James Gunn’s firing might be the turning point – in a good way – for fans of good movies (Commentary)


ast week, Disney fired “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” (2020) writer-director James Gunn (who also wrote and directed the first two pictures) for tweets he made from 2008-11, where it seemed like he was workshopping tasteless jokes with his Twitter followers. He sounds like a struggling comedian on the least funny day of his life. The jokes (if they even fit the term) are all clunkers and would be deeply offensive if they came from someone making literal statements rather than trying to be a provocateur. (As a Troma filmmaker, his job essentially was professional provocateur.)

Now 250,000 people – who believe in the man who made the warm-hearted “Guardians” pictures, not the man he used to be (and whom he has apologized for being) — have signed a petition asking that Disney reinstate Gunn.

It won’t happen, of course. Even if Disney did ask Gunn back, the waters are too poisoned.

Can you imagine writing dialogue for Rocket or Star-Lord or Drax and wondering if it’s too offensive for your knee-jerk bosses? This is the opposite of the culture created by Marvel Cinematic Universe overseer Kevin Feige (who I’m guessing is too low on the Disney totem pole to have gotten a say in the Gunn firing): Hire creative people and – other than asking them to hit a few plot points for the overall storyline – let them be creative in their corner of the MCU sandbox.

Even if Disney did ask Gunn back, the waters are too poisoned.

The “Guardians” films led to the greatest commercial windfall from this strategy, as the relatively cheap property has drawn big box office. (The quality angle is irrelevant here. Some people love the films, others hate them; I think they’re pretty good. But they are objectively money-makers.)

Additionally, the “Guardians” set – which by all accounts has been a love-fest – is tainted because some actors supported Gunn and some kept quiet in this culture where it’s so easy to get canned. (None of Gunn’s colleagues have voiced support for Disney’s decision, though.) Obviously, Sean Gunn (who does Rocket’s mo-cop performance) backed his brother, and so did Dave Bautista (Drax) and Michael Rooker (Yondu).

The latter quit Twitter, presumably because it was an effective sounding board for the vocal minority calling for Gunn’s ouster. (There was a Republicans vs. Democrats political angle to the “fire Gunn” movement, as Gunn dislikes Trump, but I’m not going to dig into it here. Regardless of who unearthed the ancient tweets, the decision to fire someone falls to the employer.)

Disney owns probably half of the blockbuster franchises you can think of: most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe properties, “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones,” “The Muppets,” “X-Men” and “Fantastic Four” thanks to the acquisition of Fox, Pixar’s animated sagas, and of course all the traditional Disney stuff. It also owns many TV networks, including ABC, where Roseanne Barr was fired from “Roseanne” for a racist tweet (one that she sent into cyberspace recently, not a decade ago).

As with the Roseanne firing, which drew a mixed-to-positive reaction, Disney made what it probably thought was the safe play by firing Gunn in this politically correct climate. But it set itself a dangerous precedent.

I’m going to use an extreme scenario to illustrate my argument. Let’s say dirt is dug up on Stan Lee, the creator of most Marvel characters owned by Disney, and someone who is still involved with the MCU (note his cameo in every film). Let’s imagine this dirt is something worse than Gunn’s offenses, although not a Kevin Spacey- or Harvey Weinstein-level offense. Let’s imagine something in the Roseanne or Chris Hardwick range, where we learn his mind is not as clean as the fallen snow or that he’s had a bad (but consensual) relationship with a woman.

At that point, Disney has two horrible options: It can halt the MCU, saying that it can no longer do business with someone who has violated its moral values. Or it can continue to make movies about Lee’s characters and prove to the world that the Mouse House is colossally hypocritical. In all honesty, Disney would probably find some middle ground where it looks like it is distancing itself from Lee while still making MCU movies. And it’d get away with it at least to the degree that the films would still be successful.

Nonetheless, I believe the Gunn firing marks the start of a sea change, and I’m here to argue that while it sucks for “Guardians” fans, it’s a good thing for fans of good movies in the long run. Here’s my reasoning: If Disney welcomes only the squeakiest of squeaky-clean people under its tent, then a lot of the most creative people in Hollywood will not be welcome there, and Disney products will get progressively safer — and gradually worse.

The non-squeaky-clean creative people will still be making films, because the Gunn petition shows there is a massive audience for films by talented people who have a checkered past (so long as they aren’t outright monsters). Since they won’t get hired to helm Disney’s blockbuster franchises, this class of people will be forced to go elsewhere. It’s possible that another big studio will want these folks for their blockbusters, but it’s not likely; all entrenched corporations play it safe.

So I’m thinking small studios or outright indie features. These creative projects will be lower budget; we’ll have to get used to that. But it’s not the worst thing ever for filmmakers to be challenged. “Star Wars: A New Hope,” for example, did amazing, groundbreaking things with a small budget.

Disney has been the industry leader in this current decade of franchise adaptations, remakes, sequels, spinoffs … in other words, non-original ideas. A lot of these blockbusters have been fun (I adore the MCU, as you can tell from my reviews), but mainstream entertainment connoisseurs are starting to question where the original ideas are, in both movies and TV.

I predict the 2020s will mark the return of originality. It was due to happen anyway, but Disney sped up the sea change by firing Gunn and making a clear statement that it is shrinking the size of its creative tent: People with checkered pasts need no longer apply. So they’ll go elsewhere, as will their fans.