Walt Disney Co. announced Friday that it was removing director James Gunn from the Marvel Studios sequel “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” after old tweets surfaced in which Gunn joked about such topics as rape, pedophilia, 9/11 and the Holocaust.
“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 Studios Chairman Alan Horn said in a statement.
Gunn co-wrote and directed the first two installments of the wildly successful outer-space superhero franchise, which together grossed more than $1.5 billion worldwide. He was expected to begin shooting the third film later this year.
Gunn’s offensive tweets, which dated from several years ago and have since been deleted, were unearthed by conservative commentators after Gunn, an outspoken opponent of President Trump, came to the defense of actor and filmmaker Mark Duplass, who became ensnared in his own Twitter imbroglio after encouraging liberals to consider following right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro.
In one of the unearthed tweets, Gunn wrote, “I like when little boys touch me in my silly place.” In another, he wrote, “The best thing about being raped is when you’re done being raped and it’s like ‘whew this feels great, not being raped!’”
On Thursday, Gunn, who has long been a prolific user of social media, took to Twitter to explain that he had evolved as a person in the years since writing those tweets.
“Many people who have followed my career know when I started, I viewed myself as a provocateur, making movies and telling jokes that were outrageous and taboo,” Gunn wrote, in part. “As I have discussed publicly many times, as I’ve developed as a person, so has my work and my humor…. I used to make a lot of offensive jokes. I don’t anymore.”
In a statement Friday after his firing, Gunn wrote, “I understand and accept the business decisions taken today…. 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.”
In some ways, the episode highlights the risks that studios like Disney may assume when they bring outside-the-mainstream filmmakers with provocative sensibilities onto high-stakes tentpole projects, although whether Disney had been aware of Gunn’s tweets before they surfaced this week is unclear at this point.
Indeed, before being hired to take the reins of the “Guardians” franchise, Gunn was best known for his work on edgy, small-scale fare such as the 2006 horror-comedy “Slither” and 2010’s dark superhero satire “Super.” When he was brought into the Marvel fold, it was hoped that Gunn would inject some of his skewed aesthetic into the big-budget comic-book realm.
Disney’s decision to cut ties with Gunn was announced in the midst of the Comic-Con gathering in San Diego, where Gunn had been expected to appear at a Sony Pictures panel Friday to tease an upcoming project. But after the news broke, Gunn bowed out of that appearance.
Gunn’s firing offers just the latest illustration of the speed and ferocity with which social media postings — particularly against the backdrop of today’s intense political polarization and heightened sensitivity in the wake of the #MeToo movement — can come back to haunt public figures.
In late May, executives at Disney and ABC cancelled the sitcom “Roseanne” after its star, Roseanne Barr, compared Valerie Jarrett, a former aide to President Obama, to an ape on Twitter.
In an earlier case of a filmmaker’s social media post dramatically colliding with the interests of a studio, in 2015, on the eve of the release of the ill-fated 20th Century Fox superhero film “The Fantastic Four,” director Josh Trank publicly disavowed the movie in a tweet that he quickly deleted, though not before it went viral.
While some conservatives cheered Gunn’s firing on social media, Shapiro himself criticized Disney’s decision, even as he got in his own jab at the director.
“I think @JamesGunn is an ..., as my exchange with him earlier this week made clear,” Shapiro tweeted, using an expletive. “I also think that firing him for vile old joke tweets is bad precedent and a mistake. There is no limiting principle to the outrage mob.”
Times staff writers Nardine Saad and Jen Yamato contributed to this report.