Here is a small sampling of beneficiaries of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (which, with 15 films since 2008, has earned over $11 billion globally): movie theaters interested in selling tickets; the good people at Disney; the dozens of actors who have been made intergalactic movie stars; people who enjoy comic books; people who enjoy origin stories; people who enjoy watching things explode.
But the biggest winner of all would have to be James Gunn. As of Sunday morning, the second “Guardians” movie — which Gunn wrote and directed — earned $145 million domestically, or 54% more than the original did during its opening weekend in 2014. Combined with a 13-day international total, the film has already made over $427 million globally, and could be on its way to becoming the MCU’s fifth billion-dollar movie.
Those big numbers represent quite a transition for Gunn, who, before signing on to direct the first “Guardians,” was mostly known as a B-movie director. The most that one of Gunn’s movies had made at the box office before “Guardians” was 2002’s live-action “Scooby Doo” ($153 million) and its sequel (both of which, it should be noted, this writer unabashedly enjoyed, despite critical lashings). But Gunn’s story at Marvel is important for more reasons than dollars and cents.
When “Guardians” launched in 2014, it was an unknown property. Gunn likes to joke in interviews about the ridiculousness of a talking raccoon. (“I was like, ‘O.K., a talking raccoon – that’s a stupid idea,’” he recalled thinking about the initial pitch in a recent interview with the New York Times.) But the voice of that talking raccoon, Bradley Cooper, along with Vin Diesel’s tree-like creator who only spoke one phrase, “I am Groot,” would be the biggest movie stars attached to the 2014 original.
Gunn infused the first “Guardians” with enthusiasm, wit, and a singular — and starkly different — vision, that stood apart from other Marvel films. And critics responded. Variety’s review partially knocked it for being “overlong, overstuffed and sometimes too eager to please,” but called it “prankish and playful” and a “gently subversive superhero sendup.”
Then came the audiences. The August release smashed box office records for the month, and went on to make $773 million globally. With that critical and commercial success came something increasingly rare — the birth of a fresh franchise (even if it existed within the confines of a massively recognizable label in Marvel).
And that music! With both “Guardians” movies, Gunn put a twist on the traditional action scene rife with grunts and crackling bones by scoring them with nostalgia-triggering hits from the ‘70s and ‘80s, weaved into the plot through a mixtape that Chris Pratt’s character plays on a Walkman. (Who could forget the use of the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb” in “Guardians 1”?)
Enter Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel studios who is commonly thought of as the cinematic universe’s brilliant puppeteer. There’s this idea that is regularly floated (which Feige has called “blown out of proportion”) that each Marvel movie is a sausage, the recipe of which is handed to a director, then the parts are churned through a machine of studio notes, fattened up with threads that connect each film in the universe to each other, and sanded down to ensure global appeal.
Joss Whedon, whose joke-dense “Marvel’s The Avengers” and its sequel “Avengers: Age of Ultron” defined in part what is commonly considered to be the Marvel movie tone, talked about his creative struggle making the latter in a 2015 BuzzFeed interview. “I made the idiotic mistake of trying to make a great movie,” he said. “I was like, ‘I want this movie to be great. I’m just going to go ahead and say it, even though I’m a WASP.’ And then I feel like I’ve been punished for that for the last two years. I put a level of pressure on myself that I’ve never done before. I’ve been a sketch artist, and now I’m painting.”
Whedon parted ways with the MCU after “Ultron” and recently signed on to direct a “Batgirl” movie for D.C. It sounds like there are no hard feelings. “[Whedon] did call a couple months ago to tell me about it,” Feige said during a press preview in April. “He didn’t have to call but I appreciated that he did. I think a Joss Whedon ‘Batgirl’ would be awesome.”
But Whedon isn’t the only directorial voice Marvel has lost. Irreverent Brit Edgar Wright was signed on to direct “Ant-Man” but cut ties with the project. While an official account has yet to be released, Whedon (“Whatever dissonance that came, whatever it was, I don’t understand why it was bigger than a marriage that seemed so right. But I’m not going to say it was definitely all Marvel, or Edgar’s gone mad!”) and Gunn (“not everyone belongs in a relationship together. It doesn’t mean they’re not wonderful people”) have both commented on the split.
Gunn has been adamant that “Guardians 2” was made with little or no interference. When asked by the New York Times if Marvel dictated any of the plot elements, Gunn replied, “None. Zero.”
And Marvel and Disney insist that unique directorial visions are vital to keeping the universe fresh. “The feat of the MCU is that while all of these films have their own voice and perspective, they all feel connected, and that wouldn’t happen without the collaboration between the Marvel Studios team and our filmmakers,” Disney’s distribution head Dave Hollis commented. “Whether it’s James Gunn, Joss Whedon, Ryan Coogler or Taika Waititi — everyone comes to the table with a unique point of view and they all share the same pursuit of excellence which shows up on screen.”
With two blockbusters released into the universe that have charmed both critics and audiences while maintaining a unique directorial vision, Gunn will take on a third “Guardians” movie. Then, the lingering question: What’s next?
For now, Gunn is keeping a busy on Twitter, answering fan questions and being generally affable. On Saturday, he took a step back to reflect on his current situation. One consistency among directors who get involved in the MCU seems to be the feeling of immense pressure to succeed. “I would be lying if I said I don’t get distracted by the numbers,” Gunn wrote in a Facebook post. “The first thing I do in the morning is roll over in bed and check my phone for the morning box office reports.” But then the director took his platform a step further, opening up about his own suicidal thoughts when he was young, and extending his hand to misfits. “They are me,” he wrote. “They are you. We are Groot.”