UPDATE: A complimentary video version of this post – expanded with thoughts relating the Disney/Fox merger – is now available on YouTube. For the record: Portions of this piece were adapted from previous posts to my social media feeds, and is here published direct to The MovieBob Central Blog with no additional editorial oversight, corporate backing or direct sponsorship-input. If you would like to see more longform written pieces of this type published here, please consider supporting The MovieBob Patreon.
As the entire world knows by now, Disney fired James Gunn – writer/director (with original screenplay co-credit to Nicole Pearlman, whose original draft of the material Gunn largely rewrote but was responsible for elements such as the revised composition of the team itself) of the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY films and (until now) said to be the key driving force of the future of the “cosmic” Marvel Cinematic Universe – after a renewed wave of outrage was amassed on Twitter over many years-old Tweets (some from almost a decade ago and all prior to his employment with Disney) and forum posts where the filmmaker made “edgy” joking references to pedophilia, rape and other offensive subject matter. While he made a public apology immediately, soon after Disney bowed to what had seemed like a groundswell of genuine widespread anger and removed him from both the already-scheduled third GUARDIANS film and the company overall.
However, the situation “on the ground” was significantly more complicated – and even faster-moving: The bulk of the material (which were indeed gross and unfunny in the familiar manner of early-2000s SOUTH PARK-inspired shock-value internet troll humor) had in fact already been the subject of concern and “called out” before in 2012, shortly after Gunn (at the time better known for dark horror-comedy fare featuring a similar “edgy teenager” sense of humor like TROMEOI & JULIET, SUPER and SLITHER) was initially hired by Disney in what many considered a surprise move for the first GUARDIANS. After issuing a heartfelt apology at the time, he’d go on in the intervening years to express further regret, compare his own transition away from the “need” to express himself/seek attention through such humor to the redemption-arcs of the broken/misunderstood/criminal GUARDIANS characters; and indeed his public profile (at least in terms of social media) flipped entirely to one of boosting his friends and colleagues, supporting political-activist causes like the #MeToo movement and heavily criticizing White Nationalism and the policies of the Trump Administration
And it’s that support for Progressive activism and political outlook which appears to have been the real cause of the initial “renewal” of a controversy which was both publicly-litigated and publicly apologized-for years ago: Those watching the whole thing play out in real-time (as I was), could note that the “outrage machine” was being driven by right-wing Twitter accounts following the swarm-effect patterns familiar to anyone who’s studied the behavior of the various “hashtag-gate” internet hate-mob harassment campaigns of the last few years and in particular the so-called “trolling ops” used to spread of fake, doctored or out-of-context news items and game social-media trending algorithms in order to destroy the reputations (or worse…) of private individuals, businesses, political groups, etc. This particular mess, unsurprisingly, was found to be driven in part by Conservative political-operative Mike Cernovich – an old hat at this game previously responsible for fostering the so-called “Pizzagate” conspiracy-hoax (which claims that Hillary Clinton and other prominent Liberal politicians are members of a pagan child-cannibalism cult operating in secret out of a D.C. area pizza restaurant) so successfully that a North Carolina man was inspired to shoot the place up with an AR-15.
In setting it’s sights on destroying Gunn – seemingly because of their political differences (there’s some difficult-to-confirm thinking that this was mainly able to gain traction by piggybacking on a less-incendiary Twitter-attack already taking place against Gunn by fans of a “rival” entertainment property angered at his criticism of the trailer for the TITANS TV series) the attackers not only called attention to the ancient Tweets themselves but also out-of-context screenshots of posts featuring the old internet “rickrolling” joke posting a salacious-sounding tag that actually linked to something ironically innocent and/or silly and correspondence about a gross-out video purported to be an actor himself later convicted of child abuse; with the obvious (and sadly successful) goal of creating “plausible deniability” for the troll-swarm to flood the zone with offhand musings about Gunn himself being not just a onetime teller of tasteless jokes but a “secret abuser” in reality as well. And while you’d probably be correct in assuming that no functional, right-minded human being could possibly buy that… Republican Senators from Texas apparently can.
It’s doubtful that Bob Iger, Kevin Feige or anyone in a position of power at Disney was either unaware of the “bad old Tweets” issue (again: This had been “exposed,” called-out and apologized for almost six years ago) or that anyone involved believes the baseless conspiracy-mongering – more likely, “firing” Gunn is a cold and ugly cost/benefit calculation aimed at making the issue go away as fast as possible and grounded in The House of Mickey’s cardinal rule for all in-house talent since Walt was in charge: Never do anything to tarnish the brand, even if it’s not your fault, even if it’s unfair. The Mouse takes the bullet for nobody – everybody takes bullets for The Mouse. (Not that Disney is a thorough or strict moral-arbiter: If the box-office doesn’t look like it will care, they usually won’t either – after all, they keep re-hiring accused wife-beater Johnny Depp.) But this time, there’s been an immediate-secondary-pushback I don’t think anyone was expecting.
Actor Dave Bautista, who plays “Drax The Destroyer” in the GUARDIANS films and AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, shared his anger at the firing and support of Gunn early and got significantly more animated later, declaring: “What will you do when the #cybernazis attack you? Who will stand by you? Who will cowardly distance themselves from you? Who will punish you for horrible JOKES in the past instead of defending you for INSPIRING millions? MILLIONS!!!” and “This was a #cybernazi attack that succeeded. Unless we start to unite together against this crap, whether people are offended are not! …it’s going to get much worse. And it can happen to anyone.” Fellow GUARDIANS actors Zoe Saldana, Chris Pratt, Pom Klementieff (“Mantis”) and Karen Gillan later followed suit with more “subdued” messages that have largely been taken as statements of support for eachother and the GOTG franchise “family” – presumably including Gunn.
Additionally, Gunn’s brother Sean (who plays “Kraglin” and serves as the on-set double for Rocket Raccoon) Tweeted a heartfelt mini-essay in which he offered (in part): “Since devoting his entire life to the Guardians movies and MCU six years ago, I’ve seen him channel that voice into his work on those movies and seen him transform from the guy who made up things to shock people. I saw firsthand as he went from worrying about “softening his edge” for a larger audience to realizing that his “edge” wasn’t as useful of a tool as he thought it was. That his gift for storytelling was something better. I saw that he was more open-hearted than the guy who needed to get a rise out of people by making nasty or offensive jokes (or whatever you choose to call them–I don’t think his bluer material was ever his funniest and neither does Mom).” and that “Working on those movies made my brother a better person, and they made me one too. I’m proud of that. Peace.” (Gunn himself had issued an earlier statement once again expressing his sincere regret for his past use of such “humor” and stating that “Regardless of how much time has passed, I understand and accept the business decisions taken today” and “Even these many years later, I take full responsibility for the way I conducted myself then.” Neither brother has disputed the firing nor called for a reinstatement.)
The first place I saw the now-trending #RehireJamesGunn hashtag was in the feed of feminist film critic and video-essayist (and, full-disclosure, friend and colleague) Lindsay Ellis, who spoke out early not only (or primarily) in “support” of the director but of Disney reversing their decision on the grounds of “not negotiating with terrorists” – i.e. negating the establishment of a precedent that fake/manufactured politically-motivated hit-jobs disguised within artificially-manipulated “weaponized” social-media outrage and/or the co-opting of real problems (i.e. the protection of abusers in the film business) can be an ongoing effective tactic for Cernovich specifically and Right-Wingers (and Trump operatives) in general. She notes that: “Seeing their success at what should be a non-starter, there are already far-right ops in place to take down other “Hollywood pedophiles” like Patton Oswalt and Michael Ian Black and others who use their platform to criticize Supreme Leader.” and cautions “This is why the push to rehire Gunn is bigger than Gunn himself – he’ll be fine. His career will recover regardless of who directs GotG v. 3. But goblins like Cernovich know their bad faith conspiracy nonsense works, and well-meaning liberals keep falling for it.”
Multiple Change.org petitions have been floated since the entire affair began to unfold, launched by fans calling for Gunn’s rehiring, the most prominent of which has already (as of this writing) climbed to over 155,000 signatures and was boosted by actress and #MeToo activist Selma Blair, who had previously credited Gunn and DOCTOR STRANGE director Scott Derrickson as her chief supporters during her decision to reveal having been sexually-assaulted by director James Toback in 1999.) Fellow horror director Fede Alvarez (the EVIL DEAD remake), actor Michael Rosenbaum, comedians John Hodgman and Patton Oswalt (full disclosure: Oswalt and I do, yes, on occasion corresponded on social-media and generally admire one another’s work.) Cinemaspection points to this appropriately droll retort by Bobcat Goldthwaite, as well.
On the other hand: While it can be (by design, unfortunately) difficult to discern authentic persons from the so-called “sockpuppet” accounts created and used to artificially-inflate the appearance in scale of an outrage-movement by targeted harassment campaign ops like the one that initially drove the attention to Gunn’s ancient Tweets, there does at least appear to be a not-totally-insubstantial number of genuine folks also weighing in that, while they may not be part of the politically-motivated “takedown” campaign; apparently weren’t aware of the issue beforehand and now find knowledge of what the director used to joke about (similarly years-old apology or not) distasteful enough that they agree with removing him from the family-friendly Marvel Cinematic Universe and GUARDIANS franchises.
Others have offered that they never considered the original denouncements sufficient in the first place since the subjects of the grotesque “punchlines” are (in their opinion) not “his” to joke about in the first place, while still more have found occasion to point out the unfairness that so much of an industry and fandom is rallying so rapidly and decisively on behalf of an successful White male director of Disney-brand mainstream superhero movies when the likes of Cernovich etc have used the same tactics to destroy people of more marginalized background and less popular renown without even a 1/10th the outcry. Far be it from me to even attempt at holding court to the “legitimacy” of this or the two previously noted counterpoints, but for whatever it might be worth I’d call all three views to be quite reasonable (and find very little to disagree with relative to the third point in particular.)
What’s going to happen, then? I don’t know. There’s a fairly glaring precedent for reversing the decision on the whole: You may or may not, on seeing the name “Mike Cernovich” in this story, have recalled that last December he infamously used these same social-media manipulation tactics to bully MSNBC into firing journalist Sam Seder over a 2009 Tweet about exiled filmmaker Roman Polanski which was (rather obviously) meant as a darkly-sarcastic condemnation of Polanski which Cernovich framed as an endorsement and whipped up a faux-outrage mob against. On being widely-denounced for “falling for” an obvious trolling-op (in effect, being “tricked” in firing their employee) MSNBC reneged and Seder was rehired. This is a slightly different situation, though, in that Disney all but certainly knows full well that the “protest” itself was largely fictional at least in its original waves… but also in that this is all but certainly beside the point: Whatever the cause, their view is likely that they can’t have “pedophilia and rape jokes” be buzzwords hovering over one of their big properties and this was the quickest/cleanest amputation available to stop the infection from spreading – fair or not, billions are on the line along with thousands of jobs and multiple connected projects.
BUT… I do also think it’s possible (and I’m more persuaded of this by the minute) that The Mouse’s nigh-unparalleled approach to fandom-engagement might make that more complicated if the #RehireJamesGunn tag, petitions and – especially! – support from the actors keeps growing and if there’s a sustained media blowback hitting hard and early (again: it’s only Monday.) Disney has been draconian behind the scenes before, but one advantage to their pre-Marvel/Lucasfilm/Fox/etc business model was that most audiences don’t follow director and screenwriter news and, while they have voice actors (occasionally famous ones, even) cartoon princesses can’t go to the media and call-out their bosses. The normal “Disney Way” for this to play out is for everyone involved to get an “all on the same page – or else” taking-to, a new director to be named immediately and the subject to be forcibly changed for the machinery to keep chugging; but this isn’t Edgar Wright and Ant-Man again: This is the widely-known director of one of the most beloved MCU properties with a huge social media presence and “aggressive” fandom of his own,” and that’s not even getting into the number of wild-card actors involved: Chris Pratt could probably get him re-hired (or at least make things even more difficult for Disney) by threatening to walk away from Star-Lord and sign for more LEGO and JURASSIC movies instead. Robert Downey Jr. could probably do twice as much with an errant Tweet of his own were he so inclined.
Like I said, this is new territory and it’s tough to say where it goes. I’d still be a bit surprised to see the decision undone outright, if for no other reason than it invites an even bigger wave of astroturf-agitating – maybe even condemnation from right-wing figures people do, unfortunately, take somewhat seriously (The President, given how “well” his ridiculously-staged feud with the NFL went over with his dogwhistle-hungry White Nationalist base, would probably relish a “fight” with Mickey Mouse). Marginally more plausible, to my way of thinking and familiarity with industry history, could be a kind of hush-hush “off-the-books” face-saving reconcilliation, wherein the studio would privately concede being in the wrong, agree to bring Gunn back on a different project in a few years “having learned his lesson” or whatnot and in return for that guarantee he and the cast don’t make a stink, offer full-throated public support to the new GOTGV3 director and encourage fans to do the same (with Gunn maybe even “shadow producing” unofficially to maintain continuity-of-vision – maybe one of the GUARDIANS actors wants to make a directing debut and can frequently “call him for advice?”)
In any case – it remains anyone’s guesss what’s going to happen. What do I think should happen? I think Disney should #RehireJamesGunn – Or, at least, offer him the chance to finish up his story for the GUARDIANS trilogy (whether he wants to stick around and continuing “building the Cosmic MCU” after this show of disloyalty might be a different issue now.) Assuming he says yes, use the fact that two of the big “accusation issues” were provable politically-motivated misrepresentations by Cernovich and the alt-right troll farms as “new information that caused [them] to reassess, lean hard on the solidarity and support he received from the fans and “The Guardians Family” (gotta reinforce the brand!) And do a brief but big media-push about “online civility,” being careful what you post (have Gunn do the talk show circuit for an apology tour) and the ongoing dangers of “fake news” etc.
CAVEAT I: Yes, I recognize Disney made no legal or ethical lapse here. At will employment, company obliged to protect shareholder bottom line, etc.
CAVEAT II: Obviously, if by some unlikely confluence of terrible luck something like the “actual evil deeds” accusations being slung around by the trolls turned out to be “true?” Well then screw him – regardless of who does or doesn’t benefit.
I arrive at that position for a number of reasons, the absolute bottom-rung least of which are that I really love the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movies, I’d like to see them wrap up as planned, I’ve followed and enjoyed Gunn’s career for about as long as he’s had one (all the way back to the Troma era), I think he’s enormously talented and his film geek turned schlock-horror journeyman turned arthouse bad-boy turned blockbuster superhero auteur reminds me of a life-arc I’d pictured for myself (still sort-of do, if we’re being honest here…) once upon a time and I’ve always felt a tinge of personal-investment in his success and self-improvement because of that. But, as I said, that’s very much the least of my concerns: He will likely survive and thrive, he doesn’t even rate the top-ten most “screwed over” filmmakers of this era in this regard and the world being what it is it feels like skewed priorities to lose too much sleep over the temporary career setbacks (however unjust) of wealthy White men.
To put it bluntly: None of this should be taken as me “defending” James Gunn, who I hardly think requires such. To the degree that I’d entertain there being a moral component to this story that relates to his specific circumstance, it would be that I’d agree – in the broadest strokes – that while he had a gross, unfunny sense of humor (in the instances of those gags, he was writing funny enough movies at the time) and a highly questionable sense of impulse control at one point and that such so-called “ironic edgelord” humor being culturally-dominant in internet discourse of the day isn’t an excuse given that was was pushing 40… his original apology appeared very sincere and the arc of his (public) life and career since do suggest an earnestly-changed, profoundly grown-up person. And to the extent that moral-righteous can enter the realm of movie-studio decision making… hiring a former shock-horror schlockmeister to direct a series of movies built entirely around the (moral) premise of immature, traumatized, psychologically-broken, in some cases outright criminal or “villainous” people redeeming themselves through commitment to each other and higher causes and then firing him in a fashion that effectively says: “We don’t actually believe in that sort of redemption.”
As concerns those two points: From where I sit, he’s made good on improving as a person and not repeating the shortcomings of his past, and if I were the one making the call at Disney I’d have been against letting him go. You might have a different opinion on the “centric-to-James-Gunn” aspect of this from mine for any number of reasons – your opinions on him, experiences with the things he used to make awful jokes about that make you less inclined to forgive, general lack of investment in the job futures of this or other socially-secured White dudes. That’s all fine, and I’m not interested in changing any minds on those fronts. As I said, that’s the least of it. My main, overriding, overwhelming, care-enough-to-write-this-all-down concern at this point is roughly parallel to the aforementioned “big picture” painted by Lindsay Ellis, with whom I had occasion to discuss the matter directly (along with several other colleagues) as it was breaking over the weekend at SDCC.
And where I fall, ultimately, is that the reason Disney and Marvel should either undo this (in my view) serious lapse in judgement or suffer the first real serious injury to the MCU brand (as in: If Gunn doesn’t come back, they should either have to scrap the third GUARDIANS movie altogether or deal with it likely turning out disappointing and fans lamenting “what might’ve been” being a permanent black-mark on their up to this point exceptional record) is very simply NOT giving an emboldening “win” to people like Cernovich, the alt-right, weaponized-harassment Twitter and everything it represents. You may not care that this injustice was done to James Gunn (meaning, to be clear, the weaponized history-dredging and outrage-faking to “game” the firing – not necessarily the firing itself) for whatever reason, but I’d offer that you should absolutely care that each of these “ops” are dry-runs for the next and if this is seen as a successful “takedown” it will be done again, much worse, likely to someone less socially-protected.
It may sound hyperbolic because we’re talking about who does and doesn’t direct movies and not necessarily life and death issues, but the reasons and the context matter. It would be creepy and an indictment of the outsized presence of social media in our lives (and inability to contextualize it properly even after two decades of common use) if this was “only” bitter weirdos on the web gaming the algorithm and/or the traditional media’s cluelessness as to how it all works to mess with a filmmaker they don’t like. But the specific reason this was done was for politics: Specifically, to silence a politically-outspoken artist for his criticism of the Presidential regime currently in power. James Gunn got fired because someone didn’t like that he used his platform to speak out against the Trump Administration and essentially “hacked the discourse” to hoodwink his employer into thinking they had to fire him.
To my mind, you can call that one of two things: An especially American (almost amusingly so) form of authoritarianism – one where acolytes of a demagogue take it upon themselves to play Witchfinder General for Dear Leader as unpaid, plausibly-deniable assets just for the individual sadistic-satisfaction of it… or, given its secondary feature of serving as a “be afraid of us – this can happen to you next!” warning to anyone else who might step out of line, a much more blunt designation: Political terrorism. (And before anyone brings it up: No, this is nothing like Roseanne Barr, who got fired for something she did in the present; not almost a decade ago that had already been apologized for and worked to overcome.)
Yes, it’s “just” the potential crackup a silly outer-space superhero movie fitting into one of the story-slots in the merchandise-pushing, brand-extending, intellectual-property exploiting Late Capitalist megaproject that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yes, it’s just one job for a well-off, socially-secure, established big-studio movie director who will not likely face much difficulty lining up his next project. Yes, nobody died, nothing was physically damaged, the fates and fortunes of the Walt Disney Corporation are not equivalent to the survival of nations or endurance of humanity. But there’s a precedent being set here, and it’s a very bad, very serious one. Algorithm-gaming, weaponized-outrage and the social-media “hate machine” are all innately troubling things; but they become considerably worse when in the hands of specifically bad people – and the people emboldened by this being left to stand are extremely bad people.
The people who “went after” Gunn and caused this mess to play out as it did are a cross-section of all-purpose internet-sadists, digital bullies, White Nationalists, hardcore misogynists and far-right/alt-right conservative zealots whose general aim is to cause chaos and harm to their political opponents and marginalized people in particular. Through the “GamerGate” and “ComicsGate” harassment campaigns they’ve targeted women, people of color, LGBTQ persons and allies in despicable and damaging ways; they’ve recently expanded the playbook into “ginning up” outrage in even seemingly politically-disconnected subjects like STAR WARS fandom and the so-called “Snyder Cut” conspiracy theory on the basis that any harm to the center-progressive mainstream is good and any angry young men on whichever “team” they pretend to fight on who can be “redpilled” to the right-wing fascist cause is an extra bonus. They are cruel, they are motivated, and they are confident that are in basic alignment with a Presidential administration and national right-wing movement that shares their general “enemies list” and focus on inflicting pain on said “enemies” versus doing anything constructive. To put it mildly: These are people who should get what they want as seldom as possible.
(P.S. Everyone knows where they’re going next – this was a clear dry-run for “taking out” Lucasfilm boss Kathleen Kennedy, whom they’ve been gunning for by co-opting the angrier slivers of STAR WARS fans annoyed at the end of the Expanded Universe line or various plot-twist reveals in THE LAST JEDI for several years now.)
In other words, who does or doesn’t direct a Marvel movie for Disney might not be a huge deal in the grand scheme of things – especially not at a point in time where we could actually be one midterm election away from the end of American Democracy as we’ve known it (if things go poorly), a few months more than that away from a possible Presidential impeachment (if things go “well”) possibly on the verge of another war in the Middle East and… well, a lot of big, big things are going on, suffice it to say. But whether or not the kind of person who’ll devote their weekend to generating an artificial outrage-wave out of ancient Tweets in order to get someone fired from a movie as A.) a free gift to a gleefully-fascistic Presidential Administration they admire for that gleeful fascism (make no mistake: Anyone who’s still enthusiastically on “The Trump Train” is on some level the kind of person who enjoys the idea of Mexican babies in ICE cages, women being forced to give birth against their will via a repeal of Roe V Wade, gays losing marriage rights, etc) or B.) the petty sadistic thrill of “owning the libs” is made to feel empowered and encouraged to keep doing so and in fact escalate these actions? That’s a very big deal.
It is my conclusion and contention, then, that Disney should make this right – ideally by getting James Gunn back to work on GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 3 or, in the event that this has already become untenable, acknowledging that they made the wrong decision and making a subsequent aggressive declaration that they will show more vigilance in the future to protect their employees, productions and fans from this sort of sabotage: An intent to, in the future, apply maximum skepticism at all times to any concern raised by the so-called political Right-Wing; which has proven itself functionally disingenuous and untrustworthy (obviously, a corporation with lawyers and publicists would say it less colorfully than that.) And whether they do or don’t, the rest of the industry and the decent side that still exists within fandom should take it upon themselves to do the work as well: Stop giving people like Cernovich specifically and “Trump people” in general the power to set the narrative, and start taking what power they’ve accrued away from them.
Stop buying into fake outrage. Stop allowing people with no standards of decency take advantage of you for having some. Stop emboldening them. Stop empowering them. Stop acting like there’s anything more important than to prevent any gain of any ground under any but the most extreme conceivable circumstances. Stop letting the bad guys win.
Thank you for reading.
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