This isn’t a news site. I’ve no desire to be a news site either. But, as a comic geek and MCU fan, it’s impossible not to think about the news that came out Friday. Being a lover of the Guardians Of The Galaxy films, I’ve obviously been thinking about Disney firing James Gunn from Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3 a lot. Writing often helps me sort all my feelings (one of the reasons I need to get back to journaling regularly…I miss it) so I figured I’d give it a go here. So, technically, this isn’t so much a reporting of the news as it is my reaction to the news.
Anyway, I heard this all from Jeff first. He called me before I’d seen anything online and said Disney had fired James Gunn from Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3 after tweets he made joking about things like pedophilia and rape in 2008 and 2009 resurfaced. In the wake of the resurfacing, Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn released a statement saying, “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.” You can read more about it in this piece from The Hollywood Reporter if you’d like (all quotes in this post come from that piece as well, unless otherwise stated). The majority of the tweets in question are compiled in the image below to underscore the gravity/reality of the issue.
Gunn’s initial, informal response on Twitter was, “Many people who have followed my career know, when I started, I viewed myself as a provocateur, making movies and telling jokes that were outrageous and taboo. As I have discussed publicly many times, as I’ve developed as a person, so has my work and my humor. It’s not to say I’m better, but I am very, very different than I was a few years ago; today I try to root my work in love and connection and less in anger. My days saying something just because it’s shocking and trying to get a reaction are over. In the past, I have apologized for humor of mine that hurt people. I truly felt sorry and meant every word of my apologies. 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. Anyway, that’s the completely honest truth: I used to make a lot of offensive jokes. I don’t anymore. I don’t blame my past self for this, but I like myself more and feel like a more full human being and creator today. Love to you all.”
Later, in his official statement on the matter, he wrote, “My words of nearly a decade ago were, at the time, totally failed and unfortunate efforts to be provocative. 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. Regardless of how much time has passed, I understand and accept the business decisions taken today. Even these many years later, I take full responsibility for the way I conducted myself then. All I can do now, beyond offering my sincere and heartfelt regret, is to be the best human being I can be: accepting, understanding, committed to equality, and far more thoughtful about my public statements and my obligations to our public discourse. To everyone inside my industry and beyond, I again offer my deepest apologies. Love to all.”
Now, let’s get this out of the way first. The tweets were dug up and circulated online (as was the move to get Disney to fire Gunn) by Mike Cernovich. Cernovich, as the Huffington Post outlines, is “ringleader in the group, whose members include anti-Muslim Laura Loomer, British fascist and former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec and Lucian Wintrich, a smarmy white supremacist-friendly correspondent for The Gateway Pundit, a far-right propaganda outlet…several of whom have received press credentials from the Trump White House, all work to subvert the real media.” He was also the one who helped transform “Pizzagate” – the idea that Democrats were running a satanic pedophiliac ring in a D.C. pizzeria – from a ridiculous conspiracy theory to an actual force in the 2016 presidential election. He sought to tie it to Hillary Clinton and, to a degree, it worked…a poll in December of 2016 showed almost half of all Trump voters believed this was true.
If you’re curious as to how such a man conducts himself online, Cernovich’s own Twitter accounts have featured such sentiments as:
Alright…ugh, so that’s enough of that. He’s clearly a broken, insecure, terrified human being with a horrid, disgusting message/point of view. And his issue with James Gunn obviously has nothing to do with authentic altruism or his own personal desire to see the moral high ground honored. Rather, Gunn is an outspoken critic of Trump and what the neoconservative agenda has allowed itself to become. So Cernovich wanted to take a very public swing at a very public critic of the Trump Administration and those who still support him. Looking to someone like Cernovich as any sort of moral authority is laughable at best and frightening at worst. What he does, playing with popular opinion through media manipulation to force a toxic agenda, is wrong.
However, what James Gunn said – joking or not – is wrong too.
Now, I’m not equating the two. At all. Gunn made some horrid jokes in terrible taste in an attempt to by “funny” and “edgy.” Cernovich believes the poison he espouses, drawing strength from those who share his views while also offering those who do a dangerous sense of faux-legitimacy. There is no question which is worse. And I grant we all have awkward moments in our past that make us flinch when we think of them, things we look to now with varying degrees of shame as moments when we needed to grow up. Few of us have to pay a price as steep as Gunn for those moments later in life either. So what Gunn said, and the punishment he received for his decade-old comments, seems completely unfair when we’re living in an age where someone saying what Cernovich says has White House press credentials and the man sitting in the White House publicly brags about raping women and then still gets elected president.
So yes, Disney firing James Gunn from Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3 over what he said is, to a degree, largely unfair. Yes, Disney’s produced some horribly racist content of their own in their past, so there’s more than a little hypocrisy here. And yes, Cernovich is a sleazy, morally bankrupt guy advocating a dangerous agenda and to say his calling out James Gunn is a “glass houses” situation would be a laughable understatement.
But none of this changes the reality that words have power nor the fact that, for better or worse, there is a difference between making a horribly offensive joke in an attempt to be “edgy” in the company of a few friends who know the real you and doing so on an open, public forum like Twitter. While we live in a country that ensures our freedom of speech it doesn’t mean we can say whatever we want without any sort of consequences. If anything, this whole mess underscores the importance of taking the power of our words seriously. We look at men like Trump or Cernovich who routinely say such terrible things with no real consequence and it makes us, rightfully, angry.
While minor by comparison and long-since apologized for, I can still see why Disney did what they did. And I’m impressed with how Gunn’s handled this. As I grew up loving Star Wars I naturally wanted to know more and more about George Lucas the older I got. So I read and I read and I read – everything I could find about or by him. In many ways, Guardians Of The Galaxy is the “Star Wars” for this generation of children. As they grow up with these movies, those kids will eventually want to know more and more about James Gunn too.
So what will they find? Instead of just maybe stumbling on some jokes he made in poor taste they will find a man who, when challenged and fired over some terrible jokes he made over a decade ago, didn’t fight it. He didn’t claim to be the victim of some rightwing smear or attack campaign. He didn’t cry “fake news.” No, instead he said, “Regardless of how much time has passed, I understand and accept the business decisions taken today. Even these many years later, I take full responsibility for the way I conducted myself then” (emphasis added). He owed his words and actions while accepting full responsibility for them. He’d never admit it, but Cernovich has a lot to learn from James Gunn. As unfair and disproportionate as this all can seem, I think we’d all agree we’d like to see more people in the media and especially in the political arena do the same.
Obviously I’m worried about what this will mean for the future of the Guardians Of The Galaxy movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As I’ve written often, I think Guardians Of The Galaxy and Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 are the greatest films the MCU’s produced. Nothing else even comes close. They are what they are because of James Gunn’s unique vision and voice. One of my (many) problems with Avengers: Infinity War was how, for the most part, the Guardians didn’t feel right. At times I glimpsed moments of authentic Guardian-ness – and I do think the Russos captured Drax – but by and large they felt…off. And I’ve struggled to find a Guardians Of The Galaxy comic I can faithfully follow because none have truly captured the characters as they feel in Gunn’s films. I immediately fell in love with the Guardians of the Galaxy because I fell in love with how James Gunn presented them to us in that magical, fateful film from the summer of 2014. Certainly I’m worried about how Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3 will feel…and I worry about the state of the franchise afterwards.
But what happened yesterday is far larger than a(n admittedly amazing and perfect and brilliant) superhero movie. This is about a man who once said something horrible things, was attacked when it was intentionally taken out of context, lost a high paying and high profile job because of it…and still owned it. “All I can do now,” he wrote after accepting the firing without rancor, “beyond offering my sincere and heartfelt regret, is to be the best human being I can be: accepting, understanding, committed to equality, and far more thoughtful about my public statements and my obligations to our public discourse. To everyone inside my industry and beyond, I again offer my deepest apologies. Love to all.” Yes, I wish we’d have gotten to see his fully realized vision for Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3. Yes, I wish there was a larger, more equitable, more universal scale of justice in the present moment for things like this. But, whatever type of person James Gunn truly is, in his Guardians Of The Galaxy films, James Gunn orchestrated a beautiful story that showed us how strangers, misfits, and losers could become friends and ultimately family, bonding in and through the power of love. Here he’s shown us our words have power and we need to be always be aware of how we use that power.
In a quote often attributed to Voltaire, Evelyn Beatrice Hall once wrote, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” For the most part, I’ve always agreed with that sentiment. By the same token, if I want those I disagree with to be held accountable for their words then I must also want those whose views and/or work I traditionally enjoy to be held equally accountable.
UPDATE: On Monday 30 July, the letter below was written and signed by the cast of Guardians Of The Galaxy in support of James Gunn’s reinstatement as director of Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3:
Obviously, the letter speaks for itself but I would like to highlight one passage in particular. What spoke to me the most was, “In casting each of us to help him tell the story of misfits who find redemption, he changed our lives forever. We believe the theme of redemption has never been more relevant than now.” Redemption is a powerful little word. In it we find the tools to take this broken world and see it reborn in beauty and compassion. Regardless of what happens here, that’s something we need to remember. And, as I said above, whether or not James Gunn is reinstated on Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3, he has still shown us all how to conduct ourselves with honor, grace, and humility.