It started with the IRON FIST Panel Thursday evening at San Diego Comic Con (SDCC). By noon local time Friday, the controversies had doubled. Finally, a third error was added in exactly the same place and with exactly the same man it all started with on Thursday. In other words, it was a difficult 24 hours in the life of Marvel Studios’ public relations.

Loeb- Featured Image
Jeph Loeb got the ball rolling the public relations errors in this outfit Thursday evening at SDCC. (Photo by @CharlesPulliam)

Loeb Thinks He Is Funny, Is Possibly Not

There is a scene in THE WEST WING where Chief of Staff Leo McGarry admonishes the other members of the President’s team, “We can’t put a forkful of waffles in our mouth without coughing up the ball.” I would not be surprised if someone at Marvel Television was not shouting a version of the same Thursday evening.

There are situations that you have to deal with, that are foisted upon you by outside sources or circumstances. Then there are the wounds you do to yourself, by making uninformed choices or silly comments. These are the unforced errors. If you don’t quite get what I mean, don’t worry. Jeph Loeb was nice enough to provide a real-world demonstration not once but twice in 24 hours.

Long known for a kind of goofy hucksterism at convention panels, Loeb decided that 2018 was the year he wanted to add sketch comedian to his repertoire. Wearing a gi and a headband inspired by KARATE KID, Loeb engaged in a scene with Jessica Henwick where she told him to remove it for being offensive. Somehow they managed to build a skit around the idea of the attire as being offensive and yet never got that, you know, people might find it offensive.

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Original Sin

If you still are not sure why the above stood out as a particularly bad choice, here is a quick summary.

First, IRON FIST was lambasted for whitewashing and racial insensitivity as soon as it was announced as a Netflix property. It reached a crescendo just prior to the show’s release and only died down when “wow this is a bad show,” takes outnumbered “this is racially problematic” takes after the release. While it was not a whitewash — Iron Fist has always been a white character — one can appreciate the outrage. White savior meets Asian appropriation, both longtime racially problematic story elements.

Netflix, Marvel, and Disney were all stuck between a rock and a hard place on the matter. Choose to make the character Asian and you stumble into “all Asian heroes know martial arts” territory. Don’t and remain with the White Savior/Appropriator issues. In the end, they chose the devil you know and more or less rode out the storm.

By this point, following DEFENDERS and an episode appearance in LUKE CAGE, Finn Jones has largely been accepted as Iron Fist. The anger had dissipated. So Loeb being an Asian appropriator on-stage, even as “humor,” is akin to intentionally re-kicking a hive a minute after the bees have finally calmed down from the first, arguably unavoidable kick.

Public Relations: Cebulski
Current Marvel Editor-in-Chief C.B. Cebulski arguably did nothing wrong at SDCC, but Jeph Loeb’s Asian appropriation pulled Cebulski’s public relations headaches back into the spotlight. (Photo by Masatoshi Okauchi/REX/Shutterstock)

When is a Pseudonym Something Far Worse

Second, we have the current editor-in-chief, C.B. Cebulski. Cebulski worked for Marvel for years, predominantly as a talent scout in foreign countries. He had a reputation for being interested in Asian culture. Unbeknownst to (some, most, all?) of Marvel was that during the same period an Asian writer Akira Yoshida did several comic projects, predominantly for the House of Ideas. Eventually, it came out that Cebulski and Yoshida were, in fact, one in the same.

This was a conflict of interest on multiple levels. There was a violation of the internal Marvel rules, the idea of misleading your coworkers, and the implications of presenting yourself as an individual of a different race for the specific intention of getting a job. Plenty have written about it with far more talent than I, I encourage you to seek them out.

Regardless of your feelings about Cebulski’s choices back then or his new job then, it is clear that the issue was mostly in the past. Press releases given, apologies issued, interviews granted. However, through Loeb’s act of Asian appropriation — however different in context or severity, — one cannot help but revisit this. Once again, a headache is resurrected through his ill-advised attempt at humor.

Public Relations: James Gunn
James Gunn’s firing Friday only added to Marvel Studios’ Public Relations’ issues despite thinking it would diminish them. (Courtesy of the Young Tribune)

A “Lawyer” Goes Tweet Hunting

Public relations issue number two hit Marvel Studios from the film side of things. Mike Cernovich, accused rapist and rape apologist, has developed a new hobby on Twitter as of late. He combs through the tweets — the older the better — of “Hollywood” critics of the President and collects the worst.

Then he tweets out screengrabs and says they prove the celebrity is a pedophile. Now, most people, himself included, do not really believe the celebrity is a pedophile. The goal, though, is to make enough noise that whatever corporate entity who employs said “Hollywood” type drops them. Think what happened to Roseanne but fake and not self-inflicted.

He set his sights on James Gunn — director of the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY films — and Friday afternoon, the studio buckled under what seemed very little pressure and fired Gunn. Another scalp for Cernovich and his mob.

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What is the Real Public Relations Issue Here?

The tweets were not the public relations problem, the firing was. See, if you could not tell from my introduction above, Cernovich is not a guy with the best reputation. He calls himself a lawyer but likely is not. He popularized Pizzagate, an entirely fabricated whole cloth tale of a child abduction ring run by the Democratic Party out of the basement of a pizza restaurant that had no basement. The man does not care about such things, he only cares about hurting people that he judges as being a threat to conservatives, Trump especially.

Acquiescing to him and his mob is not an act of good taste, it is cowardice in response to lies and bullying. He is like the Islamophobes who try to justify their hatred of Muslims by saying, “look how they treat women!” Then, a week later, they vote down a measure making it easier for women to get birth control or express public opposition to the idea women are discriminated against in corporate settings. They only care insofar as it helps them practice their form of hatred.

Cernovich is not crusading for victims, he is weaponizing old bad jokes.

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Déjà vu

Plus, we all already knew this stuff. And by all, I mean liberals, conservatives, Disney, Marvel, and the press. Go back six years and you will find a group of more left-leaning complaints leveled at Gunn for his past. Covering similar, if not the same, outrages, this group argued that Gunn was bad on women and LGBT people and, well, gross. They thought Gunn should not have an opportunity for a project as big as GUARDIANS as a result.

You will also more rightwing Tweeters pushback against what they were quick to label as a group without a sense of humor. They were jokes, these accounts argued, and he shouldn’t be punished for jokes. Plus, they were quick to add, First Amendment.

This is — their continued lack of understanding about the First Amendment aside — this movement so nakedly appalling. They have literally argued against themselves previously. They have not changed their mind about what is funny. No. They just know that they can use the Left’s hunger for moral purity and corporations’ fear of bad press against those institutions.

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Loeb At It Again

Finally, it was back to an SDCC panel for Loeb’s encore. Seemingly apropos of nothing and with a lack of awareness about the current climate surrounding gender identity, Loeb surveyed the audience for the CLOAK AND DAGGER panel. Then he told them all that there existed two gender identities: Cloak fans and Dagger fans.

He evidently did this after misgendering a fan in the audience. He was, I assume, trying to make light of the error. Maybe he was even doing it to take the spotlight off of the question asker a bit. I don’t know.

It is, by most counts, a fairly minor bad choice. But when, almost exactly 24 hours before, you upset people by making racial identity the basis of your bad joke opener? Making a bad gender identity joke a day later seems an almost willful display of cluelessness. It’s kind of like burning your arm by spilling some hot coffee on it and then immediately burning your tongue by taking a big gulp of it too. Just…why?

Especially because a quick apology, “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry. My vision is pretty bad and the lights up here make it worse. I really did not intend any harm,” was a far better and easier option.

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How Should Television Public Relations Handle Things?

When it comes to Loeb, that’s easy. Don’t do the dumb thing. Certainly don’t do it twice.

If you are asking post-doing the dumb thing, that’s harder. The temptation — and tendency lately — is to go the harshest most definitive route. I’m deeply uncomfortable with that idea. It feels like too much for the crime.

The public relations hack in me thinks the best thing to have done would have begun the moment Loeb left the stage at the IRON FIST panel. I would send him in front of the first media outlet I could find — preferably one big enough to overshadow geek publications like this one or Mary Sue but small enough not to make the story go mainstream — to have him apologize. After he reads the statement, quietly bench Loeb for the rest of the television panels with a “too busy” or “a bit under the weather” excuse. I think that’s the smart public relations move. I don’t know, however, if it is the right thing to do.

And Movies Public Relations?

Gunn is a lot harder to muddle through. The easy part is no, never give in to Cernovich or his ilk. They’re like blackmailers, they will not stop at demanding one payoff.

But should Gunn have been punished in some way at some point for those tweets? That is a harder nut for me to crack. As I said on Twitter, I don’t know what the statute of limitations should be on things we wrote, said, or tweeted years earlier. I do think there should be some kind of expiration date. But I don’t know if we should stop demanding action on statements 10 years old, five, two. Or should it be more about some kind of demonstration of improvement?

What Should People Be Recognized For?

Somewhere out there I know there is a position paper I wrote about the death penalty that I believe zero percent of now. I would hate receiving judgment for it. It is seventeen or so years past and I think I have actively opposed the death penalty enough since then to “prove” to myself that what I wrote is effectively dead. But perhaps others would feel differently. I do believe in change and I do believe in forgiveness though.

People should be recognized for changing, for improving. As a therapist, it is imperative that I do not hold people’s past acts against them because if I do I’ll never be able to help them. I can’t say humanity need act exactly the same, that judgment-free stance is not suited to just walking around.

But perhaps a version of it? Where we acknowledge past bad acts and weigh them against present good ones? Where we don’t see all bad choices as being automatic career enders? I think something like that makes sense. Otherwise, how can we ask anyone to evolve? To get better?

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Where To Go Now?

I have even less advice for Marvel Studios here. I think if I was working on public relations I would still ask Loeb to apologize for both. Admit the jokes were bad. Have him state definitively he had no malice while still acknowledging they were bad choices.

The public relations hack raises his head again when it comes to Gunn. It says you cannot walk back what has already been done. Bringing Gunn back to the GUARDIANS franchise would invite a press storm that would certainly make things far worse before they got better.

The side of me that hates the kinds of people who feign caring to harm others though? That side thinks Marvel and Disney should announce hiring him for something else. Perhaps something from an original script of his. Put it at their Miramax imprint. Or make him the shepherd of the X-MEN film universe they are about to acquire from Fox. It is not smart PR, but it is bold, defiant, and might be smart politics.

Neither of those, honestly, feel great to me though. Sometimes we make mistakes and we just have to lump them. Gunn is doing a version of that right now. Perhaps Marvel Studios just has to as well.

One Comment

  1. R.C.

    July 23, 2018 at 5:10 pm

    I’m amazed how quickly Cernovich, like him or not, got a good portion of famous Hollywood virtue signalling Democrats to defend Gunn’s tweets about having his way with children- and even babies! I’m surprised how gung ho you are about smack talking Cernovich and ‘PR problems’ rather than addressing the serious problem of pedophilia in your industry, but then again we shouldn’t be the least bit surprised.

    Reply

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