Really, it’s no secret at all that in Hollywood, profits will trump ethics almost every single time. So, when a scandal occurs involving one celebrity or another, you can assume that how a studio responds to that scandal will be more dependent upon how much capital that celebrity generates than upon some moral decision, which is problematic for a number of reasons. There are writers, directors, producers, and actors who are thriving in Tinseltown despite being involved in some very shady goings-on. Others find their careers ended due to mere associations and rumours. Then there are those who are cut off from the entertainment community with good reason. Just this week Allison Mack, a leading actor from the hit WB/CW series Smallville, confessed to being involved with a sex cult/human trafficking group. This comes after the recent sex scandals surrounding Bryan Singer, Kevin Spacey, Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby, and Harvey Weinstein. (Hollywood clearly has a real problem with sexual exploitation and abuse that needs to be addressed.) In almost all of these cases, the exception being Jackson, the people caught up in these scandals have had their careers virtually wiped out by their misdeeds. And rightfully so. But in all of these instances, the people involved had multiple accusations of actual abuse made against them, and that is simply not always the case. So, what is the right course of discipline for people who may have overstepped the boundaries of propriety, of what is currently socially acceptable, but have not outright harmed anyone beyond the initial controversy of their words and actions? These are important questions in an ongoing discussion about freedom of speech and accountability in the free market world of American entertainment.
Enter Walt Disney Pictures… and Marvel Studios. When Disney bought Marvel back in 2009, around a year after the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), it was supposed early on that the family-friendly corporation might hold the reins to the comic book company a little too tightly. There were fears that they might even censor the more adult content of earlier comics and comic book-inspired films. So far, that has not been the case, and it’s largely been a pleasant surprise for fans. The MCU films have been a huge success. By “a huge success”, I mean a titanic, phenomenal, cosmic success. Since 2008, the MCU raked in a massive total of $19 billion, which is astonishing by any metric. No film franchise has come close to this level of financial success within a ten year period. It’s unprecedented. The films are making so much money that it puts Disney in an interesting and somewhat dualistic position. On the one hand, that level of success means that these films are highly visible, that there’s a built-in audience, and that they will pull a massive profit no matter what, and so there’s a certain freedom there to take risks and hire filmmakers to helm franchises that may not be immediately obvious. Or even safe choices. On the other hand, it also means that they may be overprotective of their investments, of what projects go forward, and how to ensure that those projects match up with the lucrative business of their previous films, which means that studio interference and control could be a potential problem. Either way it’s a lot of pressure for a studio president or executive to deal with.
So, what happens when a filmmaker, or even an actor, does something that doesn’t line up with the almighty studio’s plan, either in their personal life or in the process of making a film for Marvel? Well, the MCU‘s success might be unprecedented, but shakeups behind the scenes are not, and this is evident in who has been let go in those ten years. One might forget that both Disney and Marvel have a history of severing ties with talent when they feel that the studios’ overall vision doesn’t line up with the individual’s. Iron Man star Terence Howard‘s character James Rhodes/War Machine was recast with Don Cheadle in Iron Man 2. The original director of Ant-Man, Edgar Wright, was let go and replaced by Peyton Reed, who wound up directing both that film and its sequel. In the former situation, the actor was reportedly difficult to work with and made too many demands, and in the latter situation, the director’s creative vision didn’t align with that of the studio, so they were let go. But then there’s James Gunn. Gunn was apparently a charm to work with and he has been highly regarded by his cast and crew. Gunn’s vision for the Guardians of the Galaxy not only aligned with the studio’s vision, it surpassed it and enhanced it, and creatively he was responsible for two of Marvel‘s biggest hits. Marvel Studios‘ president Kevin Feige made it no secret that Gunn would be heavily involved with the future of the MCU, helping to spearhead it’s forward momentum and trajectory, much in the same way that Joss Whedon and brothers, Anthony Russo and Joe Russo have. When Gunn was fired last Summer for some highly inappropriate tweets from almost a decade ago, it sent shock waves through the industry, not least of all because professionally he had done nothing wrong.
James Gunn brought so much to the tone, aesthetics, and scope of that first Guardians of the Galaxy film. It would be hard to imagine anyone else stepping into that corner of the sandbox and creating anything comparable with what are essentially his toys. After his firing, the principal cast sent an open letter to the studio, respectfully asking that the studio let Gunn return as director. Tens of thousands of fans signed petitions. However, it looked unlikely that the director would be returning for the third (and final?) installment in the GotG trilogy. The one bright light in this whole dark drama was that Gunn’s recently completed screenplay for the film would still be used. For a while rumours circulated online of possible replacement directors who could step in to replace Gunn. At the top of the list were Nicole Pearlman and Taika Waititi. Nicole Pearlman was the original writer on the first Guardians of the Galaxy film before it was rewritten by James Gunn. The other choice, and the one that most fans seemed to flock to, was Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi. In response to these rumours, Waititi made a statement, saying, “For me, those are James’ films. Going into something like that with his stamp all over his films, would be like going into someone’s house and saying ‘Hey, I’m your new dad, and this is how we make peanut butter sandwiches now. It feels kind of awkward. However, I’m still hanging out with those guys [at Marvel] and talking about new stuff. I want to do another movie with them.” Apparently Disney and Marvel ultimately agreed, because now Gunn has been reinstated as the director of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, but what does that say about the ethics of the companies?
That question isn’t easy to answer. If I had to sum it up, I would say that the bottom line is profit, and perhaps if there were two bottom lines, just above that would be prestige. Almost all decisions in Hollywood are determined by how much of a profit you can pull in and how much prestige your work can acquire in terms of critical appraisal and awards. Because of that, studios and the talents hired by them are often placed above certain moral expectations, and this is why Hollywood is often criticized for its lack of morality. The problem is that generalization really only applies to a select few people who have been highly visible due to the scandals that they’ve been involved. Hollywood scandals aren’t always, or even often, based upon a genuine interest in ethics. Many times scandals are concocted in order to bring down talented people. The motivations vary and range from professional jealousy to sexism and racism, from resentment over contracts to creative disputes, from personal grudges to political retaliation. And these Hollywood scandals are in no way new. They are just more widespread and quickly disseminated in the digital age.
When the silent film era was at its strongest in the late 1910s and into the early 1920s, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was falsely accused of raping Virginia Rappe. One of Rappe’s friends spread rumours about him raping her with an icicle and that her death was the result of Arbuckle’s weight on top of her. The doctor performing the autopsy denied there being any truth to these claims. Numerous witnesses countered the claims with their version of events where Arbuckle applied ice to her stomach while she was in pain. We know now that Rappe was suffering from medical complications arising from her alcohol consumption and peritonitis and that Arbuckle was trying to help her. The blatant lies that Rappe told were planned in an attempt extort money from Arbuckle. It ruined his career. Clara Bow also suffered similar treatment by the press. They were all fabricated for the sake of ruining her career. Some things don’t change.
Disney and Marvel came under a lot of fire when they severed ties with Gunn. This was because they knew about Gunn’s controversial tweets before they hired and then only fired him after they became well-known. That did nothing to give them any claims of taking the moral higher ground. Now they are receiving criticism from some people, most notable among them conservative actor James Woods, for having hired Gunn back. In my last write-up on this issue, I pointed out that Gunn probably should never have been hired based on his earlier social media presence and Disney‘s self-proclaimed values system, but given that the studios knew about his past and what he had said, firing him after the fact to save face was just hypocritical and facile. Now it appears all the more so since they have hired him back after Gunn’s six-month absence on social media. Interestingly, it’s been suggested by a number of sources that Marvel never really considered any other directors to replace Gunn, which may indicate that his firing to begin with was just a PR move. Whether it was always intended that he direct the film, even in the face of the backlash, it’s hard to say because the decision process has not been very transparent. What we do know is that James Gunn virtually disappeared from social media, ceasing to post on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, until March 15, 2019. Then on that day, he posted a statement, one which sent fans into a frenzy, announcing that the decision had been reversed and that he would indeed be returning to direct the third GotG film.
WARNING: POSSIBLE MCU FILM SPOILERS AHEAD!
This announcement came at an interesting time for Marvel. Stan Lee, the godfather of Marvel Comics and the co-creator of hundreds of their characters, had passed away on November 12, 2018. On February 7, 2019, Oreo the raccoon, who was the model for the character of Rocket Raccoon in the GotG films died. Then on March 20, 2019, five days after the announcement, Disney bought 20th Century Fox in a massive acquisition, which grants Disney, and therefore Marvel Studios, the rights to many of Marvel Comics‘ most popular characters including the X-Men, X-Force, Deadpool (and all mutants in general), the Fantastic Four, Doctor Doom, the Silver Surfer, and Galactus. The latter four of these is particularly relevant at this time as the characters are a central to the cosmic mythology being developed on film.
And one week before the announcement that Gunn was returning, Captain Marvel, the first MCU film of 2019 opened to major box office and relatively positive reviews from critics. That film also expanded the Marvel Cinematic Universe‘s cosmic film series, which had consisted primarily of The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Thor: Ragnarok, and Avengers: Infinity War. In fact, Captain Marvel is the first cosmic film that wasn’t a sequel since the first Guardians film in 2014, and it’s also an extremely integral film in that it introduces the Skrulls, a species of shape-shifting extra-terrestrials who play an important part in Marvel Comics‘ Secret War story line. The film also retroactively introduces a couple of characters that were featured more prominently in that first Guardians film. The cosmic side of the MCU just grew significantly. Given that it was Gunn who really got that ball rolling and did the most to develop the cosmic mythology in these films, and given that he had been working closely with Kevin Feige in overseeing the expansion of that narrative universe, it would make sense that he be part of the group of people that would help to creatively decide the future of that cosmic mythology. Though the early MCU films introduced the Infinity Stones, it was in Guardians of the Galaxy that they were well and truly explained for the first time, and it was in that franchise that we really got our first true sense of who Thanos the Mad Titan really was. It is in those films that we are introduced to the Collector, to the Kree, to the Nova Corps, to the Watchers, and to the Celestials. Gunn also introduced Ronan the Accuser and Korath who, as mentioned above, would feature in Captain Marvel five whole years later. Fans were even give a cryptic line referencing the cosmic entity Eternity in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. For any Marvel Comics fan, these are key words (or names), and we know that these are all essential species, cultures, characters, and objects within that fictional universe. They hint at what will be coming down the pipeline in future MCU films. Thanks to Gunn we know we can expect big things from this ever-growing franchise, and it’s simply too logical that he should oversee it all.
Now that Gunn is returning to direct from his own screenplay, he will be able to oversee the finale to the GotG trilogy in the way he initially intended and that means giving fans closure, while also fulfilling the promises of upcoming stories and characters that were hinted at in previous installments. So much of what the first film set up was paid off in the epic MCU crossover event film, Avengers: Infinity War, where the egomaniacal Thanos wiped out half of the universe, including all the Guardians except Rocket Raccoon and Nebula. From a storytelling perspective, this is exciting because it means that the third film will be able to focus almost entirely on paying off the characters’ stories, and it won’t be burdened by having to set up other films, plots, and characters.
This is also really a happy ending for Gunn (if indeed it is an ending) because it mirrors the arc of his characters. The Guardians themselves are a ragtag group of scoundrels, thieves, jerks, assholes, and doofuses by Gunn’s own description. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, these damaged individuals bond under unusual circumstances and unite to pursue a cause that is larger than themselves. Whether they’re sexist, racist, dishonest, too literal-minded, emotionally volatile, arrogant, immature, or insecure –and at various points through the films, all of the Guardians display all of these traits, which makes them both relatable and frustrating– the Guardians aren’t your typical heroes. In this sense they are not so different from their director. Gunn’s brilliance and creativity as a storyteller is marred by his own character flaws. The evolution and redemption of these characters as they form their own unique family dynamic and work together for the greater good, while retaining their dysfunctional attributes and attitude, is part of what makes them lovable and fun to watch. One could draw analogous parallels between Peter Quill/Star-Lord and Gunn. They both are occasionally shallow, sexist, immature, and offensive in their attempts to create humour, but their underlying aim of that humour was to either seek attention due to a sense of loneliness or to make a connection to counter their own sense of dissociation from others. To understand and appreciate this, a certain degree of empathy must be offered, both to the characters and to Gunn. Second chances are rare. We tend to judge others and condemn them rather than give them the chance to grow and change. Gunn’s controversial tweets were not stupid and upsetting, but they were not so destructive that he deserves to have his career cancelled and his life upturned, and this is a good sign that people are capable of recognizing this. We have to hold out some hope that we are all more than what we were and that we can all be more than what we currently are.
I’ve always said that we shouldn’t hold people up to impossible expectations. You put someone on a pedestal and you make it easier for them to piss on you and tell you that it’s raining. You put yourself on a pedestal and you’ve just raised yourself high enough for others to cast their stones at you. Heroes aren’t real. They are idealized and simplified figures that embody characteristics we aspire to and we can learn from them. It is the constant process of error and rectification, of corruption and redemption, of making mistakes and being held accountable for them that defines us. We’re not perfect and we never will be. We won’t ever walk among infallible heroes; just among our fellow flawed humans. The best we can hope for is that we are cognizant of our faults and that we work to improve ourselves. Our aspirations for self-improvement, individually and collectively, is heroic. This is why the Guardians are great. They know that they’re a bunch of jerks and a-holes. But they strive to be more than that. They are us.
This is also a triumph for the cast of the GotG films who rallied around Gunn after he was let go and championed his virtues as both a filmmaker and as a person. What it means is that we will indeed see the return of the principal cast in the third film and their stories will be properly wrapped up. Of course, in the meantime, the Guardians characters appeared in Avengers: Infinity War, and will appear again in Avengers: Endgame, but how much will these characters and their stories be impacted by the events of those two crossover films? In the first of those two films, Chris Pratt‘s Peter Quill/Star-Lord, Dave Bautistsa‘s Drax the Destroyer, and Vin Diesel‘s Groot were all turned into ash by Josh Brolin‘s Thanos the Mad Titan, who had succeeded in gathering all the Infinity Stones which granted him the power to destroy half the living sentient creatures in the universe. Along the way, Zoe Saldana‘s Gamora was sacrificed by Thanos to acquire the Soul Stone, which based on the ending to that film may or may not have preserved her soul within the stone itself in what is called the Soul World. There are also unresolved character arcs, such as the evolving romance between Peter Quill and Gamora, Drax’s mission of revenge against Thanos, and the complex friendship between Rocket and Groot. Above all, there was a promise made at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, where the post-credit scene hinted at the appearance of fan favourite character Adam Warlock, who wasn’t seen on-screen (he was in a cocoon), but was name dropped with the implication that he would appear in the next installment of the franchise. In the comics, Adam Warlock plays a major part in the ongoing Infinity Saga (Infinity Revelation, Infinity Quest, Infinity Countdown, and Infinity Wars) of the comics, but he has been absent in the films thus far.
Now, it’s been known that James Gunn and Kevin Feige wanted to include other cosmic characters in the MCU, and in some cases they’ve been referenced, alluded to by name, or hinted at in post-credit cameos… like Adam Warlock, Cosmo the Spacedog, and Howard the Duck. What can we look forward to in future films? Well, quite a lot actually, and considering that Gunn himself is a huge comic book fan, his knowledge of these characters being impressive, we can assume that future films will get weird and freaky in the best way possible. In the immediate future, prior to the release of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 in either 2021 or 2022, I would not be surprised to see the introduction of the Fantastic Four or the Silver Surfer. After Gunn has wrapped up the GotG trilogy, I expect Galactus, the Watchers, Nova, and Eternity will all be prominent figures in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the next ten years. We also have sequels to Doctor Strange and Captain Marvel to look forward to, as well as the first film of The Eternals franchise, which will also substantially build upon the cosmic mythology.