Early in James Gunn’s 2000 novel The Toy Collector, the protagonist, a drunken, thieving, rage-filled addict, scammer, and toy junkie named “James Gunn,” gets dressed down by his more-responsible brother Tar, who, in a fit of exasperation, tells him, “I grew out of toys, Jimmy. I grew out of GI Joe, and Batman and Robin. Because when a person grows up, they don’t play with toys. They play in their careers.” Those lines ring with irony because Gunn has proven Tar wrong by making a thriving career out of playing with toys, transforming the beloved pop culture of his childhood into the shiny entertainment of today.
Or more accurately, Gunn has made two careers out of playing with toys and transforming adolescent obsessions into adult art and entertainment—one mainstream, and the other kinky, transgressive, and powered by a strong, lasting personal connection to childhood obsessions. With Guardians Of The Galaxy, Gunn’s feverishly anticipated upcoming Marvel superhero-team movie, the eccentric filmmaker has an opportunity to bring these two careers together in a film that’s potentially both personal and commercial.
Throughout The Toy Collector, there are premonitions of the artist and man its author would become. Over the past four years, Gunn has taken a remarkable leap from making Super, a low-budget superhero film so dark and disturbing that a gritty reboot would have to be an actual snuff film, to being given hundreds of millions of dollars to play with as a Marvel writer-director.
But a careful look back at Gunn’s career makes his latest assignment seem both inspired and inevitable. As far back as The Toy Collector, Gunn was positing Marvel as a magical place, the spiritual home of every weird, angry outsider poring through comic-book fantasies as a means of escaping horrific home lives. When the young, fictional James Gunn runs away from home along with Tar, best friend Gary, and girl compatriot Nancy, their intended destination is Marvel’s New York offices, where they hope to raise money by selling superheroes of their own devising to Marvel. The James Gunn of the novel is a debauched, self-destructive 25-year-old hospital employee who uses the money he makes selling stolen prescription drugs to fund his addiction to buying vintage robot toys.
As its title suggests, The Toy Collector is concerned with toys more than comic books, but an obscure Marvel character figures prominently in the book: Rom, a cosmic superhero who began life as the first action figure produced by board-game titan Parker Brothers. The cheaply produced toy was a flop, but the comic series it inspired, Rom: Spaceknight, proved moderately popular. In The Toy Collector, Rom is one of those cheap plastic toys that ignite the protagonist’s fertile imagination: He’s a figure of escapism, but a strange form of escapism. The Gunn of The Toy Collector constantly seeks to return to his childhood, through drugs, sex, booze, and toys, even though his past is the source of a formative trauma that courses through the book and lends it a dark electric charge.
Gunn does justice to the complexity of childhood. As a novelist, he has a keen eye and ear for its tricky emotional geography, and an unerring sense of how it can be a time of both life-affirming innocence and eviscerating darkness. He’s as heartbreaking writing about Rom’s imagined adventures as he is writing about a father’s abuse, a friend’s death, or the myriad other tragedies that can make childhood a dark forest from which some emerge irrevocably scarred, and others never emerge at all.
From the beginning, Gunn has had a fascinatingly contradictory sensibility. While still in his mid-20s, he earned his MFA from Columbia, then embarked on unofficial graduate studies in contemporary transgression under the tutelage of Professor Lloyd Kaufman at Troma. At the famed low-budget studio, Gunn worked closely with the master, co-writing his well-received memoir, All I Need To Know About Filmmaking I Learned From The Toxic Avenger, as well as the Lloyd-directed 1996 feature Tromeo & Juliet. The film captures Gunn’s aesthetic in embryonic form: smart and smart-ass, crude yet unexpectedly highbrow, rooted in both high culture and the outer reaches of trash, brazenly sexual and brattishly violent, and roaringly confident to the point of being cocky. Gunn’s reverence for Shakespeare’s words is clear in the film, but he still felt the need to improve on the Bard’s text with lesbian sex, hermaphrodite cow mutants, and incest.
The same year Gunn published The Toy Collector, he co-starred in, co-produced, and wrote The Specials, a low-budget cult comedy that also centers on superhero toys. In this case, it’s a line of action figures depicting the titular Avengers-style superhero team, the unveiling of which goes so poorly, it helps precipitate the group’s break-up. On his website, Gunn reveals his dissatisfaction with how the film turned out, and his frustration with the process of how it was made; he describes a set plagued by fights between himself, star Jamie Kennedy, director Craig Mazin, and brother/co-producer/co-star Sean Gunn:
I heard the late Madeleine Kahn once say, “Sure, Twinkies are delicious. But that doesn’t mean the Twinkie factory is a fun place to work.” And the set of The Specials was one fucked-up Twinkie factory. Jamie, Craig, Sean, and I were constantly fighting. Unlike Tromeo & Juliet, where I made a lot of new friendships, on The Specials I lost more friends than I gained. I take the largest share of responsibility for this—I wasn’t the easiest person to work with. You don’t learn tact at Troma. By the time we were finished with the film, I was glad to see it go.
It’s easy to see why a man as driven and demanding as Gunn would be unhappy with The Specials. The notion of a superhero-team comic-book movie in which the team never does anything but bicker and gripe is original and subversive, and it would be difficult to imagine a better cast than Rob Lowe, Thomas Haden Church, Judy Greer, Kennedy, Paget Brewster, the late Jim Zulevic of Second City, and Gunn himself, as well as his brothers Sean and Brian.
The opening titles for The Specials declare that its titular superhero team has spent many a dashing day facing down supervillains and saving humanity, but the day the film chronicles is not one of those days. Instead, it’s a day of intense ennui, as square-jawed leader The Strobe (Church, channeling Adam West) contemplates leaving the team for greener pastures, as does his more popular contemporary The Weevil (Lowe), who happens to be having an affair with The Strobe’s frustrated wife, Ms. Indestructible (Brewster). The team is hoping the launch of their own line of superhero toys will catapult them beyond the league of lesser-known, second-rate teams. (The opening credits refer to The Specials as the sixth or seventh most popular superhero team in the world, not unlike like a certain set of galaxy guardians.) Instead, the disastrous launch underlines the team’s obscurity, as even the toymakers don’t seem to know much about the team, and they’ve created a line that flagrantly misrepresents their subjects’ individual identities and group dynamics in hilarious ways.
Gunn had a great idea, a good script, a lot of funny dialogue, and a fantastically talented cast. So it must have been frustrating to see his ideas and words realized in the most artless, pedestrian manner imaginable. There’s no crime in making a superhero movie with a Sundance budget, but The Specials looks terrible and feels off throughout. If anything, it looks much cheaper than even its bare-bones budget would suggest. It’s remarkable primarily for its unrealized potential.
After the release of The Toy Collector and The Specials, Gunn became an unlikely blockbuster filmmaker when he profitably resurrected another beloved fixture of his and seemingly everyone else’s childhood by writing 2002’s Scooby Doo and its 2004 follow-up, Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed. Also released in 2004: Dawn Of The Dead, the hit remake of George Romero’s cult classic, which launched the career of director Zack Snyder. With the Scooby Doo movies and Dawn Of The Dead, Gunn got a chance to play with toys and resurrect his childhood on a blockbuster scale, but he also had to serve multiple masters, to please the directors, the studios, and fans of the original Scooby Doo and Dawn Of The Dead, and audiences unfamiliar with them.
Gunn proved deft at playing the studio game; you don’t write three blockbusters in a three-year span without being able to navigate corporate politics. But the films he’s written and directed are a much purer reflection of his sensibility. Gunn’s love of the grossest, most vomit-inducing recesses of horror past was evident in his cultishly acclaimed 2006 directorial debut, Slither, a throwback to the skin-crawling horror of the 1970s.
For an artist who grew up on comic books, cartoons, and genre junk, writing a Dawn Of The Dead remake has a lot in common with making Slither, which has its spiritual roots in the cult B-movies of the past few decades, but afforded Gunn the freedom to create his version of a horror comedy instead of being tethered to a vision from the past. Dawn Of The Dead made a lot of money, but the commercially underperforming Slither has held up better in the public imagination. With projects like Guardians Of The Galaxy, Gunn doesn’t have to choose between the dictates of commerce and following his weird, funky, wandering muse. But his past suggests that if Gunn had to choose between being a blockbuster filmmaker or a cult director, he would opt for the second; his Troma roots run deep.
For his second directorial project (not including his reported uncredited work on Tromeo & Juliet), Gunn returned to the world of superheroes with arguably the least kid-friendly superhero movie this side of pornographic superhero spoofs. In 2011, Gunn was finally able to release Super, a film he originally wrote in a fit of feverish inspiration in 2002, at one point reportedly churning out 59 pages in a single day. In an interview with The L.A. Times, Gunn describes the script’s composition in wrenching spiritual and emotional terms, explaining:
I had an experience of automatic writing at the end of the movie. The narration at the end of the movie where Frank is speaking to the audience, it was like Frank was speaking to me. It was a very powerful experience. It felt as if it was not written by me. I was sobbing. That was the reason I wanted to tell the story, ’cause it was about somebody who had a calling, and not judging people, and not judging yourself so quickly.
The Frank in question is a sad-sack diner cook played by Rainn Wilson who, according to his opening narration, has known exactly two happy moments in his entire misbegotten existence: marrying gorgeous but troubled waitress Sarah (Liv Tyler), and helping police catch a criminal by pointing them in his direction.
Other than that, his life has been one long, unending burst of searing pain that shows no sign of letting up, particularly after Sarah relapses and falls into a sordid scene as the lover of drug dealer Jacques (Kevin Bacon). Frank is distraught and utterly lost, until he experiences a cosmic vision in which tentacles lift up the top of his skull and his brain is touched by the finger of God, and a cornball Christian superhero named The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion) tells him he has a sacred calling. Frank is a man of fierce faith and unshakeable conviction, so he takes the vision to heart and eventually decides to fight crime as a masked avenger known as The Crimson Bolt.
Super posits superheroism of the kind Frank practices as the Crimson Bolt to be a form of violent psychosis. Like the fictionalized James Gunn of The Toy Collector, who regularly flies into a violent rage, Frank has a clear-cut sense of ethics that leads him to commit terrible crimes in the name of doing right. Frank’s sense of morality and outrage demands that evildoers be punished. But he doesn’t delineate between terrible crimes that need to be addressed for society to function, and minor misdemeanors that ultimately don’t need to be punished at all. When the only weapon you have is a wrench, as is unfortunately the case with The Crimson Bolt, the solution to every problem begins to look an awful lot like a vicious wrench-beating. The Crimson Bolt’s homemade costume and weapon might suggest the light wackiness of Mystery Men (which was released around the same time as The Specials), but there’s nothing at all goofy about the bone-crunching damage Frank commits as he viciously beats one evildoer after another with his wrench until they’re oozing, squirming, stomach-churning masses of blood, brains, and guts. The violence in Super is horrifying, nauseating, and over-the-top.
It’s as if Gunn wants to make the audience pay for every superhero movie where the hero bloodlessly, painlessly does away with great armies of bad guys. He wanted to make a movie where the audience can feel, on a physical level, the pain and ugliness of a person being beaten to death for something as minor as keying someone’s car or cutting in line. The hideous excess of the violence would be comic if it weren’t so thoroughly horrifying. Gunn doesn’t invite viewers to laugh at Frank, so much as see the world through his eyes, to become infected with a form of insanity that only vaguely resembles the traditional form of heroism found in most superhero movies. Like The Toy Collector, Super grows more powerful as it nears its end, as all the ugliness, self-destruction, and horrific violence give way to a striving for transcendence, purity, and a return to the simplicity and moral certainty of childhood, despite an inveterate knowledge of just how dark and ugly childhood and children can be.
In that respect, Gunn’s work on Guardians Of The Galaxy could be the culmination of his life’s work—as a man who can be counted upon to deliver the commercial goods when given lucrative properties like Scooby Doo and Dawn Of The Dead, but also as an artist whose deep emotional connection with comic books, superheroes, and toys pervades his most personal work. Guardians Of The Galaxy has a strange, bifurcated quality: It’s groaningly familiar in the most bankable possible way (it’s a Marvel movie, one of the safest commercial bets of the past decade) and fascinatingly obscure, in that seemingly only hardcore comic-book fans know much about this particular superhero team, which looks to be downright Specials-like in its underdog scruffiness and all-around strangeness. Hopefully the built-in audience for Marvel movies will give Gunn the freedom to take the kind of chances that characterize his most personal work.
Will it live up to its potential? Marvel’s controversial, widely derided parting with Edgar Wright on Ant-Man raised concerns about the studio’s willingness to work with directors with strong personalities, even famously charming, widely liked filmmakers like Wright. Guardians Of The Galaxy will no doubt double as a test balloon to see how audiences will respond to a superhero movie made by an idiosyncratic filmmaker, and featuring lesser-known characters. While it may seem risky to entrust a massive franchise to a director whose past includes so much darkness and transgression, it’s worth noting that some of the most commercially successful blockbusters and franchises of all time were directed by filmmakers with movies like Meet The Feebles, The Evil Dead, and Memento on their resumés.
In the past, Gunn has evoked genuine heartbreak in a novel where a character bearing his name accidentally ejaculates on his best friend’s leg during a meth-fueled orgy, as well as in a movie about a lunatic who beats people to death with a wrench because his brain was touched by the finger of God. It will be tricky to navigate the demands of the characters and the studio, but if Gunn’s career has taught us anything, it’s that in the right hands, and with the right spirit, playing with toys and messing around with the detritus of pop culture can yield remarkable results. Done well, Guardians could ignite the imaginations, and the toy-buying frenzy, of the next generation of obsessive superhero fans, the daydreaming little kids whose ranks used to include Gunn, and in many ways, still do.