James Gunn and the difficult case of evil artists

I held off giving a hot take on this issue while it was still trending because that often leads to me putting out a crappy, half-formed opinion on the matter. Now, when it is certain that almost no one will read this because the public has since moved on to the next big things in entertainment news (“Mamma Mia” 2 and “Team Titans Go! To the Movies” are good?!), I’m willing to throw my small voice into the matter.

If you’re not familiar with the situation, last week director James Gunn was fired from “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” after graphic years-old tweets from him resurfaced. In the aftermath, a great many have come to his defense, including some 65,000 who have signed a petition to have Disney rehire him, citing the fact that people do make mistakes that they can learn and grow from, while others are on the side of Disney, as the tweets, while intended to be comedic, are arguably homophobic and pedophilic. I say arguably, because even though Gunn had a reputation for shock humor at the time the tweets were published (the guy got his start from Troma), the tweets leave a lot of room for interpretation, especially with how literal and blunt they are.

There are a few key points to consider, the first being that these tweets are from over ten years ago, before Gunn was under contract by Disney. In truth, Disney can fire and hire anyone they want, for any non-discriminatory reason. They’re a company. They don’t need to be right so long as people like them and buy their products. With that being said, when Gunn authored those tweets, he was under no obligation to keep a sweeky-clean image he does now, in fact, quite the opposite, as Gunn thrived on risky R-Rated flicks, far from the kid-friendly “Guardians” films that have grossed Disney over $1 billion. And Disney knew he had this reputation and was known for those kind of films when they hired him. It’s like getting mad at a horror film director you hired for a children’s flick for having gory scenes in a past film. Offensive, risky humor is a staple of Troma and the type of work Gunn did before “Guardians,” so it was only a matter of time that someone dug up some of his jokes that didn’t stick the landing (in fact, I suspect that there are many more), and for the type of humor he specialized in, not sticking the landing can make it seem like you’re doing the thing you’re making fun of, rather than commentating on and ridiculing it.

Those tweets are disgusting and abhorrent, and for that reason alone, I will not directly quote or link to them. They are easily available online, but I view their contents as so abhorrent that I don’t want them associated with this site.

Gunn even admits what he said was indefensible:

“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,” he wrote in a tweet. “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.”

As did Disney, which labeled the tweets as such, claiming that they are inconsistent with their values, the last point of which I think warrants further discussion.


In the context of the statement from Disney, which in full reads “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.” Taken verbatim, this is correct. Disney would not promote the same risqué content that Gunn put in those tweets; even their R-Rated “Deadpool” is relatively tame.

But because Gunn has since evolved and grown from those tweets shines a light of hypocrisy on Disney, who still put their founder, who is now notoriously known for his anti-Semitic beliefs, on a pedestal. Like Gunn, Disney has grown from their risky and offensive past, and it’s not like the behavior seen in Gunn’s tweets is continuing into the present day. By destroying a man’s career over something that isn’t representative of him in the present day perpetuates a destructive idea that people cannot learn from their mistakes, that they will always be defined by their pasts. By this logic, Robert Downey, Jr. would not be the Hollywood icon that he is today, but just but a former convict, Tim Allen would be nothing but a former drug dealer, and Disney would be nothing but a company established by an Anti-Semite that published racist and culturally-insensitive cartoons. Learning from your mistakes seems to be completely consistent with Disney’s culture and values.

I think the main issue is that Gunn’s tweets were arguably pedophilic, and those in particular were graphic, the last thing a company known for kid’s films wants. But I don’t think what Gunn said in those tweets are enough to call the guy a pedophile, and while insensitive, I cannot ignore the fact that Gunn has retooled significantly since that time, as has his career. But for many, that doesn’t matter, because the way in which he joked about pedophilia can be interpreted as participating in or supporting it, in the same way that bad parodies can be seen as imitating the thing that they’re supposed to be making fun of, and many find that offensive.

I find it interesting how this situation has led “Guardians” actor Michael Rooker to lash out at Twitter in general, a platform whose character limit has ended the careers of many businessmen, politicians, and actors over jokes that fell flat, and I suspect that many others might ditch the platform following his example, especially considering that there are better platforms that allow you to do more or less the same thing but with less restrictions, like Facebook and Instagram. In fact, I’ve often questioned the usefulness of the platform — it seems like the only time Twitter is brought up is when some celebrity said something stupid on it.

Still, it is undeniable that Gunn’s firing has put the “Guardians” franchise in a trying place. He is a talented director whose unique flare made “Guardians of the Galaxy” one of Disney’s strongest movie brands, and Gunn’s absence will have far-reaching echoes on the MCU. Let’s face it, “Infinity War” was essentially Avengers Phase 3 meets “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and while most of the Guardians will be gone from “Infinity War” Part 2, it was Gunn’s intergalactic vision that shaped how these cosmic “Avengers” movies would look and feel.

A PR move

We cannot ignore the precedent for situation’s like Gunn’s, which might shed some light on why he was dismissed so quickly despite all he did for the company and the age of those tweets. A great recent example is what happened to “Papa” John Schnatter, former CEO and founder of the pizza chain “Papa John’s.” Schnatter got caught saying the n-word on a conference call during a training and was pressured to resign from the company, in the aftermath of which, Papa John’s stocks went up. There are plenty of other examples of powerful people in the social media era being ousted because of something they said or allegedly did, especially in the wake of the Me Too movement, that provided these people’s employers and business partners the opportunity to strike them down financially, taking on the good guy in the face of racism and sexual deviants; Harvey Weinstein, Garrison Keillor, Kevin Spacey, and Bill Cosby, to name a few.

But what you also see is that plenty of companies take action against these people before formal allegations are ever brought up in a court of law, and while I think there are ways to find out if certain allegations are true without the court system, it also leaves a disturbing amount of room for people to be labeled as false villains.

But like I pointed out earlier, companies can hire or fire anyone they want, and they don’t have to be right so long as their customer base is happy.

I’m always skeptical of the motivations of people who come out years after a certain insensitivity or crime was committed, especially when allegations come out when somebody is conveniently famous, because there is a lot someone can gain by burning down someone’s career, whether you be the journalist that breaks the story (as seems to be the case with the Gunn case), or the accuser, especially if that individual has a lot of enemies or rivals. If you’ve ever seen the film “Citizen Kane,” you have an idea of how this works; when you’re in the spotlight, people will do anything they can to destroy you, especially if they’re a competitor of yours, and the era of social media has given those types of people a marvelous backlog to exploit.

The case of legitimate evil artists

My problem with Disney firing Gunn over years-old deleted tweets is mostly because even if we discard how old they are, they’re not a sufficient indicator of what’s going on in Gunn’s head. It’s like firing someone over an offensive, short note that they threw in the trash, and they fact that Gunn deleted many of those tweets speaks to the fact that they are not representative of Gunn or his values today.

But let’s say that they are. Should Gunn have been fired? I lean on the side of “yes,” only because of how insensitive, abhorrent, and disgusting they are, but I also think that there’s an extent to which we can have imperfect, even morally questionable artists make art. When I listen to any musician today, I never assume that just because they’re music is good, that they were a saint, and this can apply to many artists in any form in the past. Walt Whitman has some troubling works involving sexuality and young boys. F. Scott Fitzgerald was a notorious alcoholic. Walt Disney produced “Song of the South,” a film so racists it has never been released on home video or DVD. Ezra Pound was an anti-Semite. All of these people had huge social flaws, but there works are great nonetheless. I think it is possible to love the work without putting the author on a moral pedestal, especially considering that artists are often deeply flawed human beings, and unlike politicians or businessmen, they are not in positions of power where they are making direct decisions that will affect the livelihood of massive amounts of human beings.

Artists are often crappy people, especially the great ones, and while everyone is a public figure these days, I still can’t help but wonder why we put some people under an unnecessarily stringent microscope, like Gunn, and let others, like our president, do and say whatever they want.

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