I like to think of myself as pretty well-versed in comic book lore and mythology at this point. There’s a lot of obscure characters out there in Marvel and DC comic canon, which is understandable given that both companies have been around for the better part of a century now. They’re bound to pick up some oddball, one-off heroes and villains along the way. And, while I’m by no means an expert, I feel as though, on a good day, it’d be pretty hard to stump me with name-dropping any of these random wierdos.
But waaaay back in 2012, when Marvel Studios head Kevin Fiege announced the MCU’s next big installment was to be The Guardians of the Galaxy, I had no clue who the hell he was talking about. And I suspect that was likely the general consensus as well. At the time, my comic tastes were pretty much resigned to the big, marketable names. You know, your Batmen, your Spider-Mans, really basic bitch stuff. And while I was vaguely aware of certain figures like Rocket Raccoon and Groot, I certainly had no idea what on Earth a “Star Lord” was.
Yet, during the San Diego Comic-Con panel where the film was announced, there was one name dropped that I was intimately familiar with: James Gunn. Yes, Marvel, being the absolute lunatics they were, had hired relatively unknown (in the mainstream, at least) director James Gunn to helm their next big-budget, blockbuster superhero film. A lot of people at the time were confused by the choice, especially after the studio had gone after such well-known and established filmmakers like Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon, and Kenneth Branagh to direct their previous releases. And frankly, they had reason to be confused.
Despite a few notable mainstream writing credits (he wrote the script for both Zack Snyder’s excellent 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake as well as the so-bad-it’s-good live-action Scooby-Doo), Gunn was most known at the time for being an alumnus of Troma Entertainment. Troma is a wonderful little oddity in the film industry, an independent production company founded by notorious schlock B-movie legend Lloyd Kaufman, created solely for the acquisition, funding, and distribution of the weirdest, grossest, most offensive indie films imaginable. It’s honestly kind of magical.
With titles like Killer Condom, Surf Nazis Must Die, and Dumpster Baby, it’s pretty easy to see the exact sort of material that Troma and Kaufman actively seek out and revel in. Silly, ostentatious, flamboyant, and chock full of sex and violence, these movies push all boundaries of standards and decency, in a concerted effort to undermine and satirize traditional Hollywood trends and archetypes. Even their most publicly-known and “accessible” films like The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke-‘Em High are overflowing with gratuitous nudity, nauseating gore, and hilariously abrasive humor and social commentary.
As a kid who was obsessed with low-budget garbage filmmaking (which I still strongly believe to this day is the only place you can see truly original ideas anymore), I stumbled onto Troma very early on in my childhood, far younger than I had any right to. Part of the allure to me was, obviously, the taboo. The things that would happen in these movies were like nothing I had seen anywhere else. It was disgusting, it was crude, it was stupid as hell, but it was also undeniably different. Counter-culture is the name of the game at Troma, and for a young kid with interests in renegade, anti-establishment filmmaking, it was an absolute treasure trove.
But don’t let the reputation fool you. Just like how Roger Corman, the King of B-Movies and producer of such gems as Galaxy of Terror and Death Race 2000, spawned the careers of now-legendary cinematic icons like Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, and Francis Ford Coppola, Troma also boasts an impressive roster of talent. People like Oliver Stone, JJ Abrams, and South Park’s Matt Stone and Trey Parker all owe to some extent their success in the industry to their early works with Kaufman and Troma.
And then of course there’s James Gunn. His first writing credit, the movie that got him a foothold in the industry and would ultimately lead him all the way to where he is today, is a little movie called Tromeo and Juliet. Narrated, naturally, by Lemmy of Motorhead fame, the story is a contemporary retelling of the namesake Shakespearean classic, with some key alterations. In typical Troma fashion, Gunn ups the sex, the blood and guts, and the edginess of the original by exponential amounts, resulting in a bizarre, bastardized version of the story that we’re all so familiar with. Incest, giant cow monsters (with opposable, meter-long genitalia) and more nudity than most reasonably-budgeted pornographic films all make Gunn’s first foray into filmmaking a memorable experience, to say the least.
But whether or not Tromeo and Juliet is your cup of tea or not, it certainly sets the tone for what Gunn would bring to the table with his entire filmography. Gunn’s sense of humor is dark and sardonic, and his views on action and violence are completely, delightfully antithetical to the phrase “Less is More.”
Following his stint at Troma, and a few major Hollywood writing credits, Gunn would achieve moderate success with two theatrically-released films, Slither and Super, which also marked his first films in the director’s chair. Slither, starring Elizabeth Banks, Nathan Fillion, and Michael Rookeris a fantastic monster movie in the vein of The Thing, wherein an alien parasite lands in a small southern town and begins to infest and mutate its population. It’s bloody, it’s funny, it’s genuinely creepy, and it’s a fantastic homage to the low-budget, B-movie monster movies that dominated the 60s and 70s. Likewise, Super is a dark, dryly satirical take on the superhero genre, years before it would really blow up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Which makes it all the more fitting that Gunn would eventually be courted for Guardians of the Galaxy. These characters are weird, they’re dysfunctional, they’re dangerous, and most importantly, they’re rude. It’s a match made in heaven for Gunn’s particular sensibilities. And the end result is certainly a thematic departure from the typical Marvel fare. It’s certainly far edgier than anything else in the studio’s library, and has likely the most distinctive and unique tone out of all twenty-something Marvel releases thus far (with maybe the sole exception of Thor: Ragnarok, which frankly rode on the coattails of Guardians as it is).
But despite the crude humor in the film and its sequel (Drax’s “famously huge turds” and Peter Quill’s quip about his ship looking like a Jackson Pollock painting under a blacklight both spring to mind) Gunn’s work in the Marvel universe still felt extremely restrained given his previous work. He was clearly being shoehorned somewhat into the Marvel framework, and while both Guardians films are fantastic breaths of fresh air in an increasingly over-saturated market, they ultimately feel like Gunn with kid gloves on.
Meanwhile, the success of Gunn’s Guardians films made other studios scramble to try and replicate that same formula, and we were soon graced with DC’s answer to the challenge: David Ayers Suicide Squad. Look, there’s nothing about this terrible, terrible move that hasn’t already been said a thousand time before, so I’ll keep it brief: It’s a scrambled, incomprehensible mess that is completely unrecognizable from the source material. Whereas the Guardians are abrasive yet still endearing, the Squad are all just assholes for no reason other than the script demands it. Where Guardians expertly weaves its soundtrack in and out of the narrative of the film, allowing the character’s themes and emotions dictate the music and vice-versa, Suicide Squad violently jumps between terrible rap tracks and flashy, nonsensical montages like a bad MTV Music Video block. Everything that made Guardians of the Galaxy special was completely ripped off for Suicide Squad, which managed to completely misunderstand why it worked in the first place.
So, when it came time for the sequel, DC and Warner Bros did perhaps the most sensible thing they’ve ever done in the entire history of both companies, and simply chose to cut out the middle-man: Since Suicide Squad was effectively nothing more than a pale attempt at copying Gunn’s work, why not hire Gunn himself?
And Gunn was available, too. Apropos of the content of his earlier Troma work, Gunn had recently been fired by Marvel and Disney for some questionable jokes he had made years ago on his Twitter account. It’s not worth getting into here the legitimacy of this whole ordeal, but I’ll say this: It was extremely ironic that the very thing that got Gunn the Marvel job in the first place, his trademark sense of humor, would be the thing that ultimately would see him lose the same job.
(I should note that Gunn has since been rehired, and begins work on his third and final Guardians film very soon).
With nothing better to do, and I suspect also with an axe to grind with Marvel, Gunn went to work with the competition. In order to entice him to the job, and knowing the critical failure of their previous venture, DC and Warner Bros. gave Gunn complete carte blanche as to how he wanted to approach the film. Make it as big, loud, crazy, and stupid as he wanted.
And you better believe, he did exactly that. After this very long and winding road, of ups and downs, of indie films and Marvel blockbusters, Gunn had finally been given what he should have had this whole time: A massive, Marvel-sized budget, with absolutely no restrictions. Time to bring Troma to the big screen, baby!
And that’s precisely what Gunn’s THE Suicide Squad is: Low budget schlock magnified through a near $200 million budget. It’s a chaotic, beautiful collage of torn appendages, exploded-faces, cannibalized refugees, and philosophical debates on the ideological merits of eating dicks. It’s side-splittingly hilarious, having me completely doubled-over in laughter for the majority of the film’s runtime. It’s shockingly brutal and vicious. There are things in this movie that would make even Saw fans cringe. It’s raunchy. There’s male nudity, wild sex scenes with supervillains, weird explorations of possible Oedipal complexes, and enough John Cena crotch bulges to justify the existence of several new fetish subreddits. It’s everything I’ve always wanted from a completely unrestrained, unchecked James Gunn with a blank checkbook and no obligations from a studio to continue a storyline or advance a wider narrative.
Just pure, unfettered, magnificent pandemonium.
But perhaps the most wonderful thing about The Suicide Squad is how much it combines the strengths of all eras of Gunn’s filmography. While it certainly exhibits all the trademark grime and sarcasm of his earlier work, it also has the genuine charm, heart, and complexity of his Guardians films. Those movies aren’t just beloved because of their action, their music, or their comedy. They’re appreciated for their characters, their moving stories, and their overall uplifting sense of optimism hidden under a layer of cynical snark. And Gunn brings that exact same magic to his Suicide Squad.
These aren’t the same unlovable assholes from DC’s previous Suicide film. While they’re still villains, they’re much more complicated in their motivations and desires. They grow, they change, they bond with each other, and in between the over-the-top carnage and bedlam, you actually grown very attached to them.
Which is incredibly cruel, and wickedly genius. This is the Suicide Squad, after all. Not everyone is making it out of this film alive. And because of Gunn’s masterful character work, it hurts all the more when our villains go down one by one.
It’s by no means a perfect film, but then, no movie in the superhero genre ever truly is (except for The Incredibles, obviously). But it’s a perfect capstone to Gunn’s career, an ideal summation of his greatest assets and gifts as a writer and filmmaker. The Suicide Squad is an absolute joy to experience, and I’ll be revisiting it again very soon.
And hey, if nothing else, check out Troma! If you like The Suicide Squad, there may be something there for you too!