Every James Gunn Movie, Ranked Worst To Best

From the low-budget gross-outs of Troma films to head of DC movies at Warner Bros. is a journey maybe only James Gunn could have made. Heavily versed in all the classics — Marvel, DC, and Shakespeare — the writer/director's sensibility have always jelled with fans of his generation and beyond. In his younger years, he made cult films that college kids delighted in. As he grew in stature, his pop culture sensibilities became mainstream. Frequently working with other people's properties, he very much made them his own, to the point that his takes often eclipse the originals. Yondu, Peacemaker, Polka-Dot Man, Mantis, Drax ... chances are when you picture all of these characters, you're thinking of interpretations specifically created by Gunn.

Gunn made his name as a distinctive screenwriter before directing his own words, so in ranking his films we're including features written by him and directed by others. We're not including shorts or segments, so "PG Porn" and "Troma TV" aren't on here. Nor is "Peacemaker," as it's a TV show. Even when other helmers as distinctive as Zack Snyder took on his words, Gunn's voice has always come through, though sometimes to far better effect than others. Here's every James Gunn movie, ranked worst to best.

11. The Belko Experiment (2016)

James Gunn apparently based this script on a nightmare he had, and (fittingly) watching it feels like being stuck in a bad — and monotonous — dream. Considering this writer made live-action adaptations of Hanna Barbera cartoons and a big-budget zombie remake fun, it's weird that "The Belko Experiment" — produced by him with complete creative control — is the only one of his films that feels like a joyless work for hire. While some early character bits feel like Gunn (one character's arbitrary fondness for model airplanes, for instance), the rest of the movie in which workers locked down in their office building are forced to kill each other or be killed, feels beneath him. The kills aren't particularly interesting, and the premise has been done better many times, with the "Escape Room" franchise as the most recent example.

Perhaps the biggest indictment of "Belko" is that the most memorable character is the villain who barely shows up at the end. Aside from him, Gunn fans may remember that one of the office workers is played by his brother Sean. Gunn's usual penchant for creating a colorful, memorable ensemble is barely in evidence as if he didn't want us to care about any of the characters before massacring them. "The Belko Experiment" is just an out-and-out disappointment, but fortunately for the writer it's been quickly forgotten, and is the only outright artistic dud on his features resume.

10. Slither (2006)

James Gunn's feature directorial debut, a horror-comedy about killer alien slugs, is an amalgamation of his many pop culture influences thrown into a blender. Where it falls short of his other films, however, is in the need to point them all out. From character names like "MacReady" and "Flagg" to shot homages based on the likes of "A Nightmare on Elm Street," it falls into the film school trap of showing off every influence to prove the director knows his stuff. That only works well for someone like Quentin Tarantino, who references other movies so obscure that only the most hardcore exploitation heads get the references, and more casual viewers aren't taken out of the film by them.

The humor works, and the gore effects are aces, but watching "Slither" still feels a bit like having the class nerd desperately trying to convince the cool kids that he's down with all their faves (something his pal Joss Whedon made a career of, to be fair). With a track record of clever and successful screenplays under his belt, Gunn didn't have to prove himself to anybody, but he might have tried too hard here. The best result was that he formed ongoing friendships with Nathan Fillion and Michael Rooker, who would go on to deliver some of their best work in entries further down this list.

9. Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed (2004)

The first live-action "Scooby-Doo" cleverly balanced its appeal to kids and adults. The second tried to offer more blatant fan service to both, catering to adult online fans who wanted to see Velma dress sexy as well as obsessive cartoon fans who'd appreciate every reference or Easter egg. The result, while still fun, doesn't hold together very well. What it does do, though, is effectively recreate some of the classic animated monsters in live-action, making them fun for young kids without being too scary. That's an underappreciated balance to hit.

Gunn would have directed the third installment, had "Monsters Unleashed" been a hit. He even apprenticed as a director on the first two with that in mind. Instead, he used his training to make "Slither," kickstarting his directorial career with a distinctly more grown-up vibe than "Scooby 3" might have brought on. Matthew Lillard, however, would continue to play Shaggy in cartoons, and new cast member Seth Green would go on to play Howard the Duck in Gunn's "Guardians of the Galaxy" movies.

8. Dawn of the Dead (2004)

Suppose you weren't online during the years that the "Dawn of the Dead" remake was being made. In that case, you may not be able to imagine the sheer amount of hatred aimed at James Gunn and a relatively unknown director named Zack Snyder for daring to touch George A. Romero's zombies-in-a-shopping-mall-classic. The original was considered by many cinephiles to be the best zombie movie ever made, and the Scooby-Doo guy dared to think he could rewrite it. Then-prominent Internet geek personality Harry Knowles repeatedly and publicly savaged the idea, with his fans proceeding to harass Gunn until Knowles finally read the script and did a 180.

Though Romero's film won't be replaced, Snyder and Gunn's film made its mark by using "fast zombies." The walking undead onscreen had previously been distinguished by shuffling movement and relative individual weakness. The power of zombies was always in numbers and packs. Gunn changed that, making unique zombies capable of predatory speed and focus, to the point that one could bite before a person even knew it. Zombie-adjacent franchises like "Resident Evil" and "28 Days Later" also took that notion and, well, ran with it. We still got zombies in a mall, but by changing what the zombies actually were the remake made itself new. It's one of Gunn's least overtly comedic scripts, but many of the kill gags are as sickly amusing as fans would expect.

7. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

James Gunn isn't really a mystery box kind of filmmaker the way J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof are. After setting up the mystery of Peter Quill's father in the first film, it was pretty clear he'd have to come up with a reveal in the sequel. Getting Kurt Russell as said dad, a living planet named Ego, was a nice coup but it still pigeonholed the story into being one where Star-Lord deals with his daddy issues. That's not necessarily the world's most interesting tale to be told. That said, there's a nice contrast to be had in Russell's bad dad playing nice versus Michael Rooker's semi-good dad playing awful, plus it does lead to Rooker proclaiming, "I'm Mary Poppins, y'all!"

Lots of good bits just don't quite add up to the sum of their parts here. Baby Groot is a cute little bastard, Mantis (Pom Klementieff) makes a great almost-but-not-romantic foil for the equally literal-minded Drax, and Nebula makes a turn towards goodness that would be essential later. The end credits introduced an all-new Guardians team that we've never seen since, but will presumably be on deck now that Gunn is at DC. Fans also dig the cameo by David Hasselhoff, and Stan Lee hanging out with the Watchers. Nonetheless, the main story feels slight. Like "Avengers: Age of Ultron," it may regain clout later if/when all its teases actually gets payoff in Vol. 3.

6. The Suicide Squad (2021)

Somehow, James Gunn persuaded Warner Bros. to give him $185 million to essentially remake "Troma's War." In that low-budget exploitation film, survivors of a plane crash wash up on the beach of an island where insane military types are engaged in biological experiments with which to attack the USA. "The Suicide Squad" mainly adds superheroes and intelligent marine life to that calculus.

While Gunn talked big during the promotional tour for the film about how any character could die, nobody was likely that surprised when the main characters played by the biggest stars survived. The gory death scenes played for laughs really weren't as shocking as they'd been hyped up to be, and unlike David Ayer's genuinely transgressive predecessor "Suicide Squad" (which reimagined major DC supervillains with a Los Angeles gangster-style makeover), Gunn essentially made Adam West Batman-style camp versions of the key characters, then had them commit R-rated violence. The main reason "The Suicide Squad" is as high on this list as it is? It spawned the "Peacemaker" TV show, which is legitimately some of Gunn's finest work. Long-suffering WWE fans finally got to see John Cena turn heel and break free from PG, and both developments proved hugely satisfying.

5. Scooby-Doo (2002)

Anyone who grew up with the original Scooby-Doo cartoons over the years was familiar with the same jokes. Shaggy's a stoner! Velma's secretly hot! Scrappy ruined everything when he showed up! James Gunn deftly manages to incorporate these memes into his live-action script while still keeping it mostly a kids movie. (Scrappy urinating on the gang is borderline, but definitely entertaining.) It-couple of the moment Freddie Prinze Jr. and Sarah Michelle Gellar gamely goofed on themselves as Fred and Daphne, Linda Cardellini seemed born to play Velma, and Matthew Lillard's uncanny Casey Kasem impersonation won over even fans who didn't like the movie itself.

Making it a sequel to the original series was a nice touch, with a resentful gang reuniting and ultimately facing a grudge-holding Scrappy, who has disguised himself as Rowan Atkinson. Raja Gosnell's direction isn't especially inspired, but the cast truly makes the material work. What could have been a mean-spirited parody becomes affectionate semi-canon which displeased the critics, but on the whole has aged better than one might think.

4. Tromeo and Juliet (1997)

"Parting is such sweet sorrow!" declares Juliet. "Totally sucks!" affirms Tromeo, her would-be star-crossed lover in Troma Studios' "Tromeo and Juliet," a Shakespeare semi-adaptation by way of "Class of Nuke 'em High." Narrated by Motorhead singer Lemmy, Lloyd Kaufman's violent, gross, and very funny butchery of the bard takes place in Manhattan, involves a giant penis monster, and was James Gunn's first produced feature screenplay. So much better was it than most Troma fare that it gave the studio a brief comeback of sorts. Kaufman followed it with "Terror Firmer," "Toxic Avenger IV," and "Poultrygeist," meaning he didn't necessarily learn the proper lessons. Rather than noting that audiences were enjoying Gunn's clever meta-humor, Kaufman fixated more on the toilet jokes, amping that aspect up in subsequent films. The director's recent return to Shakespeare with "The Tempest" parody "Shakespeare's Sh*tstorm" features "Free Willy"-ish leaping killer whales repeatedly raining diarrhea on boats below them.

With a soundtrack boasting the likes of Wesley Willis, Superchunk, Brujeria, and Motorhead, along with a vastly changed ending in which the lovers discover they're siblings and have deformed kids together, "Tromeo and Juliet" gained punk-rock cred and college campus followings Troma hadn't had in years. Nobody would have guessed at the time that the scribe who turned Juliet into an incestuous cow monster would one day be in charge of Scooby-Doo and Superman.

3. The Specials (2000)

Opening in theaters mere months after the first "X-Men" film, this ultra-low-budget parody perfectly skewered comic-book super-teams, but the moviegoing public wasn't quite ready for that yet. Set on a day when the titular dysfunctional super-team isn't actually preoccupied with saving the world, "The Specials" follows the personal squabbles and petty jealousies that come with not-so-great powers. Future Spider-Man foe Thomas Haden Church gives excellent angry monotone as frustrated leader The Strobe, while future "Ant-Man" costar Judy Greer (then barely known) offers morbid comedy as Deadly Girl. James Gunn himself delivers a rare (and good!) acting performance as Minute (pronounced "my newt," to mean tiny) Man, who's quick to anger when fans get his name wrong. Other team members include Paget Brewster, Jamie Kennedy, Sean Gunn (of course), and Rob Lowe.

From suspected affairs to political maneuvering, the team has many cracks, and when their official toy line turns out badly it brings tensions to the fore. Ultimately, though, the team realizes that they exist to help misfits like themselves. With very few uses of superpowers and little to suggest them besides ultra-cheap CG and body paint, "The Specials" has to rely on dialogue. Gunn's script is so knowing and irreverent without being dismissive that it served as a great predictor of where he'd end up. If it came out today, it would still be the best parody of the MCU. Ironically, it arrived first.

2. Super (2010)

If "The Specials" demonstrated that James Gunn could write an excellent X-Men parody, "Super" proved he could direct an equally darkly comedic riff on Batman. Rainn Wilson plays the Crimson Bolt, a short-order cook who feels called to fight crime in costume when the finger of God reaches inside his head in a vision. Donning red spandex and adopting the phrase "Shut up, crime!" he proceeds to beat offenders in the head with a wrench. Ultimately, he wants to win back his girlfriend (Liv Tyler) from her new drug-dealing man (Kevin Bacon). To do it, he finds a willing sidekick in the delightfully pervy Boltie (Elliot Page), a comic store clerk who's even more violent in her inclinations.

With Michael Rooker as an evil henchman and Nathan Fillion as a Christian TV show superhero called The Holy Avenger, not to mention Rob Zombie as the voice of God, "Super" isn't exactly family-friendly. Its climactic bloodbath is much more "Scarface" than "Iron Man." In combining virulent misanthropy with a weird sweetness and sense of empathy, Gunn demonstrated a rare understanding of the complex feelings great comics can evoke. We can morally condemn the Crimson Bolt, enjoy his beatdowns of bad guys, and feel sad about his inner emptiness all at once. With the MCU only just beginning, there was a more complex voice they needed to co-opt. In hindsight, it also feels like a dry run for "Peacemaker."

1. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Here, at last, we have James Gunn's masterpiece. A bold step into completely wild cosmic lore far beyond any weirdness the Marvel Cinematic Universe had shown prior. He boldly tackled some of Marvel's weirdest main characters, including a talking raccoon and a tree. The running joke was that Marvel had now made more Rocket Raccoon movies than DC had Wonder Woman movies. He added the kinds of semen jokes that felt more at home in Troma films. Characters of all skin tones and alien races showed up without explanation. Heck, he even brought back Howard the Duck, long ago deemed cinematically toxic.

It's not like he could fall back on the "it's in the comics" defense, either. Gunn took some bold swings, making certain characters like Drax and Yondu very different from what they were on the page. Though he loaded the film with humor and swear words, he still took the space opera of it all seriously and fully introduced the concepts of Thanos and the Infinity Stones, previously only hinted at in small doses. Original writer Nicole Perlman likely deserves more credit than Gunn generally gives her, given that it's so much better than the clearly pure-Gunn sequel. Nonetheless, it's not only his best film but also one of the most distinct in the MCU. This suggests that perhaps Kevin Feige should be looking around some of the studios where Gunn showed up in the first place. Who's Lloyd Kaufman underpaying these days?