The jokes about rape and pedophilia that got James Gunn fired from his position as writer and director of Marvel’s hugely successful Guardians of the Galaxy franchise are largely un-funny, tasteless, and in most cases disgusting. We should probably get that out of the way right up front, because to defend Gunn in the wake of Disney’s decision is—to a lot of reactionaries with itchy @ fingers—is to also defend the content of the tweets.
But a surprisingly often overlooked part of the conversation is the fact that the ringleader of Gunn’s downfall, Mike Cernovich, had to scroll back to 2011 to find the tweets at all. Seven years, conveniently bypassing apologies and mea culpas, overlooking attempts at change, ignoring statements like the one Gunn posted just days before he was fired:
“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.”
To deny someone the capacity to change is a dangerous precedent to set, not just in Hollywood where a person’s public life is on display 24/7 but to anyone engaging in the social media age. It sets the bar at, “What’s the point?” It gives the message that concepts like betterment and learning are futile because the sins of your past are an immovable weight that only gets heavier the harder you climb. Strange, from a monolith like Disney, which has worked tirelessly to paint over a past filled with scars like Song of the South and Dumbo‘s horribly stereotypical black crows, to name just a few. But through a sheer effort of PR and Marvel-aided goodwill, that Disney feels like a ghost of the studio now. Which is exactly what makes Gunn’s firing so frustrating; Disney didn’t fire a director, they fired his ghost.
Before Friday, we were watching Gunn find himself on-screen among the stars. The Guardians of the Galaxy movies are, boiled down, stories about shitty people—rascals, thieves, assassins, criminals—learning through intense trial and error to be less shitty. Not just that, but the literal magic that comes with the realization that your past does not define you. One of the most genuinely insane opinions I’ve seen come out of this situation is, “I still love the Guardians movies, but I can’t support Gunn.” You learned nothing. Behind the space fights and the laser beams, there’s a story about overcoming the person you were. The filmmaker’s brother, Sean Gunn—who also played Kraglin in the Guardians films—said as much on Twitter this past Saturday:
“I saw firsthand as he went from worrying about “softening his edge” for a larger audience to realizing that his ‘edge’ wasn’t as useful of a tool as he thought it was….I’ve heard my brother say many times that when Quill rallies the team with “this is our chance to give a shit”—to care—that it’s the pep talk he himself needed to hear.”
The term many people like to lob at the pro-Gunn side of the argument is “hypocrite.” It is hypocritical to not understand Gunn’s firing when, say, you support ABC removing Roseanne Barr from her sitcom for describing former Obama aide Valerie Jarett as, “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby.” I don’t personally find it hypocritical to say that a racist thing said by a racist is different from a stupid thing said by an unfunny idiot. Both are “bad”, but one carries a lifetime’s worth of dangerous weight than the other. It’s also worth noting that whereas Gunn’s offensive tweets were made seven years ago, Barr never stopped making offensive comments and just expected all of us to roll with it.
But again, this is about a human’s capacity to change; it’s the difference between someone regretfully being a bad person in the past and someone unrepentantly being a bad person right now. This isn’t a this-side-versus-that thing. Mark Hammill is one of my favorite people on the planet, but if he took to Twitter to scream that he “thought the bitch was white” I’d say he probably doesn’t belong in the Star Wars franchise anymore. If Henry Cavill continues to confuse casual flirting with rape, we need a new Superman.
And then what came next would depend on them, because a person can change. Show me how Roseanne has changed. Show me when Mike Cernovich decided he cared about rape victims, much less discovered they exist.
Let me tell you a personal story to illustrate my point, because in this time of divisiveness and distrust stories are all that we have. My freshman year of high school, a long, long time ago, we partook in a project in which we wrote letters to ourselves, which would be sent to us eight years later. Sure enough, I received mine shortly after graduating college, opened it eagerly to see what I’d said from what felt like a lifetime ago. The letter started with the words, “Watsup fag.”
This broke me down—then and now, sitting at my computer writing this—because that word disgusts me now. I’d never use it in a joke, never think of writing it, never dream of actually believing it. To me, it feels like it was written by a stranger. I hardly believe in that stranger anymore. But I do believe, I have to believe, that a person can change.
I have no idea what will happen to the Guardians franchise. Gunn had completed the script for Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 3 and production was set to begin this fall. I do know that if a Guardians released without Gunn continues to advocate for the idea of overcoming your past, the message will suddenly start to ring across the galaxy like the snap of Thanos’ finger–hollow and destructive.