Hometown Superhero | James Gunn

His dad, presumably not having heard what led up to this, looks up with a bored expression, clarifies that he raped James twice, and then goes back to eating his pizza.



Maybe I should have expected it, but sitting at a big table with James Gunn and a lot of journalists was sort of awkward for me—everyone else at the table seemed to know or at least have met James before. Makes sense, given that he’s one of our best local-boy-makes-good cases and has always been good about coming back to town for premieres and events. Anyway, I’ve been a James Gunn lurker for a long time. I first came across him when I saw Tromeo & Juliet (my favorite Troma film, and I’m a huge Troma fan), which he scripted and co-directed, around 1997, but only learned that he was from St. Louis around the time that Dawn of the Dead and Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed came out, both of which he wrote (as well as the first Scooby Doo movie). I read the book he co-wrote with Lloyd Kaufman, All I Need to Know About Filmmaking I Learned From The Toxic Avenger: The Shocking True Story of Troma Studios. At the premiere of LolliLove at the 2004 St. Louis International Film Festival I sat directly in front of him and his then-wife Jenna Fischer. (So Jim, if someone with a big head was blocking your view at that screening, sorry; it was me.) But never until today had I actually met him, and maybe I was the last person in town who hadn’t.

Gunn’s excuse to come back to town this time is the press tour for his new film Super, which opened two weeks ago in limited release and opens in St. Louis today, April 15th. Later tonight he’s doing a Q&A after the 7 PM showing of Super at the Tivoli and introducing the 9:30 PM screening; this kind of thing is why he’s so well known around town when he hasn’t lived here since the early ‘90s. We’re at Pi in the Loop just as their lunch rush is winding down; at the table sit eight local journalists (myself included), a publicist for the film, and James. At a nearby table are another publicist and James’ father. Given that there are a lot of us and we’re all fighting to get our questions through, our table is kind of loud—if I were seated nearby not knowing what was going on I’d probably think we were annoying. Early in the interview, one of the other writers asks James how his imagination got the way it is (what the expected answer to this question was, I don’t know), and without hesitation Jim points to his dad at the other table and says loudly enough so that everyone can hear, “That fucked-up guy over there… He raped me as a kid!” The conversation at the other tables doesn’t stop cold so much as trails off, and everyone in the room is looking at us now. His dad, presumably not having heard what led up to this, looks up with a bored expression, clarifies that he raped James twice, and then goes back to eating his pizza.

This is the kind of humor you can expect from Super. The film follows Rainn Wilson’s Frank Darbo as he decides to become a superhero named The Crimson Bolt and fight evil, despite the fact that he doesn’t have any powers (nor necessarily a good idea of what constitutes “evil”). Many of the film’s laughs come from instances when Frank makes a questionable call, generally erring on the side of hitting the potentially-evil person in the face with a wrench, or from his sidekick Libby/Boltie (Ellen Page)’s creepy, incestuous crush on him. There’s also the fact that Frank seems to take his inspiration for being a superhero from God himself, both through direct prayer and a cheesy religious TV show called The Holy Avenger (whose hero is played by Nathan Fillion, and whose demon is played by Gunn—he says it was fun to direct people while in the demon makeup). The problem is that Frank isn’t actually religious, which is perhaps where his wires get crossed on the issue of defining evil.

Of course, in less subtle ways, this is the kind of humor you get from Troma films, too. It’s hard to imagine how cutting one’s teeth at a studio like Troma can affect the filmmaking style of someone whose career moves on to somewhat more mainstream territory. For one thing, the fact that Gunn’s career only approaches a mainstream Hollywood career and isn’t one outright is probably a function of his Tromatic instinct. He was once attached to make a big-budgeted feature with Ben Stiller, but while on the set Gunn decided that, “I don’t care how much money I make or if this is a big tent pole summer film, I can’t do it anymore.” He went back to making smaller movies over which he has 100% control, like Super, thus alienating the studio bigwigs who set him up with the Stiller gig.

The Troma influence also probably factors into Jim’s tendency to play a multitude of roles behind the camera as well. He writes, directs, acts, produces, as well as populating many of the jobs he can’t do himself with friends and long term relations, including Troma’s head Lloyd Kaufman, who turns up in small roles in LolliLove, Slither, and now Super. “Once I find someone I really like, I like to stick with them,” he says of this tendency. Fillion is another of his standbys (an increasing ally, as Fillion seems to pick up more superfans by the day), as is Freaks & Geeks’ Linda Cardellini, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’s Michael Rooker, and many of his St. Louis friends and family.

Watching Super, it’s easy to see that Gunn has a great knowledge of and love for superhero movies and comic books, though Super is by no means a typical addition to the genre. There’s a theme that runs through the movie of what happens “between the panels.” The superheroes live their lives in boring, unsexy ways in between the bouts of action and heroics. “A lot of it is the part of the superhero that we don’t see,” Gunn says. “Basically Super is the superhero taking a shit.” A new spin on the superhero genre indeed—we could use more everyday banalities in our accounts of the chosen, and James Gunn is more than happy to give them to us. | Pete Timmermann



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