James Gunn: ‘If superhero movies don’t change, it’s gonna get really boring’

Director on being cancelled, visual effects and reworking The Suicide Squad

Film is a cyclical and period-specific medium. A 21st-century remake of The Towering Inferno and a belated sequel to Independence Day failed to make the public fall in love with disaster movies again. The brawny action heroes of the 1980s either evolved, went meta, or found work as the Governor of California once the millennium closed in. Westerns, once the genre to beat, continue to exist, but as arthouse curiosities made by and for cinephiles; critics loved The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford a good deal more than the paying public did.

Still, it’s a surprise to hear James Gunn, who wrote and directed the first two Guardians of the Galaxy movies, predict the death of the superhero film.

“We know about the way cowboy films went, and the way war films went,” says Gunn. “I don’t know, I think you don’t have to be a genius to put two and two together and see that there’s a cycle to those sorts of films, you know and that the only hope for the future of the comic book and superhero films is to change them up. They’re really dumb. And they’re mostly boring for me right now.

There are people trying to do some different things with superheroes. So it's not it's not 100 per cent a rule that everybody isn't, but a lot of superhero films are boring

“I loved them at the beginning. I was really excited when they first started making those movies. It was about the visual effects when I saw Superman as a kid. I still love that movie. Okay, I know, that’s a guy on wires and bluescreen with this sort of crappy visual effects. And then when Iron Man came out, I was in. You’re able to make a guy fly around who looks like a guy flying around. And that was a beautiful thing to be able to do. But if the movies don’t change, it’s gonna get really, really boring.


“I was always influenced by Dave Gibbons art and Alan Moore’s Watchmen where the costumes didn’t fit the superheroes perfectly, and they had a little bit of a paunch. They weren’t all perfect bodies; they weren’t all beautiful. When they fought, they were kind of getting in the stupid Bartleby thing of getting into bar fights. There are people trying to do some different things with superheroes. So it’s not it’s not 100 per cent a rule that everybody isn’t, but a lot of superhero films are boring. And so for me, I think it’s just about bringing in other elements.”

Other elements, for Gunn, means other genres. To date, some of the most lived and successful comic book films have plundered and cannibalised older forms. Captain America: The Winter Soldier quoted liberally from paranoid political thrillers of the 1970s; Ant Man is a heist caper masquerading as a Marvel film.

Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, an irreverent sequel to the similarly-titled 2016 hit, resurrects – of all things – the World War II capers of the late 60s, with a mismatched squadron of questionably superpowered ruffians, notably Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, Idris Elba’s Bloodsport, Sylvester Stallone’s King Shark, Daniela Melchior as Ratcatcher 2, Nathan Fillion as TDK, Pete Davidson as Blackguard, Peter Capaldi as The Thinker, and John Cena as Peacemaker.

“He’s the douchebag Captain America,” jokes Cena at The Suicide Squad press event; a spin-off series featuring the character will premiere on HBO Max in 2022.

“Those films, especially the two prime ones – Kelly’s Heroes and The Dirty Dozen – were an immensely successful genre at its time for a lot of reasons,” says Gunn. “I believe The Dirty Dozen was a top movie in the year it came out. They had a lot of different fun elements from the sort of backdrop of war to the caper heist and the sneaking and the high stakes.

“The adventure was so broad and so big. And to be able to bring that into the modern day with a studio and to build the biggest set that was ever built before. And we’re using more practical special effects than we’ve ever used in any movie. And to be able to really build this spectacle war film, having Super Villains as the protagonists gave me a great excuse to be able to create a film in the genre I’ve loved since I was a little kid, and to do it a big huge way, and not have to hold back in any respect. It just makes it more fun to shoot when I’m actually blowing things up as opposed to having silly looking CGI explosions.”

What is toxic masculinity? How is Bloodsport able to survive this life when he has been taught by a father who was the worst person alive?

In 2018, it briefly looked as if James Gunn had been – to use a thoroughly 21st century term – cancelled. When years-old tweets in which Gunn joked about pedophilia and rape emerged, Disney promptly fired the director from such Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.3 for attitudes deemed “...indefensible and inconsistent with our studio’s values,” as Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn had it.

Gunn, in turn, characterised himself “... a provocateur, making movies and telling jokes that were outrageous and taboo. As I have discussed publicly many times, as I’ve developed as a person, so has my work and my humour.”

It was a complicated controversy for many cancel culture enthusiasts. Gunn’s long-forgotten tweets were dusted down by the Trumpian Daily Caller website in response to the director’s ongoing critique of the former 45th POTUS. “We’re in a national crisis with an incompetent president forging a full-blown attack on facts and journalism in the style of Hitler and Putin,” tweeted Gunn in 2017.

Hollywood chums rallied. Stars from the first two films cried out for Gunn to return to the franchise including Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, and Chris Pratt. Dave Bautista said he wouldn’t return unless Gunn was reinstated. The filmmaker has subsequently been rehired by Disney to helm Guardians 3, due in 2023. One senses he’s only half-joking when he says The Suicide Squad is about politics.

“I mean, this is about a little bit about the United States,” he says. “And it’s about the way we treat human beings. And that’s a part of what The Suicide Squad was from the beginning. And it’s a little bit about how we treat other countries as well as ourselves.

“And, then there’s the politics of the film in terms of the character of Bloodsport and what it means to be a man, you know? What is toxic masculinity? How is he able to survive this life when he has been taught by a father who was the worst person alive? And now he is around incredibly powerful people of different genders. It makes a difference.”

The Suicide Squad opens July 30th