I've been a movie enthusiast my whole life and been writing movie reviews for over 15 years.
Before writer/director James Gunn’s reboot/sequel The Suicide Squad is released worldwide (August 6th, 2021) let’s recap and rank his previous four directorial outings. Gunn made a name for himself as a writer with the cult hit Tromeo and Juliet. For better or worse, that led to writing the Freddie Prinze Jr./Sarah Michelle Gellar Scooby-Doo live action movies. Gunn had a mini-breakthrough penning the excellent 2004 Zack Snyder-directed Dawn of the Dead remake.
It wasn’t long before his directorial debut, 2006’s horror/comedy Slither. Like them or not, even within the bounds of a studio system, James Gunn’s films have the feel of an anarchist artist at work.
Though he’s only directed four movies, you know a James Gunn movie when you see one. When not under the Marvel banner, they’re bloody, violent, and always entertaining.
1) The Suicide Squad (2021)
James Gunn’s hilariously violent reboot/sequel to 2016’s limp Suicide Squad embodies generic superhero tropes while also making fun of them. The best movie of the current DCEU and it’s not even close. What happens when Gunn isn’t shackled by his Marvel overseers? 2 hours and 10 minutes of gleeful depravity, where no “hero” is safe and the stakes actually feel present. Every member of the Squad is given a scene to shine and the humor feels organic instead of Marvel forced. An outlier that will stay in your consciousness more than most of the 250 superhero movies released in any given year.
2) Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Do we care that this movie pretty much has the exact same plot as the first Avengers movie? Do we care that, following Marvel movie protocol, there’s hardly a baddie (Ronan the Accuser is one of the least scary villain names ever) for our titular heroes to be afraid of? Do we care that Vin Diesel says the same three words over and over? No to all of those. Especially that last one because the less Vin Diesel tries to emote, the better for everyone involved. It’s amazing that you can see the artist at work under the Marvel corporate umbrella. Gunn puts his playful stamp on a summer tentpole instead of just being a corporate director-for-hire lackey (see- the Russo Brothers, Peyton Reed). You actually care about the characters with the goofy names. They don’t feel like generic heroes to us, even though the story around them is standard Marvel. Gunn’s humor never feels tacked-on and quippy. Does setting the film in space help Guardians break out of basic Marvel formula? Of course, but so does having a director with an actual point of view.
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3) Slither (2006)
James Gunn’s directorial debut is gooey, gross, and wrong in so many ways, which makes it so right if you’re a Troma fan or a fan of horror in general. Featuring one of Nathan Fillion’s greatest performances, along with Michael Rooker at his most, um, plump (“It’s just a bee sting”). You can see all of Gunn’s horror influences throughout the runtime (we don’t mind it shares the same basic plot as Night of the Creeps), but with the blood and the gore, Gunn has infused fun in every frame. You know right away if this is the movie for you or not. If this is, then you know why this movie slithers into your heart (and other places) and never leaves.
4) Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 (2017)
A simple case of a sequel not being as good as the original. Which is not to say it isn’t fun, but you know where all the jokes and action beats are coming from so nothing you see feels new or fresh. What you do have is Baby Groot and Kurt Russell as Star-Lord’s father and (spoiler since 2017) one of Marvel’s best villains, though that’s not really saying much. Every time Russell appears, Guardians 2 is elevated. When he’s not present, Guardians 2 feels standard. It’s no surprise that you remember a particular line (“I’m Mary Poppins, Y’all”) more than you remember a good portion of the movie.
5) Super (2010)
James Gunn’s ultraviolent and satirical take on the superhero genre is the most tonally uneven of all of his films. One of the main problems is that the “hero” is kind of an idiot and quite possibly a psychopath. Not that every character has to be likeable, but you don’t want the lead to be the most repellant character in the movie. Kevin Bacon steals the movie with his wicked timing as you notice you’re laughing only when he’s onscreen but dour whenever he’s off. The violence is repetitive and one-note and there are times when you think you’re supposed to be laughing but aren’t. That’s how you know a joke isn’t working. That’s how you feel through most of Super. Gunn regular Nathan Fillion has a priceless cameo as “The Holy Avenger.” More than once you wish the film were about him. That might have been super.
Director James Gunn’s movies are entertaining while maintaining a true artists’ bent. With only four movies to date, James Gunn’s unconventional mark on movies cannot be denied and always feel left of center. Even if you’re watching a mainstream piece of entertainment, there are rarely moments when a James Gunn movie feels generic.