, blockbuster cinema has seen plenty of murder; it’s just rare to see the murderers enjoying themselves so much.
Of course, things don’t pan out so well for Rooker’s Yondu in GotG2, but his heroic death is celebrated in bittersweet fashion with a brilliant fireworks display at the end of the film. Gunn may take his characters through dark times, but he finds beauty in those moments. In Super, it takes the form of a second chance for Sarah (Liv Tyler), Franks ex-wife and a former addict, who moves on to make an actual difference in other people’s lives (don’t worry, she doesn’t become a murderous superhero). Gunn wants his characters to have emotional catharsis; they just have to get dirty first.
(Photo by (c) Universal courtesy Everett Collection)
Back in 2006, Gunn referred to Slither as “the weird kid in the back of the class that is putting his boogers underneath the desk.” Slither was an oddity at the time, in that it wasn’t a remake, it didn’t feature any popular “teen” actors, and it was loaded with unexpected amounts of over-the-top midnight movie gore. At the end of its theatrical run, the $15 million-budgeted, R-rated film only made $12 million at the box office, as audiences were hesitant to spend money on something so loaded with “boogers.” However, critics and a new group of loyal Gunn-lovers appreciated the “weird kid” film that was able to sprinkle charming profanities into any line of dialogue.
The film revolves around a man named Grant Grant (Michael Rooker) who is infected by an extraterrestrial parasite that transforms him into a monster capable of scalping the hairlines off of people with a flick of a tentacle. The million-year-old parasite wants to destroy the Earth, but it meets its match in Grant’s wife Starla (Elizabeth Banks), the foul-mouthed Mayor Jack MacRready (Gregg Henry and a nice The Thing reference), teenager Kylie (Tania Saulnier), and police chief Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion).
While the creature effects and slime look excellent, it’s the human characters who steal the show. Fillion in particular feels like he was born to read Gunn’s dialogue, and he has zero issues being the “dude in distress.” In a refreshing twist, Starla and Kylie are the true heroes who battle gross slugs, finish off Grant, and put up with a plethora of profane, annoying men.
Slither wears its “weird kid” badge proudly, and the singular vision and script likely hurt its box office chances. That said, the same thing happened to The Thing, Tremors, From Dusk Till Dawn, In the Mouth of Madness, and You’re Next — movies, in other words, that went hard on humor, gore, or tentacles and found their audiences on VHS or DVD.
While some of the dialogue in 2011’s Super sounds a bit like fingernails on a chalkboard nowadays, it’s hard to hate on the $3 million-budgeted dark superhero satire about a man named Frank (Rainn Wilson) who really just wants crime to “shut up.” It’s a grim and grimy experience whose protagonist is a 30-something loner who thinks happy people are arrogant because happiness is overrated, and who fights “crime” by waiting behind dumpsters for it to happen in front of him. He’s the kind of wet noodle that doesn’t stick to a wall, and mostly does what others tell him to do – he even cooks eggs for Jacques (Kevin Bacon), the drug dealer who stole his wife away from him.
Frank’s origin story, as it were, is appropriately loony. One day, while watching television and lamenting the loss of his wife, he receives a message from God in the guise of the Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion). Fueled by delusions of grandeur, Frank becomes The Crimson Bolt, a pipe wrench–wielding vigilante who makes even The Punisher look sane.
For added superhero insanity, Frank is compelled to team up with a young psychopath named Libby (Elliot Page), who has to be reminded not to murder people when she’s fighting crime. The pair fuel the worst impulses in each other, which produces alternately uncomfortable and violent encounters and ultimately results in Libby’s gruesome, untimely death, which comes so unexpectedly it’s played both for shock value and for laughs.
Super is the rare superhero film that shows how ugly real violence can be. You won’t see Captain America striking a pose as he mows down pseudo-Nazis or Thor looking svelte during a rain-drenched fistfight. What you get is Rainn Wilson breathing heavily as he bludgeons someone with a wrench. Once again, Gunn plumbs the dark channels of his psyche to tell a story about a man who murders criminals so that one woman can right her ship, beat her addictions, and do something good for the world.
“I’m tryin’ to get a buzz on, but I can’t. I’m too buff, got too much muscle mass.” With these immortal words, the audience grew to love Slither’s Police Chief Bill Pardy, who is terrible with grenades but great with one-liners. Throughout Slither, Pardy keeps things lighthearted even as hundreds of people die and he’s attacked by animatronic deer. When bodies explode, Pardy is there to do something dumb to mitigate the disgust with a dose of levity. It’s an effective tool that Gunn would use with great success in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies — think lines like “I’m Marry Poppins, y’all” or “I am going to die surrounded by the biggest idiots in the galaxy.”
Balancing comedy with horror is a delicate job; you want to provide a release from the tension, but you don’t want the horror to be watered down with too many jokes. The same goes for PG-13 Marvel properties. Gunn couldn’t afford to alienate the mainstream with over-the-top provocative dialogue, but he was able to infuse some Gunn-isms into a very mainstream movie.
Gunn has two mainstream R-rated screenplays that have earned Rotten Tomatometer scores, namely Super (49%) and The Belko Experiment (54%). Both films lean heavily into mean territory, and their scripts have difficulty finding a balanced tone. The Belko Experiment largely eschewed humor altogether as director Greg McClean (Rogue, Wolf Creek) chose instead to focus on the darker, more violent aspects of Gunn’s script. Super does play up its extreme violence with comedy, but the coarse humor and dialogue feel like an extra weight on the audience’s shoulders as they watch a 100-minute violent meltdown. Even so, Gunn’s experimentation with tonal shifts is evident in both scripts, and his ability to harness his wildest instincts since then have helped make him a unique filmmaker.
Gunn has thrived when adapting or re-imagining properties for the modern age. The two PG-rated Scooby-Doo movies he wrote pulled in $360 million Scooby snacks domestically (adjusted for inflation); his screenplay for Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead in 2004 helped launch Snyder’s career and proved horror remakes don’t have to be Rotten; and while Slither and Super weren’t instant hits upon release, they’ve become cult classics that helped Gunn refine his skills and gave him insight into eclectic superheroes, visual effects, and time-consuming makeup and prosthetic applications.
When it comes to his characters, his past adaptations and scripts share a similar theme, too. The Scooby-Doo films are about a gang of total opposites (and a talking dog) who team up to investigate ghosts and occasionally eat a cotton candy monster alive while it screams in pain. The Specials is about the seventh-best superhero squad on the planet. Dawn of the Dead is about a group of strangers who hide out in a shopping mall during a zombie apocalypse. Slither features a mismatched crew defending the world, and Super is about A-hole “Superheroes” who form an alliance against Kevin Bacon. Heck, even Tromeo and Juliet is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy about two families at war.
(Photo by Jay Maidment/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
In other words, Gunn clearly has a thing for unlikely makeshift families and mismatched strangers thrown together by circumstance — themes that echo strongly in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies and that will likely play a big role in The Suicide Squad. Gunn has found a way to combine his style with Marvel’s — and soon, DC’s — mainstream sensibilities, and he’s become one of the most well-respected names in the industry. His experiences on both Slither and Super helped him evolve as a director, and you can see their DNA clearly in the blockbuster fare that planted his name squarely on the lips of comic book geeks and superhero movie fans across the world.