How James Gunn went from B-movies to directing Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy”

Master of the universe.
Master of the universe.
Image: AP/Jordan Strauss/Invision
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige knew he made the right call hiring James Gunn to direct Guardians of the Galaxy when he saw the writer-director’s first revised script for the movie. On the cover, was a color photo of a Walkman—like the one Peter Quill used to play his “Awesome Mix” of classic-rock songs such as Hooked on a Feeling and Come and Get Your Love, which scored the sci-fi epic.

“Before I even turned the page,” Feige told the New York Times (paywall), “I thought, ‘This is perfect.’” The movie, as fans will recall, was grounded in its best-selling soundtrack. Feige attributes that to Gunn’s genius.

Gunn was plucked from mild B-movie fame to helm Marvel’s entry into the cosmic corners of its cinematic universe with the first Guardians of the Galaxy film, released in 2014. Featuring a ragtag cast of characters that were relatively unknown compared to superheroes like Iron Man and Captain America, expectations for the movie were tempered. But Gunn’s blend of weird, wisecracking humor, lovable characters, and outer-space action drove it to a stellar return of $773 million worldwide.

The sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, hits US theaters this week and is bracing for an even bigger $150 million debut. That would make it Disney’s second-largest opening of the year, behind Beauty and the Beast.

It’s hard to believe now that Guardians was Gunn’s first time in the director’s chair on a big-budget Hollywood movie.

A protege of Lloyd Kaufman, Gunn got his start making independent movies at Kaufman’s Troma Entertainment, a production house known for gruesome and comic indie fare. In 1996, he wrote the truly bizarre Tromeo and Juliet, a schlocky riff on the Shakespearean classic.

He went on to pen Hollywood movies like the 2002 live-action Scooby Doo, which was originally much darker than the version that ended up on screen, and Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn of the Dead reboot.

Gunn later wrote and directed titles like the dark comedy Slither and Super, a violent piece of superhero humor, starring Rainn Wilson. Those projects reportedly caught the eye of Feige at Marvel and eventually landed Gunn on a list of potential directors for Guardians—and he didn’t even want the job.

Gunn was wary of getting involved with a big Hollywood production after walking away from a previous project called Pets because the studio and producers couldn’t see eye to eye. But, after meeting with Marvel and seeing the success of The Avengers, the film started to come together in his mind. He honed in on the “extraordinary sadness” of a character like Rocket Raccoon, who was engineered with human-level intelligence, during his many meetings with the producers. And in 2012, he landed the gig.

The shift from low-budget movies to blockbusters wasn’t easy for Gunn. “There were those moments of panic, where it’s like, ‘Am I going to make the biggest Marvel bomb ever? The only Marvel bomb?'” he told The Daily Beast, thinking back on the first movie.

The biggest movie had had worked on up until that point was Scooby Doo, which cost $84 million to make. But on Guardians, he was charged with a budget twice that sizeThose resources were freeing and made shooting “easy,” he told the Times. But the scale was also daunting.

“I would wake up in a cold sweat at 3am thinking I might be making Pluto Nash 2,” Gunn said, referring to Eddie Murphy’s $100 million galactic flop. “There were moments where I was consoling myself with the thought that I could go teach.”

Gunn turned to friend Joss Whedon, who wrote and directed the first two Avengers movies, for advice. Whedon read the first draft of the script and could tell Gunn was holding himself back. He was trying to fit into whatever mold he thought made a Marvel movie.

“I was afraid that to make a huge commercial movie, I had to make it like other movies,” Gunn told Moviemaker. “Joss said, ‘I like the parts that are James Gunn. Just make it more James Gunn.’ And that’s what I did. I was glad he gave me that vote of confidence.”

That first Guardians movie earned Gunn Marvel’s trust and allowed him to make the movie he always wanted the second time around, actor Chris Pratt told the Times.

Marvel didn’t order any plot points or put pressure on Gunn to make Vol. 2 fit into a broader narrative, even though Guardians is part of a larger cinematic universe that will ultimately collide in Avengers: Infinity War. (“I’m lucky to have found the Guardians, because they were their own little bit of the cosmic Marvel universe, so far away from everything else that happens,” Gunn told The Daily Beast.)

Vol. 2 is more of a family drama. Star Lord meets his father, a living planet named Ego, whose human avatar is played by Kurt Russell, for the first time. And Gamora’s fugitive sister, Nebula, joins the group. Parts of the story are rooted in Gunn’s own relationship with this family. And some of his family members appear in the movie.

The film also wholeheartedly embraces Marvel’s cosmic weirdness, with Gunn coming into his own as a tentpole director. “I’m a little punk rock kid who likes edgy stuff,” Gunn told the Associated Press. “I thought what I liked might not be what the entire world likes. But I’ve come to trust that what I like works.”

Gunn is currently working on a script for the third Guardians movie, which will take place after Avengers: Infinity War. And he’s signed on for a fourth.