It should be clear that there is indeed something wrong with our society when people make jokes about other people suffering the trauma of abuse and assault. That much should really be common sense. As of yesterday, July 20, 2018, acclaimed film director James Gunn was fired by Disney and Marvel Studios for a series of extremely controversial and offensive posts he made on social media back in 2007 and 2008. The director of such films as Slither, Super, and Marvel‘s Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has been known for his outlandish and innovative take on genre films, diving deep into horror, superheroes, and science fiction and fantasy films, subverting expectations, imbuing them with irreverent humour, and making otherwise obnoxious characters lovable. But now he may find himself a rogue in Hollywood after a conservative political commentator dug up posts he made from over ten years ago and exposed a dark side to the much-loved director’s past and personality. The firing of Gunn brings up a number of questions about accountability, about hypocrisy, about political correctness, about free speech, about the free market, about separating the artist and their art, and about the future of the highly successful Marvel Studios brand’s future.
To start things off, Marvel was purchased by Disney in 2009, about a year after the launch of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) with the 2008 films, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. These two films introduced a way of re-branding both Disney and Marvel, of sharing intellectual property between companies, and of creating a super-franchise comprised of smaller franchises revolving around popular characters and groups of characters. It was the birth of the cinematic universe, where characters from one franchise crossover with characters from another, and each cinematic installment builds upon the last and lays the foundation for the next. From a storytelling perspective, it was the film medium borrowing from the unique qualities of serialized narratives as found in comic books and graphic novels, and from a corporate perspective, it was a studio tapping into synergy in a way that had never been done before (or since really). However, creatively, aside from that first Iron Man film, most of the early MCU films failed to recapture the fun, intelligence, action, and character dynamism that made the comic books so special. Until The Avengers was released in 2012, that is, and changed everything. Since then, Marvel has exploded into one of the most innovative of studios, both creatively and commercially, making literally billions of dollars every year in ticket sales, home video releases, merchandising, and licensing deals.
This largely has to do with how it has taken lesser known characters, allowed lesser known genre and independent filmmakers who were passionate about them, reinvent them on screen. Jon Favreau, who directed Iron Man in 2008 and Iron Man 2 in 2010, and Joss Whedon, who directed The Avengers in 2012 and Avengers: Age of Ultron in 2015, were the creative spearheads behind most of the films that comprised Phase One and Phase Two of the MCU. But fans started to show some signs of superhero fatigue and critically a number of entries in the various franchises didn’t quite live up to the massive storm cloud of hype that grew around them. There were among these truly epic franchises a number of films that were consider by comic book fans, film critics, and industry economists, to have missed their mark. There were also films that surpassed expectations and radically altered not only the way these superhero films were being written, directed, and marketed, but also the creative direction that the whole MCU was moving in. Phase Two, overall, while relatively successful commercially, felt formulaic, predictable, and bland. Both Iron Man 3 and Avengers: Age of Ultron felt underwhelming and failed to live up to fans expectations of how hugely iconic characters would be treated. But in 2014, two films, one a sequel and one an origin story, shot the MCU to the very height of comic book movie adaptations.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, directed by brothers Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, took the Captain America character back to the basics, telling a nuanced, thrilling, and more grounded story than its predecessor Captain America: The First Avenger had. Creating a palpable amount of suspense, introducing a deeper level of political commentary, more meaningful character development, and a touch of the techno-thriller, the film had more in common with the first Iron Man film, and was the first truly great sequel of the MCU. While other sequels, such as Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, and Thor: The Dark World, had done reasonably well with critics and in terms of box office, The Winter Soldier captured the spirit of the characters and the comics while adapting them faithfully on-screen, embodying the potential of what superheroes could be on screen and what they could represent to a real world of moviegoers. The film raised the bar and set a new standard for sequels and made the “least favourite Avenger” the coolest, most honourable, and most relatable member of the superhero team. Cap was officially cool again.
While the Russos redefined what a Marvel sequel could and should be, James Gunn came onto the scene with Guardians of the Galaxy, a bizarre and unexpected film that combined buddy comedy film, heist film, science fiction film, fantasy film, and adventure film tropes into a truly revolutionary concoction that proved to be box office gold. The film was hailed by critics and audiences alike for its snappy dialogue, its beautifully colourful special effects, for its mixture of genres, and for its array of roguish and lovable characters. It was at once the MCU‘s greatest risk and biggest success. The film took a second-rate, maybe even third-rate, group of characters that almost no one was familiar with outside the most diehard of comic book fans, and elevated them to a-level star status, making both the cast and the characters themselves, an integral part of the MCU. This was in part due to casting against convention, hiring the chubby and charming Chris Pratt from the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation to be the handsome, muscle-bound, morally ambiguous, bed-hopping, smart-ass thief, Peter Quill, known as Star-Lord. Joining Pratt was Zoe Saldana as the green-skinned assassin, Gamora, Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel as a mercenary raccoon and walking, talking tree, Rocket and Groot respectively, and Dave Bautista as Drax, a vengeance obsessed hulk of tattooed muscle. The stars seemed as unlikely as the concept. Guardians of the Galaxy became one of the highest grossing films of its year and turned the direction of the MCU away from the standard superhero fare and aimed its sight to the cosmos. Science fiction and fantasy would be the underlying genres of the MCU‘s most creative period, Phase Three.
Aside from the brilliant performances from the cast, and the dazzling display of special effects, most of the credit for the success of the Guardians of the Galaxy went to the writer-director, James Gunn, whose visionary direction and witty dialogue turned the world of science-fantasy on its head in the best way possible. Having directed the gruesome horror comedy Slither in 2006, and the satirical vigilante film Super in 2010, his previous films had shown that Gunn was edgy and talented, and that his dark and nihilistic sense of humour would lend themselves well to genre films.
Subsequently, the Russos directed Captain America: Civil War in 2016, which not only saw divisions drawn among the Avengers, Iron Man and Captain America, leading to an all-out war, but also introduced both Spider-Man and the Black Panther to the MCU, expanding their superhero mythology. They followed that up with the third Avengers film, Avengers: Infinity War in 2018, which saw all of the major characters in the MCU unite together to face the cosmic threat of Thanos, whose presence had been growing since the very first Avengers film eight years earlier, and was the first culminating chapter of the MCU begun ten years earlier.
Gunn would then go onto direct the 2017 sequel Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and expand the cosmic mythology as well as reaffirm the Guardians characters as the iconic and irreverent upstarts in Marvel‘s pantheon. Along with the Russos, Gunn would become one of the most important creative voices behind the MCU, just under Kevin Feige, producer and President of Marvel Studios. The Russos would oversee Captain America and the Avengers in their next two films, and would help to steer the direction of the superhero characters, and Gunn would set the tone and visual style for the science fiction and fantasy worlds. It was a perfect formula for unprecedented success.
The MCU was moving in leaps and bounds. With each new franchise introduced, the sky seemed to be the limit, the creativity seemed to grow, the box office set new records, and fans rejoiced. The Russos with their Captain America and Avengers films, Gunn with the Guardians, Scott Derrickson with Doctor Strange released in 2016, Taika Waititi with Thor: Ragnarok released in 2017, Ryan Coogler with Black Panther released in 2018. Each new film introduced a host of new characters, new ideas, new themes, new narratives, and the possibility for countless new adventures.
On June 25, 2018, James Gunn posted across his social media platforms the cover page for his screenplay of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, which was due out in 2020, and described it as “Every bit of my heart.”
The Marvel Cinematic Universe was thriving and bringing new writers and directors from independent filmmaking in with each new installment, reintroducing and reinventing characters, redefining genres, and reinvigorating Hollywood. They seemed to be moving at full momentum, unstoppable, unsinkable, and untouchable. Everything seemed to be going according to plan.
Or so we all thought…