Disney’s dilemma over The Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn was entirely avoidable

The director’s jokes about paedophilia aren’t family friendly, but firing him may have implications for the franchise.

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Not everyone can name the director of any given Marvel movie, but it’s quite hard to avoid hearing the name James Gunn, who recently shot into the headlines after being fired from one of the best jobs in the world.

Gunn was the director of the extremely popular Guardians of the Galaxy films (there are two) and was just beginning production on the third when he was fired. The reasons for his firing are both extremely complex – involving a hit-job in which alt-right activist Mike Cernovich took exception to Gunn’s criticism of Donald Trump and drew attention to some tweets from 2008 and 2009 in which Gunn attempted joke about paedophilia – and very simple: Marvel is a Disney company and the tweets were sufficiently un-Disney for it to justify the firing.

The backlash, however, has been galaxy-sized. The cast of Guardians, including Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana and Vin Diesel, released a joint statement supporting Gunn. They explicitly ask for his reinstatement, calling his firing “the court of public opinion”.

There are a couple of things to note about James Gunn. The first is that this is not his first controversy. In 2012 he wrote a series of ridiculously homophobic and sexist – nay, misogynistic – blog posts about which superheroes he’d most like to have sex with, again in an attempt to be funny. The worst are documented here and are worth a read if you aren’t aware of this aspect of Gunn’s writing history.  

The second important point is that he got his start at Troma Entertainment, an independent low-budget “cult” horror studio. If Disney knew that he was from “Tromaville” then it can’t have been surprised that he finds humour in the sicknesses of human behaviour.

Classic Troma films such as The Toxic Avenger (1984), in which an archetypal weakling is transformed into a radioactive deformed vigilante, eventually losing his virginity to a blind girl, and Tromeo and Juliet (1996) are satires at heart, and like most satire, deliberately offensive. They’re brilliant and subversive, but by 2018 standards they’re also extremely sexist.

Gunn was mentored by The Toxic Avenger’s writer and director Lloyd Kaufman, and worked on Tromeo and Juliet. The philosophy of boundary-pushing that informs Troma movies and the “superhero comedy splatter” genre is not incidental to Gunn’s interpretations of the Guardians comics, it’s integral.

And so the third thing to note is that the first two instalments of Guardians of the Galaxy, while incredibly popular and successful, have been accused of casual sexism. Writer Andrea Morgan said of the first film, “Pratt is still playing a heterosexual white male lead, and Gunn won’t let you forget it”. Gavia Baker-Whitelaw of The Daily Dot called it “a miasma of douchiness...the first Marvel movie that feels like it’s aimed at dudes”. Clara Mae at Women Write About Comics eloquently dissects Gunn’s poor treatment of the female character The Mantis in GotG2, saying “after a whole film of watching Mantis get knocked around and verbally abused, it hardly feels funny”.

Gunn’s Troma-training is evident in his blog posts, his tweets, and his movies. And that’s fine, unless the movie you’re making is for Disney, which is still wrangling its way through the John Lasseter controversy and the entire Me Too movement.

So what does this all add up to? If you’re Disney, reputation management. From its perspective, it’s asking parents to take their kids to a cinema to see a film directed by a man who tweeted “The Expendables [movie] was so manly I fucked the shit out of the little pussy boy next to me! The boys ARE back in town!”. Those parents are the majority of the film’s target market, not the adult fans who have a more nuanced and forgiving approach to Gunn’s past. But with the release of the cast’s joint statement, there’s an air of “if you don’t take Gunn back we might make things difficult”. Disney might not want to be seen to capitulate to that. It sets a bad precedent. But it also may not have a choice.

It’s difficult. If you read out loud the things Gunn wrote in his tweets and blog, they sound horrifying to some and hilarious to others. In context of a Troma movie, they might be genius satire. In context of “give him a job as the director of a family Disney superhero movie franchise”, however, they’re indefensible. But that is on Disney and Marvel. It’s called “due diligence” and they failed, spectacularly. If an alt-right agitator can find those tweets and blogs, someone at Disney or Marvel could have too, and simply hired someone else, perhaps even a woman (radical idea!). The notion that this one white dude is the only director capable of helming Guardians of the Galaxy is the funniest thing about the whole James Gunn debacle.