Timeline: James Gunn’s long and winding road from Troma to the top of DC Studios
James Gunn had a lot of news to share Tuesday. In addition to a new trailer for his upcoming “The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special,” Warner Bros. Discovery named Gunn and producer Peter Safran as co-chairmen and chief executive officers of DC Studios.
In their new roles, Gunn and Safran will oversee the creative direction of the DC franchise productions in film, television and animation. Both have DC material on their resumes.
Honing his skills in the indie horror realm, Gunn became a household name after directing Marvel Studios’ hit “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014). But after coming under fire for offensive social media posts from his past, Disney fired Gunn from “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3” in 2018, before reinstating him the next year. During this window away from Marvel projects, Gunn was hired by DC to write and direct “The Suicide Squad” (2021).
The pair will report directly to Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav. They will oversee superhero storytelling across film, television and animation.
While there have been hit DC films, its superhero film franchise has been perceived as less consistent than Marvel’s cinematic universe. Gunn and Safran will have the huge task of spearheading a franchise destined to be compared with its more established rival. Luckily, both already have some DC successes under their belt. Gunn has even had a cameo in the animated “Harley Quinn” series.
Here is a look back on Gunn’s journey from horror auteur to the top of DC’s film and television franchises.
1996 - 2000: The Troma years
As a writer and creator, James Gunn collaborated with independent production company Troma Entertainment, which was run by Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz. They primarily made horror comedy content, and Gunn contributed by writing “Tromeo and Juliet” and the TV series “The Tromaville Café” and “Troma’s Edge TV,” among others. The group was known for their gore and low-budget thrills.
Gunn’s first feature film writing credit, “Tromeo and Juliet,” is (as the title suggests) a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Describing it as “a deliriously grossed-out parody,” the New York Times review said “‘Tromeo and Juliet’ … is to Hollywood B-movies what Mad magazine is to comic books. Although many times more explicit than what Hollywood is permitted to show, there is something goofily exhilarating in the spectacle of all the staple images of teen-age sex and slasher movies transformed into farce.”
2002 - 2004: Hollywood’s #1 Man
It may have seemed unlikely, but Gunn then transitioned to family fare with the screenplay for the live-action “Scooby Doo” film, which starred Freddie Prinze Jr., Sarah Michelle Gellar, Matthew Lillard and Linda Cardellini as the former members of a now-disbanded mystery-solving team. While film critics weren’t too fond of “Scooby-Doo,” the movie had one of the strongest openings of the year and went on to gross over $275 million worldwide, prompting a sequel, also written by Gunn and released in 2004.
In the years since, Gunn has occasionally commented on how studio interference resulted in the final version of the film being far from his original vision.
Also in 2004, Gunn teamed with director Zack Snyder to remake George Romero’s classic zombie film “Dawn of the Dead.” The film was well-received and made over $100 million and helped launch Gunn as one of the most sought-after screenwriters in the biz. With “Dawn” and “Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed” released back-to-back, he had the distinction of being the first person to write consecutive No. 1 (at the box office) movies.
2006: Gunn’s directorial debut
In 2006, Gunn released “Slither,” a horror-comedy throwback to the 1980s with a touch of social commentary. He was drawn to the director’s chair, saying that “as I did some rewrites I fell in love with it a little bit more and started to see how the movie has a very unique mix of tones, and if another director made it I had a fear of losing that.” The Times review described it as “a gross, disgusting, but undeniably amusing treat laden with homages and in-jokes.” Despite its generally positive reviews, the horror comedy had disappointing box office returns.
2011 - 2017: Superhero success
Though he wrote and produced the low-budget superhero movie “The Specials,” directed by Craig Mazin, in 2000, Gunn found sustained success with the subject matter in the 2010s. His second feature, “Super,” released in 2011, did not make much of a splash — despite a cast that included Rainn Wilson, Elliot Page, Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon and Nathan Fillion — but it must have made an impression on Marvel, which hired Gunn to helm its first non-Avengers-related movie, “Guardians of the Galaxy,” in 2012.
In his review of the film, released in 2014, former Times film critic Kenneth Turan described “Guardians” as “pleasant and surprising,” adding that the film is “blessed with a loose, anarchic B-picture soul that encourages you to enjoy yourself even when you’re not quite sure what’s going on.” Other critics and audiences agreed, and “Guardians” went on to gross over $772 million at the worldwide box office, making it the third-highest-grossing film of that year.
Gunn and his ragtag group of space heroes returned for the straightforwardly titled sequel “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2” in 2017. Turan was among those that thought the sequel did not live up to the 2014 original. “[T]he magic, though not entirely gone, has taken a serious hit, done in by a combination of prosperity and anxiety,” he wrote in his review. “As a result of trying too hard to maintain the original’s insouciant attitude, what was fresh now seems institutionalized, what was off the wall now feels carved in stone and the film’s trademark irreverence has become dogma.” Still, “Guardians 2” outperformed the first installment and grossed over $863 million at the worldwide box office.
2018 - 2022: Controversy, firing and return to the fold
Despite Gunn’s successful record with the “Guardians” franchise, Disney was quick to fire him from “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” after right-wing commentators unearthed tweets from years past where the filmmaker — an outspoken critic of then-President Donald Trump — made indefensible jokes about topics such as rape, pedophilia, 9/11 and the Holocaust. Gunn, for his part, took responsibility and expressed regret for his past remarks, and said he accepted the company’s “business decisions.”
The first job Gunn took after parting ways with Disney and Marvel was with the other major comic book superhero franchise, Warner Bros. / DC. Gunn was hired to write a new “Suicide Squad” film, about a group of villains tasked with completing impossible missions in exchange for reduced sentences. This was the first step in Gunn’s rapid ascent to the top of DC.
Disney eventually quietly reinstated Gunn on “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 3,” with the news breaking in March 2019, months after it was official. The public and “Guardians” cast members had continued to express their support of Gunn and their desire to have him back on the film, but according to Deadline, Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn was convinced to give Gunn a second chance because of his handling of the situation.
Gunn made his DC debut with “The Suicide Squad” in 2021, a sort of sequel/reboot of 2016’s critically panned (but Academy Award-winning) “Suicide Squad.” In his review, Times film critic Justin Chang described the film as a “scuzzy cinematic joy-bomb,” writing “[a]fter 2016’s ugly, bludgeoning ‘Suicide Squad,’ I couldn’t imagine liking — and could barely stomach the idea of seeing — another movie called ‘Suicide Squad.’ I’m delighted to be proven wrong.” The film received generally positive reviews, but its pandemic timing and simultaneous theatrical and streaming release resulted in a meager $168.7 million worldwide box office haul.
“The Suicide Squad” spinoff “Peacemaker,” which premiered at the start of this year, expanded Gunn’s DC footprint. Starring John Cena as the titular Peacemaker, the HBO Max series was well received by critics and fans and is the first of a number of planned spinoffs. But despite his new role as one of the chiefs of DC Studios, this isn’t the last of Gunn we’ll see coming out of Marvel: Still in the pipeline are both “The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special” and the long-awaited “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3.”
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