‘Guardians 2’: Why James Gunn Is Now the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Biggest Winner

James Gunn'Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2'
Vianney Le Caer/REX/Shutterstock

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.”

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  1. paully says:

    That production member was for FF 2..

  2. paully says:

    Guardians 2 was 4 star..Disney/Marvel/Lucasfilm has hit almost every film out of the park..
    The Japanese Anime term was/is “Fan Service”..
    And a respect of the tastes and expectations of the Fan audience.. A concept that is quite new for most of Hollywood. The opposite would be Fox’s handling of the Fantastic 4, the last incarnation winning a Razzie for worst film of the year. I actually talked to a production crew member and they talked themselves into making Galactus into a “puff” of smoke.. How insulting, and WB/DC is the worst criminal in this regard..

  3. mcfilms222 says:

    I saw it yesterday and I have to say in meets or exceeds the first one on almost every level. It has the fun and swagger of the original, but it also manages to dig deeper and explore the nature of “family.” Not just the superficial “we are family now” of all the Fast and Furious movies or most superhero team movies; it explores the complex relationships present in many families. Father and son, siblings, husband and wife, orphaned kids, and adoptive parents are all explored against a sprawling space epic with realistically flawed characters.

    I can’t explain it more without some spoilers, so stop reading this and go see it first. What I love about GotG2 is that it manages to keep the whole space epic train roaring down the track, while dealing with the myriad facets of what it means to be in a family, what you owe your family, and why investing in a family makes you better.

    It seems Star-Lord’s absent father is a “small-g”-god with near omnipotent power. His name is Ego, and he has spent millennia spreading his seed across the cosmos in a quest to create a progeny that is able to tap into the same powers Ego can. His goal is to team up with this offspring and remake the universe into what he believes would be perfection. In doing so he has literally burned out hundreds of other offspring prior to Star-Lord. The irony of this is he HAD remade the universe, in a way, because of these offspring. But because he is Ego and it’s not HIS way, he can’t see it.

    People have complained about the heavy reliance on the song “Brandy.” But the theme of this ’70’s pop hit is the core of the movie. It’s easy to romanticize “the sea” or the opportunities out there that you might miss out on if choose to commit to building a family.

    Other characters also have to deal with family issues. Gamora was so busy surviving her childhood, she was blind to the pain her sister was experiencing. Drax, in his state-the-obvious way, is blind to loving again because of the loss of his family.

    Sure, there are some flaws. It was necessary to flip the script on the Yondu character and change him from a ruthless space pirate to a ruthless space pirate that really WAS Star-Lord’s dad. As he tells Star-Lord at the end, “Ego may have been your father, but he wasn’t your daddy.”

    That’s what GotG2 is all about. When we get over our ego, we are able to embrace the seemingly smaller things in life that make a life worth living.

  4. David says:

    Good article, agree it’s great for Gunn. The biggest winners in the MCU so far are Downey, Fiege, Johansson, and Lee. They have done many successful projects thanks to MCU.

  5. Fab says:

    No, the Russo Brothers are the one’s taking the Ws home. GotG 2 was ok not great and that has me worried for Thor Ragnorok since it is following a similar scheme, Dr Strange was cool, but winter soldier and civil war take the cake. It’s almost like the Russo Brothers just sit back in their directors’ chairs and say, “Let them have their fun, and then we’ll show them how it’s done👍🏻”.

    • MEL says:

      I agree with the other commenters, GOTG2 was the best superhero movie I’ve seen since… I guess Guardians 1! The group I saw it with all walked out of the theater like WOW, how often is a sequel as good if not better than the original? Totally loved every minute of it. There were moments in this movie I got chills (when the opening notes “The Chain” start playing at Peter’s moment of truth), and I truly love how this series upends so many superhero and even general storytelling cliches with tongue-in-cheek humor without (in my opinion anyway) feeling too “meta.” They are so good at making characters you care about and their interactions natural and relatable — something not so common in superhero movies.

      What I wonder is if there’s a divide on this between people who are hardcore superhero-movie fans and people who aren’t. I liked Civil War, but GOTG to me is funnier, more relatable, more unexpected, and has a better balance of what gets taken seriously and what is treated as pure fun. Civil War also took on a philosophical message about unilateral vs. bilateral, independent vs. governmental geopolitical power and decision-making that I thought was interesting but problematic in the side they seemed to take. I wasn’t sure if that was intentional or if they hadn’t thought through what they were implying outside of the confines of a fictional story where you have total knowledge of a situation and people’s intentions and you have characters like Cap whose moral infallibility is an essential, 100% reliable trait.

    • gigamchz says:

      Guardians 2 was just fantastic. I walked out of that theater with just the giddiest feeling and I felt it was even better than the first. Why do think it was just ok? I was absolutely tickled the whole time!

      • RosebudTX says:

        I agree! We walked out almost giddy as well. The next day Guardians 1 came on on tv and we watched it again and saw so many subtleties that were carried over from 1 to 2, making 2 even better than we realized at the time! I read some of the critical reviews after and to those I say a movie is supposed to make you feel the way the director intended you to feel, and what is better than feeling giddy after a movie like this?

  6. bas says:

    AMEN!!

  7. Grand Mesa says:

    Hollywood has just about ruined the comic movie business.

    • MEL says:

      What were the genre’s good old days, Grand Mesa?

    • gigamchz says:

      How!? I’ve loved all these Marvel comic movies that have come out so far. I’m absolutely giddy when a new one is released. I can’t see how anyone wouldn’t enjoy the fantastic cast and scripts pumped out for these movies.

    • Rat Basterd says:

      Audiences did. Hollywood is just doing it’s job.

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