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.