Marvel has not been in this state of upheaval since Edgar Wright bailed on Ant-Man just weeks before it was set to begin production. Ironically, it is how well Marvel handled that director drama that had everyone, including me, assuming they would not miss a beat in replacing James Gunn after he was ousted over old tweets. After all, they replaced Wright on extremely short notice and still met Ant-Man’s declared release date. Why would they struggle to replace Gunn with MONTHS to spare? Well, to everyone’s shock, late Friday word got out that Marvel isn’t just missing a beat, they’re missing several beats, maybe even the whole symphony, when it comes to keeping Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 on track. They’ve put the production on hold in order to “regroup”.

On the surface this looks like not-unheard-of franchise shuffling. (Another, though comparatively minor, surprise is that Bond 25 might actually be pushed back a year, to 2020, in order to accommodate the director hunt after Danny Boyle dropped out.) Though Marvel has previously declared an intent to use Gunn’s script for GOTG3—after all, it was not creative differences that got him sacked—it just doesn’t seem likely an established director would want to take on someone else’s creative vision, and so it may be necessary to give the new director time to rewrite/reconceive the project. Marvel has announced a slate of future release dates, but breaking from their precedent, they have not named specific movies to specific dates. They had GOTG3 projected for 2020, but since they never confirmed a specific release date, they have slightly less egg on their face. They can just slot something else into that frame.

But will they? Marvel is SALTY AS F*CK about what happened with Gunn. Kevin Feige is not a rebel, so he is not going to go against his parent company when the brass is lined up against him. But he is still the same guy that engineered a divorce from Ike Perlmutter and Marvel HQ in New York when their creative committee got in his way one too many times (and it’s no coincidence their movies got a lot bolder and more interesting after that separation). So we’re dealing with a guy who knows the game as well as anyone in town, is not into throwing fouls on court, but will induce YOU to foul out through sneaky subterfuge. And that guy is now upset about interference in HIS domain, which extends a little further than just movies.

James Gunn was not just directing a movie for Marvel. He was contributing footage, scheduled to be shot during production, for a theme park attraction for Epcot. (They did this previously for the Mission Breakout ride at Disneyland.) In theory, Disney can get some hired gun to come in and shoot the needed material, but Gunn was a key creative contributor to the Disney parks as they add new Marvel-themed attractions (the Guardians are among the few character rights Disney retains for such things). So canning Gunn might be screwing with their theme park plans.

But wait, there’s more! Because GOTG3 was a sure-fire billion dollars in the bank. The way that franchise has been growing, and coming off Avengers 4, there is no reason to assume it wouldn’t be that big of an earner. And by taking it off the release calendar, Marvel might be dinging Disney’s bottom line. At the very least, they don’t have a comparable franchise they can launch into production within the next six months, so if they do step up something like Doctor Strange 2, it will make money, but it won’t make THAT kind of money. But what if they just don’t release ANYTHING on that date? What if Marvel just releases two movies in 2020? Disney relies on them releasing three movies a year, but in 2020, maybe Marvel just releases two. Now they’ve really put a dent in Disney’s bottom line. 

And what if they just outright cancel GOTG3? What if they decide they just don’t want to make it without Gunn, as the cast is already on record saying? The actors have options in their contracts, sure, but they could just easily use them by putting the actors in different movies. For instance, they could pivot to an Adam Warlock movie (a popular character teased at the end of GOTG2). Or they could make a Guardians/Thor cross-over. The Hollywood Reporter notes that Taika Waititi has recently met with Marvel, and I know if they could get him back for Thor 4, they’d take him in a heartbeat. Maybe letting him play with the Guardians, too, sweetens the deal. Or the Guardians could team up with Captain Marvel—Rocket and Carol Danvers are space pals in the comics. 

The point is, they don’t HAVE to make GOTG3. And going along with the brass’s decision not to rehire Gunn and then cancelling the movie altogether seems like something Kevin Feige would do. It’s a solution to the problem of making a movie the actors no longer want to make while side-stepping all the public mess of replacing Gunn, with the bonus of disrupting Disney’s larger operations, at least for a while. It could just be a case of taking the time to right the ship after Gunn’s messy exit, but it also seems an awful lot like a warning shot to Disney: You take away our toys, and we’ll take away yours.