James Gunn and Craig Mazin made The Boys six years before the comic – The Digital Fix

Before one was a defining director in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the other created one of the best TV series ever, James Gunn and Craig Mazin made a different superhero movie. Not anything Marvel or DC, or based on any existing property. No, it was fully original, though some of its ideas are more recognisable today.

In 2000, they collaborated on The Specials, a low budget comedy movie about a dysfunctional, D-list team of heroes. Mazin made his directorial debut on the feature, while Gunn stepped away from Troma to write, co-produce, and co-star. According to an old commentary track, the screenplay was Gunns gateway to Hollywood.

A partial mockumentary, the titular group undergoes a transformative day, starting with a new member joining, then a disastrous new licensed product launch, and ending with a betrayal. Rob Lowe, Paget Brewster, and Thomas Haden Church lead the ensemble cast, and if this werent two decades old, youd think its a blatant pitch for The Boys.

The first major scene is a meeting between all the Specials, to introduce the latest recruit Nightbird. Immediately, you can hear the acerbic wit and rhythm in Gunns dialogue. Even then, he understood how to make a room of not altogether likeable characters captivating.

Churchs The Strobe goes to retell his origin story, something Jamie Kennedys Amok is sick to death of. The Strobe does it anyway, out of spite, in a way you can absolutely imagine Peter Quill doing to annoy Rocket Raccoon in Guardians of the Galaxy.

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Judy Greer plays Deadly Girl, who can enter the realm of the dead on a whim, Jim Zuzelic is Mr Smart, an inventor who believes hes the smartest man on Earth, and Kelly Coffield is Power Chick, a woman that can morph into any material or substance. They all seem to just about tolerate each other, except Power Chick, whos content tending to her garden and doting over Alien Orphan, a green extra-terrestrial played by Sean Gunn.

Frustration is the presiding sentiment: most of them want to be more famous, or have greater wealth, or just generally be cooler. If it wasnt apparent enough this was a manifestation of Gunn and Mazins own desires to get bigger work in the movie industry, the fact Gunns character flirts with the Nightbird within the first ten minutes makes the author-insert fantasy very clear.

This is both for good and ill. The barbed cynicism towards commercial pop culture makes for some hilarity. One character, Eight, is some failed experiment that manifests as eight different people at once. A mock commercial reveals the toys based on The Specials, and they look nothing like the group due to audience-testing and other factors. Production licensed the faces of actors Richard Dawson and John Schnuck, neither of whom are in the film, for the action figures to hammer home the point.

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Its all very The Boys, some six years before the comic by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson debuted. Our hierarchical understanding of superheroes is similarly applied to a real world setting, and mixed with some workplace comedy, complete with disdain for those at the top.

The Specials is more hapless than The Boys, though, and less bloody. Where Ennis and The Boys showrunner Eric Kripke manifest a certain anger towards the big two comics publishers, Gunn and Mazin are more interested in humanising the people behind the powers, and examining the ways theyre still deeply insecure.

Resistance to classic hero archetypes is something thats served Gunn through his career, from Super, to Guardians of the Galaxy, and The Suicide Squad. All stories about misfits that dont fit into typical structures of heroism, but do good anyway, despite carrying intense personal trauma on their shoulders.

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Where it becomes an issue is in just how absolutely late-90s the humour is. Chauvinism exudes from every pore, if its not Amok talking about the time he melted someones behind off, someone else is staring at a womans chest, or trying to flirt with them. And lets just say some distressing choices were made for Alien Orphan.

Gunns commentary points out he and Mazin had contrasting ideas. The future Suicide Squad filmmaker envisioned it a little more anarchic, using camcorders and such to make feel a like an actual docuemntary, where Mazins direction is more deadpan with talking heads spliced in. Both would go on to do sequels and licensed work, Gunn writing the live-action Scooby-Doo next, and Mazin working on Scary Movie sequels and spin-offs.

The next time Mazin would direct a passion project, itd be HBOs Chernobyl, a grim dramatisation of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. After all those years working in satire, he finally got his chance at proper drama, and next hes making The Last of Us TV series.

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Gunns now largely doing what he did in The Specials, just with the biggest comic book franchises in the world. If theres anything to be gleaned from this, its that perseverance is a creative asset, and you never know where your ideas might take you. Edgy jokes aside, this is worth a revisit, especially if youve always wanted to know what Gunns superpower of choice would be.

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James Gunn and Craig Mazin made The Boys six years before the comic - The Digital Fix

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