Here comes the backlash to the backlash.

Thousands have signed an online petition for the Walt Disney Co. to rehire Guardians of the Galaxy writer and director James Gunn after he was fired from the third film in the series Friday.

Gunn had been targeted for criticism by figures connected to a far-right fringe movement, who began highlighting a series of offensive shock-jokes Gunn made, some more than a decade old, on Twitter and his blog.

Fellow director Joe Carnahan (The Grey, Smokin’ Aces) shared the petition on Twitter, where it had collected more than 5,000 signatures as of Saturday afternoon. By early evening, it had risen to nearly 16,000.

By Sunday morning, the total had climbed to 51,000.

Gunn has lately used his social media platform to deliver scathing criticism of Donald Trump, which apparently captured the attention of controversial right-wing activist Mike Cernovich, who encouraged his followers to bombard Disney and Marvel accounts with screenshots of perverse jokes about molestation and other taboo subjects that Gunn had made over the years.

Disney responded within hours by announcing it had fired Gunn.

“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,” Walt Disney Company Chairman Alan Horn said in a statement Friday afternoon.

Most of the tweets have since been deleted, and most can’t be reprinted here, but Cernovich and his followers posted screenshots of the bad-taste jokes, such as, “Laughter is the best medicine. That’s why I laugh at people with AIDS.”

Gunn had also joked about directing a movie version of the beloved children’s book The Giving Tree in which the tree performs a sex act on its human companion.

Gunn issued a statement after he was fired, apologizing for the old tweets and jokes. “My words of nearly a decade ago were, at the time, totally failed and unfortunate efforts to be provocative,” he said. “I have regretted them for many years since — not just because they were stupid, not at all funny, wildly insensitive, and certainly not provocative like I had hoped, but also because they don’t reflect the person I am today or have been for some time.”

He continued: “Regardless of how much time has passed, I understand and accept the business decisions taken today. Even these many years later, I take full responsibility for the way I conducted myself then. All I can do now, beyond offering my sincere and heartfelt regret, is to be the best human being I can be: accepting, understanding, committed to equality, and far more thoughtful about my public statements and my obligations to our public discourse. To everyone inside my industry and beyond, I again offer my deepest apologies. Love to all.”

Gunn had already apologized for many of these remarks back in 2012, as some of his supporters tried to emphasize. (CLARIFICATION: Gunn’s apology was for certain similar profane jokes, but not specifically the ones highlighted for criticism last week.)

As the petition to reinstate Gunn gathered signatures, Cernovich used his Twitter account to shift to new targets, retweeting molestation jokes by comedians such as Sarah Silverman, Michael Ian Black, and Patton Oswalt.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks the activity of extremist groups, describes Cernovich as a “male supremacist” and “one of America’s most visible right-wing provocateurs, known for boosting or generating massively successful conspiracy theories like #Pizzagate. He made his career on trolling the liberal establishment by accusing people of pedophilia or child sex trafficking.”

Some of those now being targeted by Cernovich had tried to alert their own followers about who was leading the attack on Gunn, highlighting Cernovich’s own history of disturbing statements.

Marvel Studios and most of the stars of its films have been silent on the situation, but Dave Bautista, who plays the deadpan warrior Drax in the Guardians movies, spoke out against Gunn’s dismissal.

The drama played out against the backdrop of San Diego Comic-Con, the biggest gathering of genre fans in the world, where Gunn was scheduled to appear Friday to reveal details of a new horror film. On Saturday night, the makers of Deadpool 2 were set to unveil the unrated “Super Duper $@%!#& Cut” of the film, which is notorious for its own litany of brazenly offensive jokes about molestation, sexual abuse, and similar out-of-bounds topics.

Deadpool is based on a Marvel Comics character but has no affiliation with Gunn or Marvel Studios. Still, Disney is set to acquire all Fox Entertainment assets, which means the obscene humor of this franchise will soon belong to a company that just fired a filmmaker for similar gross-out humor.

Gunn’s brother, Sean Gunn, who costars in the Guardians films as the space pirate Kraglin and does the on-set physical performance of Rocket Raccoon, tweeted out a heartfelt defense of his sibling, characterizing James’ earlier shock humor as something the filmmaker had repeatedly explained and apologized for.

The 10-point Tweet thread went on: “Since he was a kid, it was clear he had a desire (maybe destiny) to be an artist, tell stories, find his voice through comics, films, his band. The struggle to find that voice was sometimes clunky, misguided, or downright stupid, and sometimes wonderful, moving, and hilarious.

“Since devoting his entire life to the Guardians movies and MCU six years ago, I’ve seen him channel that voice into his work on those movies and seen him transform from the guy who made up things to shock people.

“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. That his gift for storytelling was something better.

“I saw that he was more open-hearted than the guy who needed to get a rise out of people by making nasty or offensive jokes (or whatever you choose to call them–I don’t think his bluer material was ever his funniest and neither does Mom).

“In many respects this change in my brother was reflected in the change that the Guardians go through. I’ve heard my brother say many times that when Quill rallies the team with ‘this is our chance to give a s—’–to care–that it’s the pep talk he himself needed to hear.

“It’s part of what made working on the Guardians movies such a rewarding experience for the cast, myself included. We managed to find ourselves involved in a big-budget superhero movie that was, at its core, deeply personal. That’s a gift. And that’s why it’s good.

“This isn’t new information, by the way. It’s all stuff that James has explained many times in interviews, in more detail and more eloquently. It’s not some new spin. It’s always been part of the story.

“So I guess my hope is that fans continue to watch and appreciate the Guardians movies, not despite the fact that the filmmaker used to be kind of a jackass, but because of it. They are, after all, movies about discovering your best self.”

Sean Gunn concluded, “Working on those movies made my brother a better person, and they made me one too. I’m proud of that. Peace.”

Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Movie
  • 122 minutes