Before he found success in the MCU and DCEU, James Gunn broke into Hollywood with a low-budget independent superhero movie called The Specials.
While he’s now renowned for his success working with both the MCU and DCEU, filmmaker James Gunn first broke into Hollywood with an independent superhero movie called The Specials. Released in 2000, The Specials has remained surprisingly obscure despite an ensemble full of notable actors. It is not available on any streaming service and physical copies are hard to come by, despite the film getting a 20th anniversary Blu-Ray release in 2020.
The story of The Specials centers around the titular team, who operate out of a suburban home in Los Angeles and are described in the movie’s opening text as “the sixth or seventh greatest superhero team in the world.” As the film opens, the team are preparing for the world premiere of their official action figure line; an honor which is said to be as important to superheroes as winning an Oscar is to actors. Unfortunately, the magical evening was ruined after the action figures proved to be of less than high quality and the infidelity of two of the team’s members was exposed. This led to a long, dark night of the soul for The Specials, as they contemplated their future and confronted their individual baggage.
Production on The Specials was arduous, with the film being shot over the course of 18 days to fit into the schedules of Rob Lowe (who was about to start production on The West Wing) and Judy Greer and Jamie Kennedy, who were simultaneously filming Three Kings. Gunn revealed in the film’s commentary that he felt burned out after moving to Los Angeles, which was why he did not direct The Specials himself, although he did play the part of the Ant-Man like shrinking superhero Minute (pronounced My-Newt) Man. Tensions reportedly ran hot, despite Gunn being friends with his fellow producers, and he admitted to having frequent arguments over the filming of the movie. The chief conflict was that Gunn had written the movie as a mockumentary in the same spirit as This Is Spinal Tap, but director Craig Mazin filmed the movie like a sitcom and cut many of the sequences where the characters talked directly to the camera.
Despite this, The Specials still contains many of the hallmarks of a James Gunn movie. Comic book fans can amuse themselves by noting which members of The Specials are meant to parody specific Marvel and DC Comics superheroes, such as Sean Gunn’s shape-shifting Alien Orphan character being an alliterative nod to the Martian Manhunter. The Specials also contains a pop musical sequence, in which four members of the team take command of the stage in a club and dance to Reunion’s 1974 song “Life Is A Rock (But The Radio Rolled Me).”
Gunn’s influence is also apparent in The Specials’ dialogue and the heartfelt moments existing alongside the dark comedy; an element that was also present in his Guardians of the Galaxy films and The Suicide Squad. One prime example of this involves a scene between Rob Lowe’s character, The Weevil, and Jamie Kennedy’s character Amok. As the two are driving to the unveiling of their action figures, The Weevil confesses that he’s been offered a position with a more prestigious superhero team and he’s thinking of taking the job. This leads the usually sarcastic Amok to open up about his own fears of acceptance and how The Weevil is the only person who never gave him a hard time about being a reformed supervillain.
Despite James Gunn crediting the script for The Specials as helping him get his foot in the door in Hollywood, the movie has yet to become a cult classic even among fans of comic book movies. The film’s original release was delayed so that it wouldn’t be seen as competing with the higher-budget superhero comedy Mystery Men and it failed to win over superhero movie fans who were expecting an action-packed extravaganza rather than a comedy about a group of misfits who just happened to be superheroes. It seems oddly fitting, however, that The Specials, much like the team itself, remains a rarity that exists for the sake of “the oddball, the rebel, the outcast (and) the geek.“
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James Gunn’s Kooky 2000 Superhero Movie Foreshadowed His MCU & DCEU Success