When James Gunn was fired last year, I had mixed feelings about it. In the summer of 2018, Alt-Right websites had unearthed long-deleted tweets penned by the Guardians of the Galaxy director before he had ever signed with Disney. Now, that Disney has rehired Gunn to direct the third Guardians of the Galaxy movie, I am absolutely sure that this time Disney has made the wrong decision.
At the end of the day, I wasn’t upset that Gunn was dropped from the Disney roster. I never saw his mark as a director shine through in his films. True, the first Guardians movie was fun and had its moments of brilliance, but there is no doubt that Marvel’s “design by committee” approach had a great deal of influence over the aesthetic of the world and the writing itself.
Although divisive, many considered Gunn’s firing surprising but appropriate. For many women, survivors, and other marginalized groups, it finally felt like there was an immediate and direct consequence for a rich white man’s bad behavior. It didn’t matter who his friends were, what his vita looked like, or what meek apology he issued. There was proof that he had said things that were by all decent moral standards, inexcusable, and he was not going to be absolved.
Gunn also chose to approach the controversy with decency and humility; he owned up to his mistakes and did not blame anyone else for what he had written. However, none of that erases the fact that Gunn did write those jokes, whether or not he did it to be intentionally “provocative.” At the time of his weak statement of apology, he more or less stated that he was disappointed that he was making jokes that didn’t land, even though he admitted that they were offensive and inappropriate.
Even if Disney’s response in 2018 was self-righteous, trigger-happy, and possibly premature, it felt like the right thing to do, especially during a cultural moment in time during which Gunn’s tweets made their way around the internet. As everything came to light, I firmly felt that Disney had made the right decision. To issue a statement of support or ignore the implications of a man making pedeophilic jokes, while he was also directing and writing children’s movies, (in the early aughts Gunn was penning much of the Scooby-Doo franchise, but we won’t hold that against him) would speak to an inherent hypocrisy within the large company. Firing Gunn was the easy solution, and it was not uncalled for.
Despite the fact that Gunn originally made the offending tweets ten years ago, we cannot ignore that they were just as damaging as if he had posted them in 2018. People still read them, the tweets were still distributed, and there were many people out there willing to defend and excuse what Gunn had said by saying it was all “just a joke.” It is a proven social fact that jokes normalize action and thought processes. The reach and effect of those jokes ten years ago was nothing compared to the effect of those statements circulating in 2018, even divorced from the original author’s approval. To ignore this is to remove Gunn’s social standing and reach, people’s love of scandal, and Disney’s platform from the equation entirely.
Knowing all this and still agreeing with Disney’s original reaction, I wouldn’t say that this was the only “correct” decision that Disney could have made. However, in the #MeToo moment, when Disney needed to make a point about what had been said, and whether or not Gunn would be forgiven, it felt as if multiple disgusting jokes about child sexual assault, abuse, and rape was an easy line in the sand for Disney to draw.
However, at the end of the day, Gunn fell up. What had started as a sense of relief - maybe not because of Gunn directly, but because of the swift and seemingly unyielding nature of a large corporation’s decision to punish a man who had done something inexcusable - turned quickly sour. He almost immediately snagged a gig at DC as the new Suicide Squad director, the cast of Guardians rallied around him, and it seemed like everywhere on the internet there was a debate about what was said, who said it, and where the revelations came from.
All this makes the fact that Disney has rehired Gunn even more frustrating. Gunn was obviously doing fine, the inappropriate jokes he had made hadn’t affected his career, and he still had all of his friends rooting for him. Most notable was Dave Bautista, who threatened to walk if Gunn wasn’t taken back. No matter what your opinion is of Gunn’s firing, the backtracking of a large corporation who designs and publishes material primarily for children is frustrating, sad, and ultimately, the worst part of all of this.
Gunn has never been a victim, and thanks to Disney he never will be. He is, right now, an emblem of hypocrisy. What he said a decade ago and what he said last year do not matter. The bigger problem is that Disney looked at their hardline stance, one ultimately based in morals and value judgements, and said to themselves: money is more important to us than respectability.
Despite the division of whatever court of public opinion exists, Gunn has proven that if you are (or appear) contrite enough, have powerful friends, and some credit to spend in the community, you can get what you want. For Disney to essentially say that they can forgive making jokes about child sexual assault and normalizing abuse and rape as long as the person who said those things (no matter when they were said) is sorry, is wildly inappropriate and damaging.
Whether or not Disney made the right decision in 2018 is contested. I think it was the correct thing to do, but I recognize that there could have been other methods of handling the issues without firing Gunn. So, although there were multiple right decisions last summer, I do not think that firing Gunn was wrong.
What Disney did in 2019 however, was absolutely the wrong decision. Firing someone for pedophilic jokes and then rehiring them is never a good look, no matter what. Disney has damaged their credibility and, in the same move, realigned its power structure to support and benefit powerful white men. At this point, James Gunn is not the problem or the issue; Disney is.
As such a huge company with massive cultural impact, Disney has a responsibility to the public at large. Rehiring a man who has created such controversy, who has made remarks that are, (by the least of all standards) inappropriate, whose career has not been ruined or even markedly affected by this decision, is baffling and disappointing. In the long run, there is so little to gain from rehiring Gunn, but so much lost. Disney’s integrity feels lacking, and at the end of the day, the company is rewarding a successful, powerful, rich, established man who could just as easily have been replaced by any number of worthy, deserving, and talented creatives.
It is clear that Disney prioritizes its inner circle over its fans, its morals, and over anyone who has ever been a victim of child abuse. Culturally, Disney is more than a corporation, it is a storyteller and a narrative builder, and its position in our lives as a media maker is not insignificant. This is not surprising but disheartening, and I have no doubt that in the future this entire incident will not color Disney in a good light. There is nothing wrong with a company admitting that they made the wrong decision, but it is more honorable, when looking at the broader scope of the decision, to admit to making an impulsive decision for the right reasons, and sticking to it.
Linda H. Codega
Linda is a twenty-something millennial living and working in the Hudson Valley who loves fandom, pop culture, sailing, tarot cards, and crying in movie theaters. If you want to listen to them talk about pop culture, the repeating cycles of media, and those stories that we can’t get out of our heads, you can listen to their podcast, Retronym, on iTunes.