James Gunn is the big winner from Disney’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 fiasco. Last summer, around the time of San Diego Comic-Con, Gunn became the target of a politically-motivated attack when some of his old comments and tweets went viral. Gunn had started out working for bad taste film studio Troma, and at the time he’d used off-color and offensive humor both in his work and online. He’d long since moved on from that, and had even publicly reflected on the fact he regretted his old comments on social media, but they were still out there and proved to be a potent weapon against him. After his old tweets were dredged up again, Disney reacted by swiftly firing him.
Although fans campaigned for Gunn to be rehired, the writer-director of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies never once bad-mouthed Disney for their decision. There have been reports that he met with Disney’s Alan Horn a number of times after his firing, and Horn was impressed with Gunn’s maturity. Disney reportedly rehired Gunn several months ago, and the news has finally gone public. The whole controversy will have a major impact on the Marvel slate, as Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 had originally been planned to release in 2020, launching the future of Marvel’s cosmic range of movies. Instead, that role will be played by The Eternals, a new franchise. Given that Gunn has signed up to write and direct The Suicide Squad for Warner Bros., it’s reasonable to assume Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 will probably come out in 2023.
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Gunn’s firing had always seemed to be something of a knee-jerk response from Disney, who surely should have known about these old comments and tweets if they’d conducted basic due diligence before hiring Gunn in the first place. Still, it was also perfectly understandable, given Gunn’s jokes included references to subjects like rape and pedophilia, and there was no way Disney would want to be associated with those two topics at a time when they were in the bidding to expand by acquiring the bulk of Fox’s film and TV empire. Now the controversy is finally coming to an end, and Gunn is returning to the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise that he’s made his own. He’s gone through a hard time over the last year – but he’s come out as the big winner from this whole affair.
James Gunn’s rehiring effectively confirms that the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise just doesn’t work without him. When Marvel first announced Guardians of the Galaxy, the prospect of a superhero film featuring a walking tree and a talking raccoon raised more than a few eyebrows. It was believed by some that Guardians of the Galaxy would be Marvel’s first flop. But Gunn’s creative approach took everybody by surprise. He transformed the little-known heroes into a blockbuster franchise, reinventing the characters for the big screen and adding an eclectic and creative ’70s soundtrack. The first film grossed over $773 million worldwide, and became hugely influential. Gunn’s judgment and taste had proved sound, and it was no surprise when he was brought back to direct the sequel.
Gunn remained tremendously protective of his characters, writing their dialogue for Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. He even argued for changes to the script, insisting that Peter Quill would be willing to shoot his beloved Gamora rather than let her be captured by Thanos. Gunn’s position at Marvel Studios appeared to be growing, as he suggested his script for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 would set up “the next 10, 20 years of Marvel movies.” Kevin Feige has recently claimed Gunn’s reputation as the architect of Marvel’s cosmic universe was blown out of proportion, but one thing seems certain: Gunn was in a position of influence – right up until the moment he wasn’t.
Gunn’s return simply emphasizes his importance to the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, and indeed to Marvel’s future slate. It’s uncertain whether or not he’ll return to the influential position he previously enjoyed; no doubt Marvel’s plans have changed since he was last in the know, and will change even more when they gain access to the X-Men and Fantastic Four film rights. But the fact remains that Marvel and Disney both clearly felt Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 needed the James Gunn touch. Indeed, it’s been reported that Marvel didn’t even discuss the film with any other directors; it seems they put it on indefinite hold while this whole mess sorted itself out. The Guardians of the Galaxy films are officially Gunn’s baby.
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In the meantime, Gunn has also gained another feather in his cap by signing on with Warner Bros. to write and direct The Suicide Squad, a sequel/reboot of David Ayer’s 2016 blockbuster. His rehiring makes Gunn the only director to be signed on simultaneously with both DC and Marvel – a position he’s perfectly suited to given his view on the traditional “rivalry” between those two superhero franchises. As DC Films producer Peter Safran put it in an interview with JoBlo:
“And you know what I love about James directing for both Marvel and DC is he has always espoused the view that that which unites comic book and superhero lovers is much greater than that which divides us. Because, there’s always been this Marvel/DC rivalry, which he has has said, and I agree, is absurd. There’s room for everybody and certainly that which unites us all is far greater than that which divides us, so hopefully they’ll see that you can be both a Marvel and a DC fan and the world won’t spin off its axis.”
Warner Bros. reportedly went to great lengths to court Gunn, offering him the pick of the crop. He even had a chance to direct a Superman film, although he was apparently more interested in Superman’s dog Krypto. The Suicide Squad is Gunn’s priority, and is still slated for an August 6, 2021 release, so Disney’s rehiring of James Gunn appears to have been made with his current deal with Warner Bros. and DC considered. It will certainly be interesting to see whether Gunn continues to work on both Marvel and DC movies going forward.
Page 2 of 2: The Trolls Have Lost
The whole affair is a sorry one for Disney, who caved in to Internet trolls in the first place and made what was clearly a hasty and ill-considered decision. The social media campaign against James Gunn was never really about his old posts and tweets at all; it was politically motivated, with right-wing trolls feigning outrage to get him sacked. They compared Gunn’s fate with the firing of Roseanne Barr, a parallel that doesn’t quite work given Roseanne continued making discriminatory statements after being hired by Disney (ABC, the network that produced Roseanne, is a Disney subsidiary), while Gunn completely ditched his off-color humor – and admitted, to his surprise, that he’d felt liberated by doing so. “I suddenly was working for Marvel and Disney,” Gunn told BuzzFeed in 2017, “and that didn’t seem like something I could do anymore. I thought that that would be a hindrance on my life. But the truth was it was a big, huge opening for me. I realized, a lot of that stuff is a way that I push away people.“
Disney’s decision set a disturbing precedent, emboldening trolls whose only interest was in destroying the careers of the people they disagreed with. They swiftly began to launch other – thankfully less successful – campaigns against other actors and directors. It’s possible that Disney’s higher-ups didn’t really appreciate what was happening; they simply saw that the words “Disney” and “pedophilia” were being linked, and reacted with speed. They had played into the trolls’ hands, and had unwittingly given them power. Rehiring James Gunn changes that power dynamic once again, with Disney telling the world that they do indeed believe in the possibility of change and redemption after all.
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Ultimately, far from destroying James Gunn’s career, the social media campaign against him has transformed it. While the jokes were indeed crude and offensive, it had become clear to anyone who did any digging into the issue at all that Gunn had put them behind him. What’s more, the writer-director has handled the controversy with grace and style, demonstrating to the whole world that he’s grown up beyond the off-color humor he deployed back when he worked for Troma. Gunn never criticized Disney, he accepted responsibility for his past actions, and he dramatically reduced his social media presence over the course of the last 12 months – all of which eased the way for his eventual comeback.
Meanwhile, it’s become clear just how strong a fanbase James Gunn has. MCU fans launched a petition calling for Disney to rehire him, which garnered over 429,000 signatures. The Guardians of the Galaxy cast issued an open letter in which they expressed their support for Gunn and made clear how great he was to work with, and Dave Bautista vocally threatened to quit the entire MCU. Hollywood A-listers stood up behind Gunn, boosting his cause and profile, all surely aware that the same trolls would do their best to silence them as well. Gunn became a cause célèbre – and, with his rehiring, a successful one.
The trolls intended to destroy the career of James Gunn. Not only have they failed, they have achieved the opposite, boosting his profile and actually enhancing his career. His past is well-known now, and can never be used to undermine him again. What’s more, his repentance is so clear that Disney has rehired him less than a year after he was originaly fired. The theme of redemption has always been central to Gunn’s work; he’s admitted that he identifies the most with Rocket, a character with rough edges who’s gradually learned to open up and embrace others. Now Gunn himself perfectly embodies that theme.
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