James Gunn has a few problems with Hollywood.
The whole category of mid-budget features, he says, has evaporated, leaving only tent-pole films and franchise movies that emphasize high-tech effects over narrative and whose release dates are set long before a script is written.
“The idea of cinema is dying in so many ways,” he said. “They’re the things that are put out by studios just to make money, which is murdering our industry.”
Valid though these complaints may be, they are surprising to hear from Gunn, director of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the space adventure film about a group of misfit heroes that, with a sarcastic, self-aware sense of humor and a cast led by Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana, became one of the biggest films of 2014, grossing more than $770 million worldwide.
Now, of course, that movie has spawned its own franchise, with a sequel, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” opening Friday, that is expected to prove even more lucrative than its predecessor.
So it says a lot about Gunn, 46, who came to Hollywood by way of small-town Manchester, Mo., and a career in B-movies, that he believes he can resist the worst impulses of the studio system even while he works within it.
To his mind, the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies are still fulfilling his urge to tell stories about characters with complex, interconnected needs — even if one of those characters happens to be a talking raccoon — and to maintain the innovative traditions of his moviemaking forebears, at price tags upward of $170 million.
Thinking back to when he was offered the first “Guardians,” Gunn said, “I saw it as an opportunity. I could truly fill a hole of what was missing.”
Pratt, who was elevated from a TV sitcom star to an A-list film actor with help from the first “Guardians,” said that project allowed “James to earn Marvel’s trust, so that he could really make the movie that he’s always wanted to make.
“They provide the capital for this kind of a movie, and he does everything else.”
Gunn worked on studio projects like “Dawn of the Dead” and the live-action “Scooby-Doo” movies. After writing and directing “Slither” in 2006 and the violent superhero comedy “Super” in 2010, Gunn said he knew he was on Marvel’s list of directors for “Guardians,” though not high on it.
Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, said Gunn “was a name amongst many,” but added that “the secret of our list is, they’re not listed in order of preference.”
“It really is based on the vibe of the meetings and discussions we have,” Feige said, “that we come to our decision of who we want to collaborate and live with for many years to come.”
Given that “Guardians of the Galaxy” was based on a Marvel comic that was not especially popular at the time, perhaps Gunn was ideally suited for the material.
After one preliminary meeting with Marvel producers, Gunn could not get over the character of Rocket Raccoon, a bad-tempered, gun-toting animal with the voice of Bradley Cooper.
“I was like, ‘OK, a talking raccoon — that’s a stupid idea,’” Gunn recalled. “But let’s say there was a talking raccoon. How would he exist?”
Once he connected to the “extraordinary sadness” of the character’s Frankenstein-like origins, Gunn said, “it drove the whole thing for me, and I found it tonally interesting because of that.”
To him, the first “Guardians” presented a chance to reinvigorate the dreary space-opera genre with the buoyancy of films like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and the gaudy colors of “Flash Gordon.”
The assignment came with many conditions, including a cast of characters who had to be established within the first 20 minutes, like Peter Quill (Pratt), a would-be outlaw who calls himself Star-Lord; and Gamora (Saldana), a green-skinned alien assassin. There was an existing script by Nicole Perlman and a preset release date, leaving Gunn little time to make changes.
Feige said he knew he’d made the right choice when he saw what was on the cover of Gunn’s revised script treatment: a color photo of a vintage Walkman, a personal artifact treasured by Peter Quill, who uses it to play his favorite classic-rock songs.
Gunn found making movies on a megabudget Marvel scale invigorating — “On my last movie, I did 54 setups a day with one camera, so this is easy,” he said — but also intimidating.
“I would wake up in a cold sweat at 3 a.m. thinking I might be making ‘Pluto Nash 2,’” he said, referring to Eddie Murphy’s costly outer-space flop from 2002. “There were moments where I was consoling myself with the thought that I could go teach.”
The success of the movie, which was a hit not only with audiences but with critics, and enjoys a 91 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, bought a lot of leeway for Gunn, who started writing a second “Guardians” film as soon as the first one was released.
“I got to start from scratch with the story,” he said. “The emotional and action plots were completely intertwined, and all organic and one thing.”
For “Vol. 2,” Gunn immersed himself in sources as disparate as the artwork of Jim Steranko, a comic-book illustrator known for his surrealism, psychedelia and sensuality; and the visually sumptuous movies of Wong Kar-wai.
He came away inspired to add characters like Ego, a living planet who is revealed to be Quill’s father and who, in his humanoid form, is played by Kurt Russell.
What connects Ego to the established “Guardians” ensemble, Gunn said, are themes of isolation and yearning to belong. “At the center of this was a lonely being who had been floating out there for eons,” he said, “dreaming if other life exists out there somewhere.”
Gunn has announced he plans to write and direct a third “Guardians of the Galaxy” film. “I have a story of a raccoon I need to tell right now. Nothing else really appeals to me. I love the raccoon as much as I love my family members.”