James Gunn: How Super and Guardians of the Galaxy Play With the Genre

Long before the blockbuster success of Guardians of the Galaxy, James Gunn tore down and reconstructed the genre with Super.

James Gunn is not your typical figurehead for a tent pole, big budget superhero blockbuster. Everything about this guy screams anomaly, and you wouldn’t believe that the man responsible for arguably one of the most widely pleasing Marvel films, Guardians of the Galaxy, began his filmography with beyond low budget shlock fare like Tromeo and Juliet. This is a man who fueled his need for filmmaking as a child by making zombie films with his brother, only to later pen the script to Zack Snyder’s largely praised, Dawn of the Dead remake. Gunn has navigated himself through the film industry in a unique way, and while he’s not someone you’d imagine making a Marvel film, it’s not surprising to see him churning out the different sort of endeavors that he’s become known for.

Yet, before the writer-director was blazing through galaxies, he made a much smaller and more intimate superhero film that equally broke barriers and couldn’t be told what to do: Super. And while there are some differences between Gunn’s Super and Guardians of the Galaxy, there are far more similarities in his approach and subsequent middle finger to the genre, allowing you to see that even with a much larger budget to play around with now, he’s still doing the same thing as before.

In 2010, Gunn released his reasonably shocking and fairly controversial take on the superhero mythos, Super, which starred a top-of-his-game Rainn Wilson in the role of semi-heroic and completely homicidal Frank Darbo. The story of an over-burdened man who decides to take crime fighting into his own hands may sound like an overdone one, but Gunn strays away from the norm here. Rather than glamorizing the Crimson Bolt’s (Wilson) journey, Gunn punctuates it with indecision and psychosis.

The Crimson Bolt believes he’s doing the right thing as he works towards regaining his wayward wife, but rather than learning lessons or bettering himself, he arguably is only becoming more unhinged. None of this is helped when Gunn adds a plucky, amped up Ellen Page to play his resident sidekick. Instead of restraining him or acting as a surrogate to help him get better at relationships, she’s even more unstable. One of their initial conversations is just them slamming the big, archetypal superhero duos through time and it becomes clear that this pairing is anything but conventional. She’s not going to help him realize the better version of himself that he had inside all along, but instead open the floodgates that should have never been let down in the first place. If Batman and Robin are a team that signifies a healthy relationship of trust, then the Crimson Bolt and Boltie are like a drunken one-night stand with your ex-spouse.

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At every corner, Super is trying to assert its aversion to being regular, and you can see these same urges in the recent Guardians of the Galaxy as Gunn is determined to get his message across and shatter conventions. But here, aliens are strippers and interstellar planetary prisons are nudie clubs. As early as the opening credits of Super, we see this with an ultra cutesy animated sequence that tries to bury the hardcore violence that’s bubbling underneath it all while set to a pop song. Guardians takes a similar approach as Peter Quill bounces around a desolate planet, rocking to his own internal soundtrack. We don’t open on a superhero righting wrongs and beating evil in the most intimidating fashion. Instead, we get him moonwalking to choreographed beats while he simply has fun.

In the same way, Guardians’ post-credits sequence breaks expectations and goes against the norm. Anyone staying late to get the latest piece of the puzzle that connects to Avengers: Age of Ultron or any other Marvel Phase Three films was sorely disappointed when Gunn instead chooses to wallow in silliness and not giving a fuck. Super explores some much darker territory with the idea that Gunn is tearing apart the genre by making you openly question if you’re even watching a superhero or a serial killer and wondering how this is possible, and he’s doing the same thing now, albeit in a totally different, more ridiculous, expensive way.

Connecting all of this to the budget, Gunn is a hands-on filmmaker. The animated credits of Super were presumably done by Gunn himself, just as he later even plays the Devil character in the Holy Avenger sequences. Much like how David Lynch struggled during The Elephant Man when he learned he couldn’t make his own props anymore, Gunn tries as hard as possible to keep his voice and stamp on Guardians despite his hands being somewhat more off of the production thanks to the budgetary paradigm shift.

The music is essential to the DNA of both of these films. In Super, music is repeatedly looked to as a veil to place over the intense violence or emotion that happens on screen. Frank’s first crime fighting spree is a frightening exercise in misused power run amok, and it wouldn’t be half as strong without the music that pushes it forward. Similarly, Guardians utilizes music almost as “therapy” since Peter Quill uses his Awesome Mix to score his own life and create these living fantasy sequences. It’s no coincidence that so many of the songs on his mix are about escape. Elsewhere in Super, we see Frank finding comfort and hiding in the fantasy sequences of the Christian-based Holy Avenger. Further on, his most brutal attacks yet are paired with the superimposition of comic noise effects as carnage spills forward, like cinder blocks being dropped on people’s heads. Pow.

Gunn uses music as a coping mechanism for the absurdity he’s trying to sell you, whether it’s a potentially psychotic powerless man who wants more, or the human leader of a multi-species ragtag universe-saving crew. These visual equivalents of having the rug pulled out from under you are everywhere. Whether it’s in the against-type casting in both films that intentionally hides star power, or even the films’ taglines: “He’ll Totally Fucking Beat Evil” and “You’re Welcome,” respectively, which are tonally similar and use the same sort of arrogance in both approaches.

Getting into the deeper material, both of these films are about superheroes without powers and it not really being the costume that’s important, but the person underneath. With Peter Quill, Star-Lord is just a name. You’re getting the journey of the guy underneath. Super even briefly offers up a twisted take on the typical “secret identity getting out” storyline where it’s nearly immediately dismissed. Frank’s identity as the Crimson Bolt isn’t what’s important. Most of the people he’s up against even know who he is.

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Super is obviously less of an ensemble story, and Guardians deviates from it by it very much not just being a Star-Lord film, either. Perhaps focusing on Quill’s younger years may have provided a character with a center that better resembled Frank’s fantasy, but we’re rocketed forward decades into the future when Peter is finding friends and putting a team together. This is a necessary division point. Gunn doesn’t show us Frank in his 50s later on, with a posse in tow, because it’s a fundamentally lonely story.

Frank is by himself. He even has this anti-Peter Parker-esque psychotic voice over that is constantly running through his head. This is because Frank, and to a lesser extent, Peter Quill, are both heroes through delusion. Frank, in a much more literal sense, and with Quill, he almost wills it into existence. Arguably the start of Guardians is fairly flimsy as young Peter dreams about being elsewhere and having something more, and almost immediately he’s abducted by a spaceship. There’s no context for this, and there doesn’t need to be. We learn fairly quickly that all of this is real, whereas Frank is constantly looking for the same sort of validation in his quest.

Something as simple as Frank writing the name of his antagonist (and wife stealer), Jacques, down as “Jock” speaks volumes. It’s a beautiful, understated example of tragedy masquerading as humor, as it’s clear that Frank is deficient or troubled in many ways, making this all the more terrifying. Again, are we seeing a superhero get born here, or a serial killer? Is the only difference the costume? Frank hears “Fight evil in all its forms” from the Holy Avenger, missing the rest of what he says. He defends the ridiculous character’s slogan of “All it takes to be a superhero is the choice to fight evil,” which is essentially “With great power comes great responsibility” pablum. You can twist anything into an emblematic mantra with meaning if you try hard enough.

The first time Frank ends up (assumedly) killing someone, and he’s not even fighting evil. He’s hurting a line-cutter over pettiness. It’s also worth mentioning that Jacques, Frank’s enemy, acts in exactly the same fashion, hurting people as a response to ego and rage, not some higher code. Frank isn’t chosen, he’s just channel surfing. Frank’s visions through his life are unfounded. They could be nothing more than egomania and the fever dreams of a broken, damaged man trying to convince himself that he is right. This is not teamwork; it’s a lonely story.

All of this isolation naturally translates into Gunn’s need to tell more of a group story (where every one of the Guardians goes through their own full arc) in which unity is celebrated. The Guardians even defeat Ronan by the power of their team collectively joining hands. Consider the significance of how something insane like “We are Groot” can not only be uttered at the most pivotal moment of the film, but it works (honestly, how many people cheered in the theater when that was said?). Again Gunn is tricking you into getting a major emotional moment out of nonsense. As a contrasting point, the end of Super depicts the brutal death of Frank’s only teammate, and vengeance is what pushes him through rather than “unity.” He gets his pyrrhic victory, but it’s one full of isolation, as the film’s epilogue shows Frank all alone.

Interestingly enough, while Frank and Peter are clearly analogs to each other, there are times when Frank feels a lot more like Ronan the Accuser. Frank’s “orb” is ostensibly stolen with Sarah, and just like Ronan, all Frank wants is to get it back. Whatever the cost. He had something, and now he doesn’t. Creating a superhero out of petulance is of course a bold move, especially when Gunn illuminates the similarities through Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s crucial to realize that at no point in Super is Frank displayed in a generous, powerful light. He’s never celebrated. A news report briefly, marginally exercises the idea that he could be a hero, but it’s taken with such a grain of salt. Even in the sex scene, he’s subjugated and more or less raped by Boltie, a character who nearly identifies herself as The Creeping Bam, a name that she readily admits means nothing and is just breaking the rules for the sake of being cool, an ideology that never seems to not be present in Guardians.

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Both films equally relish the idea of their superhero status, whether it’s Boltie’s glee upon seeing her artist’s composite on TV after she and Frank go out on an attack, or the same amount of joy that Peter expresses when he’s finally referred to as Star-Lord by Korath. He’s finally made it. They both have.

On the other side of things, in typical Gunn undercutting fashion, there seems to be even more delight in the reciprocal carnage that occurs in both movies (albeit much more present in Super). No one would view Guardians of the Galaxy to be as much of a wallowing morality play as Super is, but there’s still manic delight in the inflicting of violence throughout. Like in the sequence where Groot batters a group of people to death mercilessly and then smiles proudly afterwards for approval. The action is almost identical to Boltie’s in Super, as Ellen Page flashes a wide smile and big eyes between eviscerating someone. Or the bluntness in crashing an entire space ship into someone just to kill them. In Super, people are literally getting rapidly stabbed as they burn to death. Extremes continue to hide behind naivety and fantasy, like how you kind of forget about the ridiculous carnage that’s going on because it’s a talking raccoon doing it, for example. It’s all overkill (literally) but it’s all about the presentation.

It’s interesting to note that Kick-Ass, which bears a tremendous amount of overlap with Super (the former came out on April 16, 2010, and the latter on April 1, 2011) also prides itself in this hyper-stylization of brutality. However, Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl are seen as heroes. They inspire a movement, and go out with support and solidarity behind them. In this iteration of everyday-superheroes who have no powers as bombastic music highlights the whirling violence around them, they’re allowed to claim their hero status. Just like the Guardians. It’s only Frank who has to atone introspectively in a bleak world that he doesn’t even think can be fixed, as he hopes that all of this was for the best.

Super is almost Taxi Driver-like in its conclusion, as it pushes the philosophy of just going for it and rushing into things even if you’re not ready, just as Guardians similarly rides out its ending. This bloodbath in Super is typically not the sort of fodder that you equate with the superhero genre. All of this comes down to power in the end, for both films, and the idea of this power being questioned.

Super ends on an optimistic note, in spite of its bleakness. In fact, both Gunn films do this, as there are still more demons out there in the world. A lot essentially comes down to perspective and it makes sense for a studio blockbuster to have more mass appeal than a deeply personal indie film. That’s a lot to let your audience ruminate on as your credits roll, rather than indulging in a dancing tree-man. Frank even tells you to question what you’re seeing through all of this, and you should. After the critical success of Super, and especially now that Gunn has pulled off the incredible magic trick of making this sort of insanity into not only something not only palatable, but desired and mega-profitable, it’s going to be a whole new game out there as far as what superhero films are allowed to do.

I mean, he’s even made Howard the Duck cool again.

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