James Gunn Grows Up
On "The Suicide Squad" and the Evolution of a Filmmaker
I first became a fan of the director James Gunn in high school.
Back then, he was just the kind of edgy, offensive filmmaker that a suburban high school kid would appreciate. He came from the world of Troma Entertainment, the underground studio of “The Toxic Avenger” and “Tromeo and Juliet.” Now, these gross-out B-movies are well-known thanks to Internet clips and podcasts like “How Did This Get Made.” Back then, unless you had great Internet speed, the only way to experience a Troma splatter-fest was to seek out the DVDs with the sickest covers at your local video store.
Gunn started to get work in Hollywood outside Troma as a writer - he’s credited on the two live-action Scooby Doo movies of the early aughts and as the sole writer of Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake. Gunn’s 2006 directorial debut Slither, about a tentacled alien’s invasion of a small town, was true to his Troma roots - it’s like The Blob with way more body horror (and features a cast including Elizabeth Banks alongside Gunn favorites Michael Rooker and Nathan Fillion). Gunn’s 2010 follow-up Super was an early satire of the superhero genre, with Rainn Wilson (still a cast member of The Office) bashing in criminals’ heads with a wrench. I remember being particularly excited about that film’s release - a follower of James Gunn on Facebook, I eagerly awaited every trailer or update for a film that at the time felt dangerous, subversive.
I always assumed Gunn would continue to make his weird movies on a small scale. Then, in 2012 the same man who had just created a web series called PG Porn was selected as the director of a $150 million-plus space opera for Marvel Studios.
In the past decade, when independent directors have entered the studio space their artistic voices tend to be diminished or blunted. I recently watched Robert Altman’s Popeye, and despite being a studio mandate (in response to Paramount not obtaining the rights to Annie), the film is a Robert Altman film through-and-through. However, today - with the rise of pre-visualization and action set-pieces being digitized before the actors step on set - it’s easy for filmmakers to get lost in a CGI muddle. Big-budget directors are often tasked with keeping a train that is already running on its tracks.
It’s easy to forget, but at the time of its release Guardians of the Galaxy was Marvel’s biggest risk to date. Having a talking raccoon and a sentient tree on the team could have easily been too ridiculous for audiences to accept. Moreover, with this Marvel film set in a far-flung galaxy there was no chance for an Iron Man cameo. Perhaps the biggest risk was allowing Gunn to be fully Gunn. Guardians contains his sensibility in spades - his love for flawed rogues and weirdos, his sweetness spiked with vulgarity. He didn’t disappear into the studio pipeline - he bent it to his will.
Guardians went off like a bomb in the cultural landscape in August 2014. It was not only clever, funny and unexpectedly emotional (it remains my favorite Marvel movie) - it also changed studio notes for years to come. The Monday after the film’s box office returns came in, every studio head was asking, “where’s our Guardians of the Galaxy?”
The film’s classic needle-drops began to be endlessly replicated in other films, meant to provide audiences with an easy endorphin high devoid of context. Suicide Squad was reedited to include random songs like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Black Skinhead,” and its marketing campaign emphasized colorful characters rather than dourness. Star Trek Beyond centered its ending set piece around the Beastie Boy’s “Sabotage” (a song that, in canon, came out over 200 years earlier), something that would likely not have happened if the Guardians soundtrack hadn’t hit #1 on the Billboard Top 100.
However, both Suicide Squad and Star Trek missed what was so special about the music of Guardians - the music plays to theme, and is closely associated with the characters. Quill’s mixtape features a mix of obscure gems and generational hits (everything from Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” to Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling”), rather than just songs the audience recognizes. It is also a reminder of the character’s connection to his deceased mother, as Star-Lord’s Walkman was originally a present from her.
The irreverent tone of Guardians and its sequel also struck a cord, as other studios sought to replicate Gunn’s quips in their dialogue. However, Gunn knows how to choose his emotional moments wisely, and when to undercut the seriousness with a joke. The jokes are part of a larger plan, rather than being shoehorned in by studio mandates. For example, the death of Yondu in Guardians Vol. 2 still has emotional impact (finally resolving Quill’s question of who his “real” father is), despite the fact that Gunn has side-stepped so many other would-be cathartic moments with a punchline from Dave Bautista’s Drax.
After the success of the two Guardians films (and seeing his characters team up with the Avengers), Gunn had a brief fall from grace. In the immediate aftermath of Roseanne’s firing for her own Twitter activity, tweets from Gunn’s past as a firebrand filmmaker surfaced. The tweets were taken at face value (despite clearly being jokes from the nascent, experimental days of Twitter). However, the tweets were still embarrassing for Gunn - a reminder of how his anger at the time (he was going through a divorce from Jenna Fischer) came through as prepubescent silliness. Even after apologizing, Gunn was fired from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.
This led to where we are now. After his firing, Gunn was immediately offered a job to work on DC Films and accepted. Then, after his mea culpa tour, he was reinstated as the director of Guardians Vol. 3. If you don’t count Joss Whedon’s Justice League reshoots, this makes Gunn the first director to studio-hop between DC and Marvel.
Gunn had his pick of projects, and creative freedom, at DC. He ultimately settled on a property that had already been done 5 years earlier. David Ayer’s Suicide Squad was a famously troubled production, a mess created by combining the dueling edits of the director and the studio. It was subsequently reviled by audiences and critics alike, but it was a box office hit. In a reverse-Sean Parker, Gunn added a “The” to the sequel’s title and was off to the races with a new cast of characters with targets on their back (the returning exception being the unkillable Harley Quinn).
“The Suicide Squad,” Gunn’s third big-budget studio film, proves how much he has developed as a filmmaker.
It’s odd to say a film that features a man throwing polka dots at a giant starfish demonstrates “maturity,” but Gunn now has the confidence in both his ideas and his craft to make a tidy, efficient genre exercise. It is not as ambitious in its storytelling as Guardians (though it is fascinatingly political in a way no superhero film to date has been), but it does succeed in its goal to make a cruder, more violent Dirty Dozen with superheroes. The film is by far the best-directed effort of his career, as he shows off in his robust, acrobatic action scenes.
It’s so interesting to watch a director as eccentric as Gunn continue to be embraced by the major studios. Here, he’s working with stars like Viola Davis, Idris Elba and Margot Robbie. However, he’s still the same director I appreciated when I was younger - just older and wiser. He knows how to use his talents more tactically rather than just spraying offense. He also knows which targets to direct his anger at (here, it’s US imperialism). It’s like watching Howard Stern go from a shock jock with a temper to a gifted interviewer, or Tyler the Creator go from pushing buttons to looking inward - it’s natural with age.
Watching Gunn grow up via his films, becoming more at peace, I’ve seen myself grow up too. I haven’t revisited his nastier early work like Slither or Super (or the office horror film The Belko Experiment, which he wrote earlier in his career but was greenlit after he became successful with Guardians), but I have a feeling I would view it today with more discerning eyes. When the shock value wears off, the only thing that stands the test of time in films are the moments of humanity. And James Gunn has humanity - a flawed, still evolving humanity. A career in filmmaking doesn’t begin and end in the same place - it advances and unfolds, moving in unexpected directions. I hope we will continue to allow artists the space to change and grow as James Gunn has.
A Brief Addendum - On Box Office Performance
The Suicide Squad has also inspired a still-developing narrative which may be troubling for movie theaters if studios fully embrace it. Essentially, The Suicide Squad bombed at the box office despite critical raves and the pedigree involved, joining a string of recent underperformers (In the Heights and Black Widow both came in below expectations). Now, it’s true that all WB movies are available for free on HBO Max the same day of theatrical - which is undoubtedly cutting into box office receipts. The same can be said of having Black Widow be available on Disney Plus for an additional $30 the same day as theatrical. Despite these caveats, there is already percolating chatter that studios may be spooked by the Delta variant preventing theatergoers from returning in full force.
I personally don’t see any correlation between Delta and a decline in moviegoing. First of all, theaters are open nationwide. The majority-unvaccinated communities, the areas where the Delta variant has become out of control, are also going to be the communities most likely to go about their business as usual. However, does the pandemic era decline in box office speak to larger changes in habits, and what audiences are willing to pay to see in a theater versus what they’d rather watch at home? That could very well be true…
Pushing movie dates further down the line for September releases like Shang-Chi and Venom: Let There Be Carnage is not the answer. If those films bomb, they’ll bomb. Delaying their releases will only delay audiences having the final say.
Other Stray Thoughts
Definitely recommend listening to Marc Maron’s interview with NY Times film critic A.O. Scott. Maron’s interviews have gotten better and better in the last few years (for my money, he is the undisputed master of the podcasting space). His discussion with Scott is a casual exchange between two men with intelligent thoughts on culture and criticism.
I also saw the new Leos Carax film Annette. It’s a film that constantly reminds you of the frame, fittingly so because the film itself is about the distance we place between ourselves and our art (is it a metaphor for the domestication of the renegade artist?).
Everything from the very-literal lyrics by Sparks to the set design takes you out of the film deliberately. It’s dedicated to making you think rather than feel for most of its runtime, until the surprising ending when artifice is (mostly) stripped away.
The film also features a seminal Adam Driver performance. I don’t know how much more I can praise this man - he’s the best working actor today by a mile. He’s a true successor to Brando, Pacino, DeNiro, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Daniel Day-Lewis, etc. It won’t be long before he joins them on the Actor’s Mount Rushmore.
Hellerman, Jason, No Film School, “How Does Marvel Use Previs to Shoot Their Movies Before Cameras Roll?” https://nofilmschool.com/marvel-previs
Couch, Aaron, The Hollywood Reporter, “‘The Suicide Squad’ Producer Charles Roven Recalls Pairing David Ayer with Christopher Nolan’s Editor.”https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-features/suicide-squad-james-gunn-david-ayer-cut-1234994105/
D’Alessandro, Anthony, Deadline, ‘The Suicide Squad’ Posts Best R-Rated Opening During Pandemic With $26.5M, But Worst For Franchise: Here’s Why.” https://deadline.com/2021/08/the-suicide-squad-margot-robbie-james-gunn-opening-weekend-box-office-hbo-max-1234810359/