James Gunn and the Problem with Today’s Culture of Outrage

James Gunn got fired from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 on Friday. Bobby Miller has some things to say about that.

Let’s get a few things out of the way first. James Gunn is a filmmaker I have looked up to. Slither is one of the great horror comedies of all time and Guardians of the Galaxy is the only Marvel franchise I care about. In fact, the first time I watched Guardians I was deeply moved. I felt like one of “my guys” got through the system and somehow, miraculously, made a movie as offbeat and idiosyncratic as his previous works. It’s weird to say this about a person I’ve never met before. But I was proud of James Gunn.

When Guardians became a huge smash, the entire industry took note. You can make a giant superhero movie like this? One with a Jackson Pollock masturbation joke? Guardians not only felt fresh but literally changed the tone of superhero films from that point forward. It also proved properties like Ant-Man or Deadpool could be financially viable. It was a surprise juggernaut.

On Friday, Gunn was fired by Disney as director of the third Guardians movie because of jokes he made on Twitter … some almost 10 years ago. To further cloud things, the person who had targeted Gunn was Mike Cernovich, an alt-right conspiracy theorist. You may remember him as the guy who promoted the Pizzagate conspiracy theory. It posited that several high-ranking Democratic Party members were secretly staging an underground child-sex ring in 2016 in a pizza place in Washington, D.C. Things reached a fever pitch when a man walked into said pizza place with an AR-15 rifle to investigate. Luckily, no one was hurt.

I’m not going to defend Gunn’s tweets. I don’t need to. The jokes aren’t funny to me. But making an unfunny edgy joke is something that happens to the best of us. My dad and stepdad both died of cancer, and when a comedian makes a cancer joke, there’s a good chance I’m not laughing. But never have I been offended by it or felt that a comedian shouldn’t make those types of jokes. Or lose their job over it. Especially many years after the fact.

When news broke about James Gunn’s axing, social media was pretty quiet. There were a few people upset it was the result of a smear campaign by Mike Cernovich. But that was about it. And while it is upsetting that the instigator was an alt-right troll, that is not what most upsets me. What upsets me is the culture right now that has allowed this to happen and the deafening silence which followed his firing.

This current culture of outrage is what made me change my party affiliation from Democrat to “no party affiliation” last week. It’s not that I don’t connect with Democratic ideals anymore. Far from it. I just refuse to be a pawn of the culture wars. I’m pro-choice, believe in climate change, diversity and equal rights for all. But as an artist sometimes interested in exploring the darker side of things, I can’t stand for walking on eggshells my entire life. Some of the left’s scorched-earth moral outrage has cannibalized itself, and it was only a matter of time before a far-right conspiracy theorist nutball would weaponize that outrage and direct it back at us.

When James Gunn was given the responsibility of a huge franchise, I believe he took that very seriously. I believe he changed his behavior to handle that responsibility. James’ brother Sean summed it up on Twitter recently: ”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.”

As artists, we are often interested in the gray areas of life. And redemption stories. I hope that as human beings we make sure that gray area is not just contained to works of fiction. That we speak up when our brothers and sisters are unfairly blacklisted in this cultural moment. I’ll end with a passage from Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. It’s a refreshing thing to read in a world where everyone is upset about everything.

“I favor humans over ideology, but right now the ideologues are winning, and they’re creating a stage for constant artificial high dramas, where everyone is either a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. We can lead good, ethical lives, but some bad phraseology in a Tweet can overwhelm it all  —  even though we know that’s not how we should define our fellow humans. What’s true about our fellow humans is that we are clever and stupid. We are gray areas. And so … when you see an unfair or an ambiguous shaming unfold, speak up on behalf of the shamed person. A babble of opposing voices  — that’s democracy. The great thing about social media was how it gave a voice to voiceless people. Let’s not turn it into a world where the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless.”  —  Jon Ronson (2015)

Image by Gage Skidmore (via Flickr)

Bobby Miller is a filmmaker known for making genre-bending comedies. His short film Tub and feature debut The Cleanse add horror, fantasy, and little creatures to the mix. The films world premiered at Sundance and SXSW respectively. His new short “End Times” is currently screening at film festivals around the world.