The past few times I’ve driven by LAX, I have seen a massive advertisement for Guardians of the Galaxy emblazoned upon the side of building. Every time I see it I can’t help but think, “That’s for a James Gunn movie.” For those unaware, as a director, James Gunn’s films have never been massively successful. As a screenwriter, Gunn has penned the successful Dawn of the Dead remake and the Scooby Doo films. His directorial debut, 2006’s Slither, is a delightfully absurd horror-comedy. Even though Slither was well reviewed, it grossed less than $8 million at the domestic box office. His follow up, 2010’s Super, was even less enthusiastically received. Super grossed around $325,000 at the domestic box office, however, the film only opened on 11 screens nationwide. The most theaters it played in a given week was 39, which happened in its 5th week in release. To put that in perspective, Guardians is opening on an estimated 3,800 screens. Despite the lack of commercial success, one could see that Gunn was a unique talent, and, thankfully, Kevin Feige of Marvel saw the same thing and gave Gunn a budget equal the GDP of small South American nation.
Why Super was so unenthusiastically greeted still boggles the mind. Over the years Slither had gained a cult following, and Super continues some of the motifs from Gunn’s debut film. Both films show Gunn’s understanding of how to use violence for maximum effect, shifting from the comically grotesque to genuinely horrific. The films present Gunn’s roots with the no-budget schlockmeisters of Troma, but avoid the trappings of shock for schlock’s sake. With Super, Gunn makes a film that is as funny as it is tragic, a twisted deconstruction of vigilantism.
Frank Darbo (Rainn Wilson) is a sad sack schlub who has had 2 perfect moments in his life – marrying his wife, Sarah (Liv Tyler), and pointing a police officer in the direction of a fleeing criminal. Sarah is a recovering addict and soon relapses, eventually leaving Frank for the company of Jacques (Kevin Bacon), a prominent drug dealer. Plagued by visions since childhood, Frank believes he’s been touched by the hand of God and decides to become a costumed vigilante. While searching for inspiration through comic books, Frank strikes up an unlikely friendship with Libby (Ellen Page), an enthusiastic comic shop employee. Frank eventually constructs his own costume and begins patrolling the streets as the Crimson Bolt. Violently beating wrongdoers with a wrench, the Crimson Bolt gains a bit of local notoriety. Libby discovers Frank’s costumed alter ego and pressures him to take her on as his teenage (even though she’s 22) sidekick, Boltie. Armed to the teeth, the Crimson Bolt and Boltie decide to stage a raid on Jacques’ home in an attempt to save Sarah.
The film is based on the idea that anyone who dresses up as a costumed vigilante must be pretty insane. Super draws natural comparisons to Taxi Driver, Frank being like a less badass, dopey Travis Bickle. Much like Taxi Driver, Super follows Frank’s slow descent into madness, his unwavering belief in his own righteous wrath. Unlike Bickle, Frank believes he is God’s emissary, using his violence as a means to dispel demons. As the Crimson Bolt, Frank draws more inspiration from a TV Christian superhero, the Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion), than he does from traditional costumed vigilantes like Batman. Even the final raid on Jacques’ compound is reminiscent of the ending of Taxi Driver, only Super’s climactic shootout is much more violent. Like Bickle, the Crimson Bolt thinks he’s making a positive difference while making people he cares about witness horrific violence.
What makes Super such an excellent work is the manner with which it subverts numerous clichés. Frank sees himself as a hero that must restore Sarah, the broken woman, but his attempts to save her have grave consequences. Whether attacking random criminals on the street or Jacques’ goons, the Crimson Bolt resorts to a brutality that always leaves his heroism in question, like when he assaults a man for cutting in line. The gore effects are grisly enough to keep the consequences of violence in perspective even when playing for comedic effect. The film also features one of the oddest rape scenes in modern cinema, simultaneously illustrating the inherent fetishism of cosplay without ever being exploitive or cheap. The film goes through drastic tonal shifts between laughs and revulsion, from cheering on violence to being aghast at its effects.
Though he’s only made a total of 3 films, Gunn has already assembled a group of regular players who appear in his films. Sean Gunn (his brother), Michael Rooker, Nathan Fillion, and Gregg Henry have appeared in all of his films, including Guardians. Super features cameos from Freaks and Geeks’ Linda Cardellini as a pet store worker, Rob Zombie as the voice of God, and comedian Steve Agee as the cantankerous comic shop owner. There’s even a brief cameo by Troma guru Lloyd Kaufman.
Hopefully, Guardians of the Galaxy is a success for Marvel and Gunn. His name has been floated in rumors for Avengers 3, but it looks like he’ll be doing Guardians 2 first. What I really hope is that this newfound success leads to more people discovering the unique early works of Gunn’s directorial career. Aside from the Ant-Man fiasco, the hiring of Gunn for Guardians is one reason I have faith in the future of Marvel movies. Slither is a gross out good time. Super is a superhero film unlike any other. It’s currently streaming on Netflix. Watch it and think about how Marvel gave this filmmaker the reigns to their most risky film to date. It’s pretty crazy, maybe even super.