James Gunn, the filmmaker behind Guardians of the Galaxy and its 2017 sequel, was fired by Disney on Friday in the midst of planning the franchise’s third entry. Disney’s decision to remove Gunn as the movie’s director came after conservative personalities unearthed a series of offensive tweets the director made between 2008 and 2012. “The offensive attitudes and statements discovered on James’ Twitter feed are indefensible and inconsistent with our studio’s values, and we have severed our business relationship with him,” Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn said in a statement.
“My words of nearly a decade ago were, at the time, totally failed and unfortunate efforts to be provocative,” Gunn said in a statement on Friday. “I have regretted them for many years since—not just because they were stupid, not at all funny, wildly insensitive, and certainly not provocative like I had hoped, but also because they don’t reflect the person I am today or have been for some time.”
For the now decade-old Marvel Cinematic Universe, Gunn’s departure and the controversy surrounding it stands as one of the ever-expanding franchise’s thorniest moments. One of the MCU’s most successful titles—grossing over $722 million over the course of two films—is now in a place of uncertainty, and will start at square one with a search for a new director. Meanwhile, because the tweets in question date back prior to the release of Gunn’s first film for Marvel, and because of the context within which the tweets were surfaced, Disney’s decision to let the director go raises far-reaching questions about how the company addresses its employees’ inappropriate behavior online, as well as how Hollywood in general is to manage the increasingly antagonistic actions of a certain type of internet fandom. Broken down, here’s what James Gunn’s departure might mean for Guardians of the Galaxy, for Marvel at large, and for Hollywood’s relationship with the digital world.
The Guardians Future
Gunn was the architect of the Guardians franchise, a Marvel offshoot with irreverent characters far separated from the mainstream types like Iron Man and Captain America. The two Guardian films’ critical and commercial successes were one of the MCU’s strongest signals of longevity: They were proof that Marvel could throw in a CGI tree-person and a space raccoon, and people are would still come to theaters in droves.
Gunn was responsible for writing and directing both films, and had already finished writing the third Guardians movie prior to his exit on Friday. If the Guardians franchise is to exist beyond the sequel—and by all accounts, that remains Marvel’s intention—it will need to find a new creative voice to lead it. The other option is that the studio drops the Guardians franchise entirely. That doesn’t seem as likely: Gunn isn’t as intrinsically linked to the property as, say, Roseanne Barr was to Roseanne.
Marvel at Large
Marvel has yet to deal with a controversy of this nature—though its parent company, Disney, cancelled Barr’s ABC comedy following a racist tweet from the comedian in May. That Gunn’s tweets hadn’t yet surfaced, and that it took Disney four years—and a sabotage campaign waged by right-wing personalities who disliked Gunn’s vocal anti-Trump messaging—to learn of these tweets is an indictment of the company in and of itself. Overseeing a multimillion-dollar franchise should warrant a background check that, at the bare minimum, looks through someone’s Twitter history and finds anything that could be deemed offensive.
Marvel—and by extension, Disney—is either feigning outrage now that the tweets have come to the fore, or it didn’t do the necessary due diligence when hiring Gunn; either way, it’s a bad look for the company, compounded by the fact Disney doesn’t seem to have an identifiable set of standards. In April 2017, when the return of Barr’s show was announced, many pointed to old, offensive tweets she had made. At that time, Disney and ABC were content to move forward with production—it wasn’t until Barr made an offensive statement in real time that the company decided to take action. Gunn’s firing is a lesson to Disney to do a better job of vetting its creative talent to ensure controversies such as these are avoided. It’s also a lesson to creatives, and frankly for anyone who has career aspirations: Never tweet.
Hollywood and the Internet
While the contents of Gunn’s tweets and his attempted humor are abhorrent and objectively offensive, the process with which he was fired by Disney is also a disconcerting extension of the increasingly hostile relationship between filmmakers and fans on the internet. The campaign against Gunn was spearheaded by alt-right talking head Mike Cernovich and some of his prominent conservative peers. Cernovich took screenshots of Gunn’s old tweets and labeled the filmmaker a pedophile based on their contents. (Gunn, in his series of tweets on Thursday night, emphasized that “For the record, when I made these shocking jokes, I wasn’t living them out. I know this is a weird statement to make, and seems obvious, but, still, here I am, saying it.”)
Cernovich not only used Gunn’s tweets as more “evidence” of Hollywood operating an underground pedophile network—a common refrain among alt-right conspiracy theorists—but he weaponized them to target a person he disagreed with politically. That Cernovich was successful in getting Disney—the biggest entertainment company on the planet—to fire the director of one of its biggest franchises is a frightening step in troll campaigns. It wasn’t long ago that campaigns like this were focusing on tanking the Rotten Tomatoes score for the female-led Ghostbusters or Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Ultimately, it’s in Disney’s hands to avoid moments like Gunn’s firing in the first place—by either not beholding themselves to these kinds of campaigns, or installing a better vetting process.