A petition asking the Walt Disney Co. to rehire Guardians of the Galaxy filmmaker James Gunn crossed 215,000 signatures Monday morning and was surging toward a quarter-million by midday as public opinion appeared to shift back in favor of the embattled director.
Gunn was fired by Disney on Friday after he was targeted with a shame campaign by thousands of followers of two far-right bloggers, who bombarded the entertainment company’s social media accounts with a collection of tasteless tweets sent out by the filmmaker several years before he signed on to the Marvel Studios franchise.
A Disney spokesperson declined to comment further about the petition on Monday.
It began to gain attention Saturday, after being shared by The Grey filmmaker Joe Carnahan. At that point, it had about 5,000 signatures. A day later it had 100,000. Momentum seemed to only be increasing as it approached a new goal of 300,000 on Monday.
Initially, there was a wave of public shock and disgust for the tweets, which included jokes about rape and molestation, most of them posted between 2008 and 2011. As the content was examined further, supporters of Gunn gradually began to step forward to say he was being unfairly maligned.
Among the most prominent defenders was Dave Bautista, who stars in the Guardians films as alien warrior Drax the Destroyer (ironically, a character who takes all jokes at face value). Bautista highlighted that the criticism of Gunn was driven by figures he dubbed “cybernazis,” since some of the leaders of the anti-Gunn crusade have ties to the alt-right white supremacist movement and have a history of attacking famous people who, like Gunn, have been critical of President Donald Trump.
Others began comparing Gunn’s old tweets to the similar genre of taboo “cringe” comedy found in the Deadpool movies or Family Guy, both of which will soon be owned by Disney as part of its bid for Fox Entertainment.
Among Gunn’s offensive jokes were lines like, “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 classic children’s book The Giving Tree, but changing it so that the tree performs a sex act on its human companion. There were numerous jokes about molestation and sexual abuse that were meant to startle a laugh, but now seem merely repellent.
One of them was a reference to a hoax viral video of a predatory bird carrying away a child. “‘Eagle snatches kid’ is what I call it when I get lucky,” Gunn tweeted.
A defender of the director noted that similarly shocking rape and pedophilia jokes were made in the Broadway musical Book of Mormon, which had music co-written by one of the songwriters who received an Oscar for Frozen. As evidence, he linked to the show’s dark spoof of The Lion King tune “Hakuna Matata.”
Gunn himself did not defend his old jokes, instead issuing a public apology. “My words of nearly a decade ago were, at the time, totally failed and unfortunate efforts to be provocative,” Gunn 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.”
While most tweets that turned up under a “James Gunn” Twitter search Monday were supportive of him, some Marvel fans who weren’t necessarily calling for Gunn’s career to end still acknowledged they thought Disney made a necessary decision.
One of Gunn’s more inexplicable jokes actually took on a different appearance for many after internet sleuths began researching its meaning and background. A screenshot from Gunn’s blog in 2010 featured the seemingly horrifying headline: “Video: 100 pubescent girls touch themselves” followed by a link. But the link to you to this 2008 video of an all-female choir singing a choral version of the 1990 Divinyls pop song “I Touch Myself” (the joke apparently being that “pubescent girls” is a pervy-sounding euphemism for an otherwise safe-for-work video).
Bobcat Goldthwait posted in defense of Gunn today by pointing out that making R-rated jokes for adults shouldn’t disqualify someone from also making entertainment aimed at kids and families.
Public perception of the scandal also began to evolve when people like Bautista and Goldthwait pointed out that the source of the criticism was apparently politically motivated.
For months, Gunn has been tweeting harsh criticism of Trump, which apparently invoked the ire of a pair of pro-Trump activists who have previously tried to ruin the careers of comedians, filmmakers, and journalists who have become prominent critics of the president.
The screenshots from Gunn’s social media accounts were collected and shared by activist Mike Cernovich to his 428,000 followers and Jack Posobiec, who has 349,000 followers. From there, thousands of their supporters tweeted about the filmmaker’s offensive jokes and got the topic trending, which within hours led to Disney firing the director from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.
After Gunn’s firing, Cernovich and his followers began launching attacks over similar shock jokes from comedians Sarah Silverman, Patton Oswalt, and Michael Ian Black.
Silverman voices the character Vanellope in the Wreck-It Ralph movies, and Oswalt is the voice of Reme the cooking rodent in Pixar’s Ratatouille.
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.”
Posobiec has been described by the SPLC as “the head of a disinformation campaign intended to paint the anti-Trump rallies as ‘violent and out of control.’”
Both men had a hand in the firing of MSNBC contributor Sam Seder last year when they launched a similar barrage against him, using a 2009 tweet he sent mocking defenders of director Roman Polanski, who fled the United States in 1978 before being sentenced for statutory rape. When Polanski was fighting extradition from Switzerland in 2009, Seder tweeted: “Don’t care re Polanski, but I hope if my daughter is ever raped it is by an older truly talented man w/a great sense of mise en scene.”
“I wrote that tweet out of disgust with those who were excusing or were seeking to advocate forgiveness for Polanski’s actions which caused him to flee the U.S.,” Seder told CNN. “I was appalled that anyone would diminish the seriousness of rape, particularly of a child by citing the perpetrator’s artistic contributions. Obviously, I would not wish any harm of my daughter or any other person.”
MSNBC promptly fired Seder, but once the obvious sarcasm of the tweet began to shift public opinion, the news network rehired the Majority Report podcast host. In a statement announcing Seder’s return, MSNBC president Phil Griffin said: “Sometimes you just get one wrong — and that’s what happened here.”
Whether the same thing could happen with Disney and Gunn is impossible to tell at this point in the fast-evolving situation. For one, Gunn had a larger volume of vulgar tweets compared to Seder’s single remark.
The stakes are higher for Disney as a massive, family-friendly media company trapped in a tug of war between a filmmaker’s indefensible shock-jokes and a mobilized group of far-right extremists who have now found a leverage point.