Author’s note: Spoilers ahead.
IN 2015, upon the release of his second “Avengers” film, director Joss Whedon let vent a few of his creative frustrations, notably involving tradeoffs over which scenes and moments might live or die. From those words, a popular perception spiked of Disney/Marvel as an immense filmmaking machine whose interlocking gears tend to grind up auteuristic sensibility.
Whether that was true is debatable. What should be far less debatable two years later, as “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” rockets up the year’s box-office charts, is whether Marvel Studios embraces personal filmmaking visions.
Exhibit A: James Gunn, the “Guardians” franchise’s writer-director.
Gunn tells The Post’s Comic Riffs that Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige only sought one minor change in “Guardians 2” — “so minor it would be embarrassing to mention,” Gunn says — and the director got his way. “The difference between this and the first ‘Guardians’ film,” Gunn says, “is that on the first film, I might have [conceded] that one change.”
After the first “Guardians” film grossed more than $770 million worldwide, though, Marvel had every reason to have full buy-in into Gunn’s sometimes quirky vision.
“I think making movies is such a delicate balance between personal expression and communication device,” Gunn says. “This is a large machine which moves people — that allows them to feel something different from when they walked in.”
Prior to Marvel, Gunn had built a portfolio that ping-ponged between small oddball visions, often centered on creature effects or bent heroes, and big studio properties like “Scooby-Doo.” So when Feige hired Gunn for “Guardians,” he clearly didn’t want a lock-step director. Marvel needed a fertile imagination to breathe large, relevant life into these lesser-known characters.
“There are two parts of myself that I think I’m pretty in touch with,” Gunn says. “There’s this part of myself that is pure imagination, and then I have this incredibly logical part of myself. … I may not have great social skills all the time, but those areas are developed and help me as a storyteller as well as a director.”
Put in its starkest terms, “Guardians 2” is about a charming but erratic, all-consuming father who wants to annihilate his son’s entire world — and only the son, working with his supportive almost-family, can lead the way to access the father’s diseased brain and save their universe. In other words, the “Guardians 2” story, penned by Gunn (who had a painful childhood with many alcoholics in the family, including Dad), comes across as the deeply personal rendered as superhero-mythic. That “delicate balance” is appealing to audiences; “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” has already grossed more than $450 million worldwide.
Within Marvel, it’s a vote of supreme confidence that Gunn was already asked to launch into “Guardians 3,” as well as to take a creative role in shaping the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Some filmmakers “are foxes who can commit to a bunch of different things, and some directors are hedgehogs who do one thing well,” says Gunn, identifying strongly as the latter. “They offered ‘Guardians Vol. 3’ before I started ‘Vol. 2,’ but I couldn’t really commit till I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
“What I choose to do next is what I’m most passionate about,” Gunn says, “and I’m passionate about helping them set up what will come out of these movies.”
Henry Braham, Gunn’s director of photography on “Guardians 2,” has also been won over by Marvel’s openness to new ideas.
“I’m so impressed by them — it’s a collaborative group,” Braham says. “I was taking the [look] in a completely different route from anything they’ve done before.
“Marvel has had 15 highly successful movies,” he continues, noting that “Guardians 2” had a $200 million production budget. “Yet they would literally say: ‘What do you want to do? We want to support you in what you want to do.’ When someone is spending that kind of money, that’s unusual.”