Scarlett Johansson’s character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Natasha Romanoff or Black Widow, has been synonymous with the franchise ever since her first appearance in 2010’s Iron Man 2. Johansson has since then appeared in nine blockbuster films including, but not limited to, The Avengers, Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Endgame, which is the second-highest grossing film in the world. Johansson was last seen in Black Widow, a standalone film for the eponymous character, where she has also been credited as an Executive Producer and Production Designer.
Directed by Cate Shortland, Black Widow took place after the events of Captain America: Civil War. Natasha, who is a fugitive, goes back to her past as a trained assassin and spy, and on the way reconnects with her former ‘family.’ Black Widow was released on July 9 in theatres in most countries (the film has not been released in India yet) as well as on Disney+ simultaneously. According to this hybrid model, viewers could either watch the films in theatres or pay $30 to watch it via Disney+ ‘Premier Access.’ This decision, according to the studio, had been due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Post it’s release, Black Widow set a box-office record for being the biggest opener since the pandemic. According to a statement released by Marvel Studios’ parent company Disney, the film had grossed $218 million in the first weekend. However, the box-office revenue dropped drastically after that.
Now, Johansson is suing Disney over alleged breach of contract. According to the lawsuit, Johansson was promised a theatrical release for Black Widow. As an Executive Producer and the star of the film, Johansson’s income was also linked to the film’s box office success. However, by releasing the film in both theatres and on Disney+, the company has prevented Johansson from her deserved compensation. “Disney intentionally induced Marvel’s breach of the agreement, without justification, in order to prevent Ms. Johansson from realizing the full benefit of her bargain with Marvel," the suit, in part, read.
After the news of her lawsuit broke, Disney released a statement saying the lawsuit has ‘no merit.’ “The lawsuit is especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Disney has fully complied with Ms. Johansson’s contract and furthermore, the release of Black Widow on Disney+ with Premier Access has significantly enhanced her ability to earn additional compensation on top of the $20M she has received to date,” the statement read.
However, this statement did not go down well with many organisations in the industry, including The Time’s Up, ReFrame, and Women in Film, which released statements categorising Disney’s statement as a gendered attack and character assasination. Johansson’s agent and Creative Arts Agency Co-chairman Bryan Lourd also released his own statement criticising Disney for their words.
An excerpt of the statement read, “I want to address the Walt Disney Company’s statement that was issued in response to the lawsuit filed against them yesterday by our client Scarlett Johansson. They have shamelessly and falsely accused Ms. Johansson of being insensitive to the global COVID pandemic, in an attempt to make her appear to be someone they and I know she isn’t.” He further criticised Disney for revealing her $20 million salary for the superhero movie “in an attempt to weaponize her success as an artist and a businesswoman.”
Johansson has been a top trend on social media for this past week, not only because of the lawsuit but also for the obvious silence of her MCU co-stars. While many of her co-stars from the last decade are still going to appear in future Marvel projects, actors like Robert Downey Jr and Chris Evans have already retired from the franchise. Fans on Twitter have demanded to know the reason behind this strategic silence about the development.
This is not the first time the hybrid model of film released has been criticised. When Warner Bros, the rival company of Disney announced that they will simultaneously release all their films in theatres and HBO Max, many filmmakers were unhappy. Christopher Nolan, Aaron Sorkin, Dennis Villanueve, Patty Jenkins and Judd Apatow were among filmmakers who criticised the move.
In fact, Warner Bros reached a settlement with their artists and directors. They had to reportedly pay $200 million in damages to artists like Jenkins, Gal Gadot and Will Smith for releasing their films on HBO Max. The Studios has reportedly also paid directors and stars of upcoming films as well.
However, Johansson’s lawsuit in itself is a milestone moment for the film industry. Her lawsuit has reportedly inspired other actors to also go in a similar direction. Emma Stone, whose recent Disney film Cruella was also released in a hybrid model, is considering her options to file a lawsuit against the Studios. Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnsson, whose film Jungle Cruise was also released recently, are reportedly, too, considering a lawsuit of their own. If these reports turn out to be true, it will be pivotal in moving Disney and other studios to consider changes in their policy.
After Johansson’s lawsuit, news broke that British actor Gerard Butler has sued the producers of his 2013 film Olympus Has Fallen for $10 million. Butler has filed a suit against Nu Image, Millennium and Padre Nuestro Productions, stating that they made millions of dollars in profits but failed to pay Butler a single penny out of it, which they were contractually obligated to do. The timing is interesting, as the fourth part of the film, Night Has Fallen in currently under production.
It will be interesting to see if other actors and directors follow suit. Whether or not Johansson gets any support from her colleagues is another burning question here. On the other hand, it will also be noteworthy how Marvel deals with questions about the lawsuit while promoting its upcoming line-up of films and shows, including What If and Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.