Fair to say that this past week has been the biggest one of James Gunn’s career: Eight years after making an international name for himself with Marvel’s Guardians Of The Galaxy—and four since Disney unceremoniously fired him from the franchise, before sheepishly bringing him back once it was clear that all of the most beloved aspects of those (very successful) films were a direct product of Gunn’s tastes, obsessions, and instincts—the Distinguished Competition over at DC Films made massive headlines on Tuesday by announcing that it was putting Gunn in charge. Along with The Conjuring franchise’s Peter Safran, Gunn is being handed the keys to a battered, damaged, but not unsalvageable kingdom, with an eye on fulfilling Warner Bros. Discovery’s very clearly stated goal to find a producer as adept at making popular superhero movies—and churning out regular superhero billions—as Marvel’s Kevin Feige.
The fascinating thing about Gunn’s filmography, though, is that he’s never actually made what might be termed a “straight” superhero movie. The Guardians films come closest, with their classic tales of cosmic underdogs made semi-good. And The Suicide Squad eventually gets around to a bit of heroism—after a whole movie’s worth of uber-violent fucking around. But those brief flirtations with classic heroics are as close as he’s gotten, and all of that is before we consider the multiple non-franchise superhero movies Gunn has made over the years, all of which are wildly subversive, to the point that you’d be forgiven for thinking they were stridently anti-superhero.
Which, hey: Let’s talk about those movies, huh?
To be clear, the films on the table here are 2000’s The Specials, which Gunn wrote and co-starred in, 2010’s Super, which he wrote and directed, and 2019’s Brightburn, which he produced, and which his brother Brian and cousin Mark wrote. (We’ll leave off 2000’s Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger, which came at the tail end of Gunn’s extended apprenticeship with Lloyd Kaufman’s Troma Entertainment; although Gunn appears in the film, he’s never said anything about doing any behind-the-scenes work on it.)
Out of the three films here, The Specials is probably the least deranged—which is saying something, for a movie where one of the most wholesome moments is the reveal that one of the characters’ superpowers is the regular laying of eggs. Centered on a team of dysfunctional superheroes—and directed by Craig “Chernobyl” Mazin (back before he was even Craig “Writer of Scary Movie 3" Mazin)—the wildest thing about The Specials, in 2022, is that it’s parodying a movement that hadn’t actually happened yet. Arriving, to a very muted release, just a couple of months after Bryan Singer’s X-Men had even introduced the idea of a superhero team movie to the American movie-going public, the film is very clearly a product of comic book fans, for comic book fans, taking fire at ideas about fame and ego that wouldn’t be disseminated to mainstream film or TV audiences for literal decades. (Weirdly, Peter Milligan and Mike Allred’s “superheroes as reality TV stars” comic series X-Statix, the closest equivalent to The Specials in regular comics publishing, wouldn’t arrive until a year after the movie slipped into, and then very swiftly out of, theaters.)
Although Gunn’s not directing here, many of his hallmarks are already present—would it surprise you to learn that there’s a choreographed dance number set to a super-catchy ’70s pop hit?. That includes just enough sentimentality to make spending time with a crew of professional failures and crime-fighting assholes more fun than dire. (Plus, you’ve got Paget Brewster and Judy Greer both deadpanning their way through scenes, which is pretty hard to beat.) The Specials is a comedy first, and a superhero movie a distant second, but it suggests that, even at an early point in his career, Gunn was more interested in heroes as damaged weirdos looking for connection than gods floating above the rest of us.
Zipping forward now, let’s tackle 2019's Brightburn, the movie Gunn appears to have had the least direct involvement with of our three. That being said, it’s hard to imagine Universal would have given the film—which reimagines Superman’s origin story as a horror movie about a pre-teen demigod taking his adolescent wrath out on the entire planet—the green light without Gunn’s money-making name on the label. It also probably helped all involved get Gunn’s old Slither pals Elizabeth Banks and Michael Rooker onboard to star and co-star, respectively. (Rooker, fulfilling his duties as Gunn’s ever-present muse, has the wildest role in the film, appearing at the end as a conspiracy theorist who sketches out a whole cinematic universe of twisted versions of the Justice League that’s probably never going to get made.)
“What if Superman was bad?” is an idea that comics have been playing with for nearly a century at this point, stretching back to DC Comics’ old “imagined” stories and beyond. (Mark Waid and Boom! Studios made a very profitable sideline with the concept in 2009 with their book Irredeemable, and its various comic spin-offs, to name just one.) Brightburn—which stars Jackson A. Dunne as our resident We Need To Talk About Kal-El—then, is mostly interesting in the ways it works as a genre exercise, translating basic superhero tropes through the lens of a horror movie villain. Gunn himself, with his focus on comedy, was a big part of developing the idea that superhero movies could exist outside the bounds of a straight adventure story, something that’s only gotten more prominent as both Marvel and DC have pushed themselves to tell more varied stories within these very lucrative universes. Sam Raimi recently managed to import a little genuine horror into the MCU with Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness; there’s at least an outside possibility that Gunn could do something similar for DC.
And that brings us, finally, to 2010’s Super, the saddest, and the strangest, of Gunn’s outsider superhero movies—and the only one he both directed and wrote. Starring Rainn Wilson (recommended to the director, reportedly, by Wilson’s TV castmate, and Gunn’s ex-wife, Jenna Fischer), Super isn’t so much a superhero movie as a vigilante film that’s had a hero’s ill-stitched mask awkwardly tugged down over it.
The film centers on Wilson as Frank, a short-order cook whose failure to accept his wife (Liv Tyler) leaving him for a charming, malicious drug dealer (Kevin Bacon) eventually manifests in a “vision” from a Bible-themed superhero that convinces Frank to go out into the world as a hero himself—i.e., dress up in a cape and mask and hit people in the head with a massive pipe wrench as punishment for breaking society’s various rules. Amidst hospitalizing pedophiles, drug dealers, and people who cut in line at the movies, Frank picks up an unwanted sidekick in the form of a local comic shop clerk (Elliot Page) who styles themselves as the “Boltie” to his Crimson Bolt.
Like Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass (which it followed into theaters by a couple of months), Super is a stab at depicting what would happen if a normal person tried to become a superhero—and the monumental fucked-upness such an act would likely be covering up. But while Vaughn’s film is eventually seduced by the coolness factor of a gun-toting Chloë Grace Moretz, Gunn’s never loses sight of the fact that we’re essentially watching a violent nervous breakdown with a cape attached to it. Frank does some good during his time as the Crimson Bolt, but he also makes some horrific mistakes, and the film as a whole is very realistic about what might happen if, say, two very angry, but basically normal, people attempted a rampage on a well-armed criminal’s compound.
A surface read of Super—a surface read of most of Gunn’s cape films, really, whether franchise-based or not—would suggest a certain dislike of the superhero as a concept. Time and again, Gunn’s films deconstruct, attack, and subvert the basic goodness of the whole concept of the hero. Scratch the shiny jet-boots of a Gunn comic book protagonist, and you’re more likely than not to reveal some very gnarly feet of clay.
But the truth is that none of these movies—or HBO Max’s Peacemaker, where the TV format has allowed Gunn to delve even deeper into these themes—are empty exercises in cynicism. It’s true that Gunn doesn’t seem especially interested in superheroes as superheroes, for all that he returns to them again and again. But he does have an abiding interest in the people lurking beneath the masks, the ways they’re damaged, the ways they’re beautiful. It’s the beating heart that made millions of people suddenly give a shit about Marvel’s ninth-most-popular super team back in 2014, and it shines through in all of Gunn’s oddball superhero projects.
In taking over DC Films with Safran, Gunn inherits a superhero universe that has struggled, more often than not, with its human side. Say what you like about Zack Snyder’s mythic approach to superhumanity, but it’s left precious little space for humor, or even tragedy that wasn’t operating with a capital T. Where the recent DC Films under the now-ousted, and functionally placeholder, reign of former studio head Walter Hamada have succeeded, it’s been in importing some genuine human feelings into the mix. And that’s where Gunn, with his decades-long obsession with the weirdos under the masks, is most likely to excel.