Earlier this week, the internet scratched its collective head after viewing the first official trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy, the latest Marvel comic property to get the big-screen treatment. Based on a relatively new series of comics, GOTG is notable for several reasons. It’s the first original, non-sequel flick from Marvel in two years. It marks the first time Marvel is moving beyond its stable of more established and well-known superheroes like Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America. Its source material is obscure enough that most of the population – and even a good chunk of comic fanboys – aren’t familiar with the characters or storylines. The film features some familiar faces in Zoe Saldana, John C. Reilly, Benicio Del Toro, and Chris Pratt (who took a leave from his role as Andy Dwyer on Parks & Rec to get ripped and chase movie superstardom), but the two actors who are arguably the film’s biggest names – Bradley Cooper* and Vin Diesel – don’t even appear onscreen, instead providing voices for a CGI raccoon** and a living tree-man-thing, respectively. And, as a key part of Phase Two of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (MCU), GOTG is the first film that deviates from the traditional superhero landscape and dives deep into the more sci-fi-heavy “cosmic” side of Marvel’s catalogue.
I’ve never read an issue of GOTG and my only knowledge of the team and their adventures comes from what I’ve picked up following the film’s production online. But there’s one very big reason I’m counting the days until GOTG hits theaters: James Gunn. When Gunn was tapped to write and direct GOTG, a lot of people who aren’t familiar with his work probably didn’t raise an eyebrow. But for those who followed Gunn’s career, the announcement immediately made GOTG one of the most intriguing projects of 2014.
Gunn started his career in Hollywood working for Troma Studios, an independent production company that specializes in low-budget, campy, and often hilariously disgusting horror and exploitation movies. Troma is the studio responsible for such beloved B-movie classics as Redneck Zombies, Surf Nazis Must Die, Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD, Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, and, perhaps most famously, The Toxic Avenger series.
While Gunn only worked at Troma for a short period of time, the studio’s influence on his style has been on full display in his work ever since. And that’s exactly why Marvel inviting him to the let’s-make-a-summer-blockbuster party is even more amazing.*** Since Marvel got its act together and really started focusing on their “phased” approach to rolling out their MCU, they’ve tended to stick with directors who have more experience producing big-budget films and/or critically or commercially successful small screen properties: Jon Favreau for Iron Man 1 and 2; Kenneth Braugnaugh and Alan Taylor for the Thor flicks; Joe Johnston and Joe & Anthony Russo for the Captain America movies; and Joss Whedon for the Avengers saga. Whedon certainly shares some sensibilities and genre roots with Gunn, but when compared with Gunn’s portfolio of past work, even Whedon’s resume looks downright mainstream. The closest comparison to Gunn’s selection to helm GOTG that you can find is Sam Raimi being picked to lead the Spiderman franchise in 2002. Raimi’s early films included the cult-favorite Evil Dead films (including the silly, yet wonderful, Army of Darkness). Sure, those films are classics in certain circles, but let’s not forget that, prior to be chosen to re-introduce audiences to the wise-cracking web-slinger, Raimi already had a few more commercial films under his belt, like For Love of the Game and The Quick and the Dead.
To get a better understanding of just how insane it is that Marvel handed Gunn the keys to a rumored $150 million budget for a tent-pole summer movie, here’s a look at some of Gunn’s most notable work. Fair warning, most of these videos/links are definitely NSFW, unless the place you work looks kindly on simulated gore, sex, curse words, and general depravity (in which case, is your company hiring? Because it sounds AWESOME!):
Alien Slugs and Deranged, Wrench-Wielding Vigilantes
Gunn has occupied the director’s chair for feature films twice before: 2006’s Slither and 2010’s Super. Serving as writer/director for both, the pair of films offers what might be our best insight into what Gunn will bring to GOTG. Starring Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Rooker, and The Office’s Jenna Fischer (to whom Gunn was married from 2000 through 2008), Slither is a hilarious horror-comedy that finds a small town besieged by a spate of infections caused by an invasion of alien slugs. It’s filled with laugh-out-loud funny moments, as well as some of the best gross-out gore in recent memory. The balance between playing the material for laughs and screams is just about perfect, something that proves Gunn knows how to find comedy in even the darkest of places.
Gunn’s second feature, Super, marked his first foray into superhero territory. The film stars Rainn Wilson as a quiet (but mentally unstable) Average Joe who develops an alter-ego known as the Crimson Bolt after his wife gets involved with a sleazy drug dealer (played by Kevin Bacon). Much of the film’s violence is presented in a shockingly realistic way, taking what might have been a sort-of-sweet story in another director’s hands and elevating it to “HOLY SH*T!” territory. The film didn’t garner as much attention as it deserved – likely because it was released around the same time as Kick-Ass, another semi-realistic look at everyday “superheroes” – but it’s definitely worth a watch. (Super is available on Netflix Instant and Slither can be found for purchase or rent at various platforms around the internet.)
Dawn of the Dead Remake
One of the best zombie movies of the last decade is the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. Gunn didn’t direct the film (those honors went to Zack Snyder, who would go on to helm 300 and Watchmen, and serve as the torch-bearer for DC – Marvel’s primary comic book rival – directing last year’s Man of Steel and set to turn Ben Affleck into Batman in the film’s sequel), but he was responsible for the screenplay. Most people remember DOTD because it starred a pre-Modern Family Ty Burrell and solidified fast-moving zombies as a legitimate “thing” in zombie movies (BOOOOOO!), but the script also had plenty of classic Gunn-ian moments, with the infamous Zombie Baby right at the top of the list.
Gunn’s most well-known series of shorts is “PG Porn,” a handful of skits he produced in 2008 to have a little fun with the well-worn tropes of the adult entertainment industry, without all that dirty sexy-time stuff getting in the way. The series featured some of Gunn’s famous friends and collaborators, including Nathan Fillion, Craig Robinson, Alan Tudyk, and Michael Rosenbaum, as well as a roster of popular adult film actresses (none of whom I’ve ever even heard of, I assure you). The series highlights Gunn’s crude sense of humor as well as his willingness to walk right up to the line of what might be considered “PG,” two traits that will be fascinating to see executed in the context of a big-time superhero movie.
I’ve saved the best for last. “HUMANZEE!” is a twisted short that Gunn produced a few years ago either as a planned one-off for Xbox or a pilot that never went to series, depending on who you ask. Either way, it’s James Gunn at his most perversely insane. “HUMANZEE!” is a completely bonkers (and incredibly offensive) look at what happens when you combine a half-human/half-chimpanzee monstrosity, a couple of morally corrupt idiots, some scantily-clad women, and set it all to a terrible laugh-track from an 80s sitcom. Obviously, any director that Marvel invites into their sandbox has to play by their (and Joss Whedon’s) rules, but I dare you to watch this short and tell me you’re not giddy at the prospect of seeing Gunn push every single boundary Marvel puts in his way.
Guardians of the Galaxy hits theaters August 1. Let the countdown to craziness begin.
*Yesterday, Marvel released the first look at Cooper voicing Rocket Raccoon. The character didn’t have any dialogue in the trailer, so it makes you wonder if the studio was eager to give the public a more complete glimpse of Rocket, or if they just wanted to make sure everyone knew Cooper – who is red-hot coming off of Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle – is “in” the movie.
**Interestingly, this isn’t the first time Gunn has featured a raccoon in his work.
***Marvel must feel pretty confident in the film Gunn has created, as they recently enlisted another director with roots in horror- and sci-fi-comedy, Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, The World’s End), to bring a lesser-known hero to the big screen with 2015’s Ant-Man (which will star the always lovable Paul Rudd in the titular role).