No two words have been as closely associated with the modern comic book movie than “dark” and “gritty,” oft-repeated buzzwords that speak to an attitude and style that have not always panned out for the franchise-leaning features (a lesson that DC continues to learn the hard way). Filmmaker James Gunn doesn’t do gritty — at least when it comes to his “Guardians of the Galaxy” features, though his earlier work, which includes 2006’s clever riff on cheesy sci-fi “Slither” and 2010’s just plain nasty “Super,” reveal wry hints of deviousness to his aesthetic that his Marvel properties happily circumvent.
That has allowed him to craft some of the franchise’s most purely entertaining installments — “Guardians” and its sequel, which opens May 5 — and it’s no surprise that he’s already signed up to direct a third “Guardians” movie, making him the first filmmaker to tackle three Marvel movies in a row.
Gunn had just two features under his belt when Marvel picked him to helm its 2014 smash hit, “Guardians of the Galaxy.” It wasn’t the first time a relative newbie tackled the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the Russo brothers had only directed two pervious features before their “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” Alan Taylor had just three before his “Thor: The Dark World”), but it was still a risky bet — especially in light of “Super,” Gunn’s gleefully anti-superhero (and anti-superhero movie) film, which deconstructed the genre and its many tropes years before comic book movies really hit their saturation point.
A Troma alum with a twisted sense of humor and a healthy interest in horror, Gunn may have been an unexpected pick, but he ended up being the best choice for “Guardians,” a property that even Marvel head Kevin Feige deemed “obscure” when he first started hinting that the comic book giant was interested in turning it into a film. (Gunn reportedly beat out Peyton Reed, who later directed “Ant-Man,” and duo Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, all of whom would have made a very different film out of the material.) The 2014 “Guardians” is a candy-colored, rock-infused spectacle that’s as funny as any Marvel film made over the last decade (and still funnier than Kenneth Branagh’s “Thor,” which was the first MCU film that really leaned into the humor).
His newest addition to the MCU will likely only expand further on what he did before, bolstered by the box office success of the first film, he’ll likely be load on more spectacle, more characters, more music and a whole hell of a lot more humor for his latest outing (it’s not every comic book movie that could cast Kurt Russell as a literal planet, but “Vol. 2” has done just that, and an early look at the soundtrack promises more classic jams gussied up for modern enjoyment). It’s pure Gunn, through and through.
Gunn’s panache for creepy creatures and his love for tongue-in-cheek humor form the backbone of this burgeoning “Guardians” series — now officially a three-picture affair — but his genuine affection for the ragtag group of space weirdos that populate his films is what really sets them apart.
Gunn is perhaps the first film director to really tap into what makes Chris Pratt so damn charming, allowing him to be both movie-star beefy and totally self-concious in equal measure (a formula that will only be further on display in his “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” which will reportedly focus more on Star-Lord’s wacky heritage). Even Colin Trevorrow and his big bucks “Jurassic World” couldn’t nail that, instead imagining as Pratt as some infallible muscle-man, robbing him of so much of his sweetness, and the misfire “Passengers” was woefully unable to use Pratt’s wattage to obscure the fact that he was playing a huge, huge creep.
The filmmaker heaps similar love on the rest of his cast, finding the humanity in the Bradley Cooper-voiced genetically engineered Rocket Raccoon and the deeply adorable Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). As the series expands, Gunn is also afforded the room to do more with his female stars, including Zoe Saldana’s badass Gamora and her twisted sister Nebula, played by Karen Gillan. All-star teams and their various iterations are the bedrock of so much of what the MCU creates — look no further than the “Avengers” series, which relishes swapping stars in and out with as much regularity as a soap opera — but the Guardians are so literally out there in the universe that Gunn and co. are afforded a special kind of freedom that other series simply don’t have.
It’s that kind of freedom that has allowed Gunn to craft a free-wheeling series amidst a comic book movie backdrop that rarely encourages such personal choices. A “Guardians” movie without Gunn isn’t a “Guardians” movie at all, and if he wants to blast off for another two, three or four adventures, Marvel would do well to just let him fly. It’s worked so far.
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” opens on Friday, May 5.