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The Recurring Theme You Never Noticed In James Gunn's Marvel And DC Movies

At what point does a filmmaker — a filmmaker like, say James Gunn — go from someone who just makes a lot of movies to being viewed as an auteur? Is it the number of movies? Is there a stylistic quality required for "autership" to be bestowed upon them? Certainly directors like Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson are often identified as auteurs partially because of violent action sequences or kitschy, story-book settings, respectively.

If there's one thing that makes a frequent filmmaker into an auteur, it's in the repetition of themes. People don't come back to Tarantino again and again because they know people will fight, but because of the stakes of the fight and how violence both helps and harms individuals and the world. And people don't watch Wes Anderson just because his worlds sometimes look like the illustrations in children's novels, but because of the way he takes on and evolves narratives built around family.

And at this point it feels like James Gunn has both made enough movies to see him as an auteur as well. And, just like with the other filmmakers we mentioned, what draws people to Gunn is more than just the visual storytelling and humor he often employs in superhero and horror movies — there's also the themes he comes back to again and again.

When asked, James Gunn knew exactly what his recurring theme is — and it's less to do with characters like Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and more to do with Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian).

Finding a theme through Rocket Raccoon

While speaking with the podcast Script Apart, James Gunn was asked about a particular scene from "The Suicide Squad." The scene in question features King Shark (Sylvester Stallone) as he wistfully watches a couple kiss while he sits isolated in a van away from everyone else. It's a scene all about how King Shark wishes for a normal life, a thing Gunn confirms during the interview, specifically citing the moment when King Shark pretends he can read books as proof that he just wants to fit in.

But this feeling of alienation and of being othered isn't specific to just King Shark — it's a character aspect that Gunn refers to as "an obsessive theme" for him as a filmmaker.

"The way I came into doing 'Guardians [of the Galaxy]' was that they talked to me about the movie, I thought this is gonna be silly, this is Bugs Bunny with the Avengers," Gunn explains. "And I was stuck in traffic on the way home from Marvel [and] I thought 'Okay if I did do this movie, if there was a talking raccoon, like, how could that talking racoon come to be?' And, what came in my mind was the saddest story of all time. And that's a story that we're continuing to tell in 'Guardians 3.' So, from the beginning it was this incredibly sad thing in this character that people think of as a goofy, throw-away character of Rocket Racoon, is the deepest character I had ever written up to that point."

How Polka-Dot Man and Rocket Raccoon are similar

James Gunn was so pleased with Rocket's story that he knew he wanted to keep that theme going in "The Suicide Squad." 

"This movie — that same thing was true of Polka-Dot Man," Gunn explains. "I looked up online who's the lamest super villain of all time, and, in every single list it's Polka-Dot Man. And I'm like, 'Okay, well who is this guy who calls himself Polka-Dot Man who's socially awkward enough that thinks he's gonna dress up in a Polka-Dot Man suit and call himself Polka-Dot Man and people are gonna think he's cool.' When he first looks in the mirror and is like 'I finally got it together, boy, people are gonna love this.' He's that socially unaware, he's that disconnected from other human beings that he doesn't know."

It's not just that Gunn likes dealing with characters like Polka-Dot Man and Rocket Raccoon thematically. It's that he understands them.

"Well that character speaks to me," he says. "And then to give that guy who's a joke character this incredibly, incredibly dark backstory about how he became the Polka-Dot Man and what being the Polka-Dot Man really is, is awful. And I love giving depth to that goofy stuff and that's true of King Shark, that's true of Polka-Dot Man, that's true of all of them."

"The Suicide Squad" is in theaters and on HBO Max now.