Chandler Edwards began his petition by downplaying expectations. "I'm smart enough to know this most likely won't change anything," he acknowledged right at the top of a Change.org page calling for Disney to reinstate James Gunn as director of the next Guardians of the Galaxy movie. And you can hardly blame him for the pre-emptive humility; here was a freelance photographer from Scotland with 142 Twitter followers going up against the biggest entertainment conglomerate in the world. More than anything, the petition started out as an experiment.
"I just felt that the decision that Disney made was just an awful decision that would affect a lot of people in a bad way, not just James Gunn," Edwards tells SYFY WIRE. "And I wanted to see if people agreed with me or if it was just me thinking this way."
More than 355,000 signatures and a swell of high-profile endorsements later, it's fair to say that Edwards was definitely not alone, and that he very much underestimated the potential of his campaign.
Gunn, whose first two Guardians movies turned an obscure Marvel team into an A-list franchise, was fired from the third movie in mid-July amid an internet firestorm. Disney pulled the plug on his involvement with Marvel Studios just hours after a handful of tasteless tweets he made from 2008 to 2012 were resurfaced by far-right provocateur Mike Cernovich. But instead of earning applause for the decision, the company faced immediate blowback, from both fans of Gunn's movies and the large segment of the internet that reviles Cernovich for his history of piggish and hateful rhetoric.
Edwards' petition was one of several to be launched in the wake of the firing; thanks to both his blunt language and timely retweets from filmmakers such as Joe Carnahan and many film bloggers, his simple plea went viral in a matter of days. Disney has remained mum on the matter, and in the absence of any comment, a treasure trove of very disgusting and very false accusations against Gunn have littered the internet, compounding the issue.
"The obvious hope is to get him back, but I think realistically I would at least like a new statement by Disney," he says. "Since it's come out, a lot of trolls have made false reports about James Gunn doing horrible things, which aren't true. I think Disney should at least, if they're not going to bring him back, at least release a statement saying they do support him in a way and these reports are false and give some credit to him."
Cernovich and other far-right bloggers have a long history of taking tweets out of context to link more liberal-leaning celebrities with pedophilia. Shortly after the tweets surfaced, Jack Posobiec started a hashtag to promote the false idea that Gunn was a pedophile, prompting Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) to call for his prosecution. But Gunn's tweets were nearly a decade old and written in jest (even if the jokes didn't exactly land). In 2012, Gunn addressed other controversial "jokes" he made before he was hired by Marvel to launch the Guardians franchise.
"I think Disney would have done a background check, and once you hire someone, with all that information, you have to take responsibility," Edwards says. "If something comes up afterwards, that's not on you. But I feel like knowing what they knew, once this came out and people start talking about it again, I feel like Disney has some responsibility to stick up for him or admit they knew about this beforehand. I think it was very much just throwing someone the bus in under 12 hours just so you don't look bad."
That's the difference between the explosive Roseanne Barr situation and what happened with Gunn's tweets, he says. Barr's racist tweets — were written without a hint of irony — came in real time, while Gunn's were dug up from ancient internet history. While acknowledging he's a fan of Gunn's movies, Edwards thinks the ongoing controversy is bigger than any one filmmaker or franchise. The bigger issue, he says, is the precedent it will set for all creatives going forward. He's heartened to see that the entire main cast of Guardians of the Galaxy has come out in support of Gunn, but still worries about the long-term ramifications of this precedent.
"It's going to harm anybody that comes to work for Disney. They've got a merger with Fox coming soon and it means that now they've done it once, I'm sure every troll is going to look through every new director and actor's history and try and find something bad about them, and if they don't do anything about it, then they're hypocritical," Edwards says. "They say they have a zero-tolerance policy, but that's not true because they've had people there who had been accused of much worse and they didn't fire them."
Now that the cast of the movie is on the record in support of Gunn, Edwards expects at least some kind of statement. That said, he's holding his breath, unsure it'll do much good.
"The question is how big will the statement be and how truthful the statement will be," Edwards says. "Because the first one wasn't truthful at all."