black widow

Scarlett Johansson v. Disney: Why Scarjo is Suing Disney Over Black Widow

Over the course of these past few days, Scarlett Johansson has locked horns with Disney in a legal dispute. Johansson claims that Disney breached her contract upon the release of Black Widow in both theaters and on their platform Disney +. The actress’ pursuit has prompted other Disney actresses (Cruella’s Emma Stone and Jungle Cruise’s Emily Blunt) to begin assessing their options as well. Why is this such big news though, and why should we care? Join us as we break down this legal dispute and delve into the greater discussion at hand.

Why is Scarlett Johansson suing Disney?

Covid-19 is responsible for a lot of setbacks in the film industry these days, as well as why movies are being released the way they are. Since the need to social distance made theatrical releases difficult, some companies (like Disney) have decided to release their movies on the streaming services they own. The issue between Scarlett Johansson and Disney lies here, with the way the film is initially distributed to viewers. Per Variety’s coverage of the matter, Johansson’s contract read that Black Widow would be guaranteed “a ‘wide theatrical release’…meaning [that] the film would be shown on at least 1,500 screens” (Variety, July 30th, 2021A). Now that snippet there implies that the movie was supposed to be shown on at least 1,500 movie theater screens, which does not technically include the vast multitude of screens that streaming platforms have access to. Additionally, Johansson’s legal team argues that the understanding was that Black Widow’s theatrical release was supposed to be exclusive, which would have implied that the movie would not hit other platforms until after 90 to 120 days have elapsed (Variety 2021A). Variety also cites that the actress’ team has on hand an email from Marvel Chief Counsel Dave Galluzzi, which appears to support the idea surrounding the theatrical exclusivity the film was supposed to receive. Galluzzi’s email also reads that any deviation from the original agreement would reopen the floor to discussion as Johansson’s deal is “‘based on a series of (very large) box office bonuses.’” (Variety, 2021A). 


Black Widow Movie Scene on Motorcycle

Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh in a scene from “Black Widow”

To wrap it up in a bow, Disney was supposed to renegotiate Scarlett Johansson’s contract with her so that she could be properly compensated for having her movie released on Disney +, which was not originally part of the deal to begin with. Paired with the notion that the Covid-19 crisis is still ongoing with the advent of the Delta Variant, theaters still aren’t hosting audiences at their fullest capacity, despite being open. This in short means that Scarlett Johansson’s payout would not be as generous as it ought to be, as the Galluzzi email mentions her deal is predominantly focused on box office bonuses. Johansson’s team estimates that Disney’s move “cost the actress $50 million in backend compensation” (Variety, 2021A). Granted, Scarlett Johansson did make $20 million from her part in Black Widow, but the problem is more intricate than that. The problem is how Disney has responded to the actress’ dissatisfaction. For a more detailed breakdown of Scarlett Johansson’s side of things, Variety’s article has much more information to offer.

What is Disney doing?

In response to Scarlett Johansson filing the lawsuit against them, the Walt Disney Company issued a statement that read, “‘There is no merit whatsoever to this filing…The lawsuit is especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.’” (Variety, July 29th, 2021B) Disney is also credited with providing how much they have already paid out to Johansson (which was the aforementioned $20 million). It is also worth noting that, at the time the article was written, Disney had not yet provided any information regarding a renegotiation of any kind regarding their deal with the Black Widow star (Variety, 2021B). For a more detailed and in-depth description, here’s Variety’s coverage of Disney’s response.

The main takeaway from Disney’s response is that they aren’t having it. According to the first article cited from Variety, the corporation appears to believe that it has done Johansson no wrong. In fact, Disney claims that they have upheld their end of the contract in terms of Black Widow getting a wide theatrical release. They seem to be making the semantic argument, saying that the fine print doesn’t necessitate an exclusive release in theaters alone (Variety, 2021A). 

The case that’s building between Scarlett Johansson and Disney is looking like it could be greatly influential in more ways than one. Not just because everything isn’t as picture perfect as we thought in the realm of Disney, no. The outcome of this legal affair could determine how women negotiate wages in the film industry going forward. Even though she is a pretty wealthy actress, Johansson still deserves to be paid in full for the work she put into Black Widow. One can argue that her situation is symptomatic of a larger, more widespread issue. Even an actress of Johansson’s caliber appears to be finding herself a victim of the wage gap between actors and actresses in the film industry.

The Track Record for Equal Women’s Compensation

For some time, the New York Film Academy (NYFA) has taken the opportunity to track gender inequality within the film industry. Here are some metrics that are relevant to Scarlett Johansson’s case. To put things in perspective, $20 million may seem like a lot to those of us who make substantially less. However, we would like to implore you to consider this upcoming metric for a moment.

NYFA Pay Inequality Infographic

(Source: NYFA Gender Inequality Infographic page.)

As you can see in the chart above, there are male actors who have been paid a great deal more than $20 million. The wage difference between male and female actors in the film industry is quite stark. This is just from the year 2017 too. Notice that only 3 actresses barely came close to the $30 million mark in that year alone. It isn’t like Jennifer Lawrence and Jennifer Anniston aren’t A-List movie stars, they are in fact A-List movie stars. Seeing such dramatic differences begs the question, why does it exist in the first place? The quality of their acting is on par with the other actors listed in this graphic, and yet they are paid less for that self same quality their peers exhibit. Purposeful or not, it is an observable trend in the movie industry, one that needs to be rectified. In the year 2018 during the 90th Academy Awards, of the 19 categories that were not acting-related, 131 men were nominated whereas 40 women nominated. To top it all off, in all the history of the Academy Awards, out of the women nominated only two have won the award they were nominated for (Kathryn Bigelow in 2010 and Chloé Zhao in 2021 won Best Director). Based on the legwork the NYFA has done to track these developments, it’s fair to say that there is a notable degree of both gender bias and gender inequality in the film industry, and the scales are not tipped in women’s favor. For more detailed information on Gender Inequality in the Film Industry, please visit our website.

With these thoughts in mind, perhaps now we can better appreciate Scarlett Johansson’s struggle to attain what she is owed from Disney. As of this moment, she fits the terribly unbalanced metric displayed above. As the star of her own movie, Johansson should receive much more for the work she has done for them, plain and simple. Which is why her dispute with Disney is so momentous. Her success or failure in this matter will undoubtedly set a standard for actresses going forward. It already has for a couple of other actresses who’ve done work for Disney recently, but in the long term, the results of this dispute could affect how actresses who aren’t as soundly secure in their reputation negotiate what they earn in the future. 

Black Widow: Milestones in Representation

Before Captain Marvel (2019) was released and the upcoming release of Marvel’s Black Widow (2021), it is pretty fair to say that Marvel wasn’t doing the best when it came to female representation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It is also fair to say that sentiments like those expressed by this article from Vanity Fair aptly echoed the dissatisfaction of critics and viewers alike (if not a portion of both groups). Granted, strides have been made in recent years to beat back on this issue, but female representation in film is still something of a pervasive issue. A lot of why it remains this way has its roots in not only outmoded thinking, but the kinds of stories women are featured in and what roles they assume. Let’s take a look at what’s going on here, with Black Widow’s story as our introductory guide.

Black Widow’s Arc and the Issue at Hand

Black Widow is among the oldest of all the characters introduced in the MCU (with Bruce Banner/The Hulk and Tony Stark/Iron Man coming before her, chronologically, as main characters). Despite this, she has not had a very fulfilling arc, only appearing as a side character in the Avengers movies or other characters’ stand alone movies (Iron Man 2 (2010), Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014), and Captain America: Civil War (2016)). In Iron Man 2, Black Widow debuted as an undercover S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who worked her way up to being Tony Stark’s personal assistant (which was done so she could keep a closer eye on Tony Stark). Her introduction is a bit rocky as FilmSchoolRejects points out.

Black Widow’s first appearance starts off with an “uncomfortably sexualized scenario” between her and Stark (her employer) and, as the film progresses, she gets to show off her talents as a spy and as a hand-to-hand combatant (FilmSchoolRejects, 2019). While the film does well to demonstrate Black Widow’s prowess, the character is very notably “subjected to a leery male gaze”, as there are other scenes in the movie aside from her introduction that aren’t very appropriate (FilmSchoolRejects, 2019). Luckily for viewers trying to focus on Black Widow’s character, this trend doesn’t last forever and as she appears in more MCU titles. In Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Black Widow starts to come into her own more as a character. While appearance still played a pretty big part in how she was portrayed, she was given room to come into her own, albeit she was mostly playing off other characters like Bruce Banner and Steve Rogers. This aspect of Black Widow’s development arguably had a hand in how well she was received by both viewers and critics. Even though she was given that room to grow, it didn’t feel like room enough. Even though Bruce Banner/The Hulk also suffered from this issue, as the only woman on the team, she definitely deserved having more of her story fleshed out and realized. Having her simply play off the other characters was never truly going to be enough to provide viewers with a satisfying story.

As a main character, Black Widow deserves to have her background delved into, especially since she goes on to become a pretty integral part of the MCU. Black Widow continues more or less playing off of other characters in the MCU, including Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Captain America: Civil War (2016), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), and finally, Avengers: Endgame (2019). With Avengers: Endgame, Black Widow made a bittersweet exit in service to the story, sacrificing herself so that the Avengers can overcome the devastation left behind by Thanos in the movie before. On the one hand, her sacrifice did show how much she had grown (or what little you saw of it) over the course of the MCU movies she debuted in. On the other… it fell flat in some sense because, as a character, she had so much more to offer. Vanity Fair provides an excellent breakdown concerning Black Widow’s treatment in Endgame, should you choose to see how deep the rabbit hole goes. The moral of the story however is that Black Widow was killed off too soon, or rather, her arc wasn’t fulfilling enough for it to be considered finished. Thankfully, that is hopefully what Black Widow’s (very) long awaited standalone movie will do once it releases later this July. 

Black Widow Movie Scene on Motorcycle

The Issue at Hand

Black Widow has had an interesting journey within the MCU, sadly, it played out this way for a reason. An article from BBC covers the issue pretty well, especially when it comes to how Black Widow’s arc has been part of a larger, long-standing problem in the MCU. To quote that BBC article, the issue is namely this, “in 10 years and 20 MCU movies so far, not a single film has been led or directed by a woman” (BBC, 2018). Granted, that was back in 2018 when Captain Marvel (2019) hadn’t come out yet. Even then, Marvel went a considerably long time without including some serious representation for women. It begs the question, why wait that long to come out with a woman-led movie? Well, part of the reason is that, at least a couple of years ago, there was a pretty prominent stigma in Hollywood concerning actress-led movies. 

In retrospect, it is true, the movies did not do very well. But it is doubtful that this was a result of the movie being female-led. The BBC article makes it a point to mention that, in the case of Catwoman (2004), the movie wasn’t good because it had “an awful script, they didn’t put enough money into the budget, and there wasn’t CGI at the time to really do [the movie] right” (BBC, 2018). The same can likely be said of Supergirl too, not to mention that superhero movies weren’t as popular then as they are now. So in reality, they weren’t given the best budget because they were superhero films too! Paired with the stigmas surrounding actress-led movies, there was no way Catwoman was succeeding as a film in 2004. Luckily for us, that stigma was called into a considerable amount of question when Wonder Woman released in 2017, a success that shattered expectations. It proved that a female character could certainly lead a film, as well as not detract or take away from its ability to succeed. It’s a shame as well, since Black Widow is an equally compelling character. Not to mention a character that also received some build up in movies that were not her own, so a stand-alone Black Widow film would have worked. Theoretically, after Age of Ultron at the very latest, you could have had a Black Widow stand-alone film as part of the MCU’s Phase 2, even though all main characters were supposed to be introduced to audiences in Phase 1 (for more on the Phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and how they are constructed, visit this article by Daily Dot). Case in point, Black Widow should have had her own film a long time ago. 

Final Thoughts

It is great to see that Marvel is starting to ramp up female representation within their universe, but there is still a lot of work to be done in that arena. Representation is key, especially in film, because whether it is intentional or not, the way a film represents people informs its viewers’ attitudes towards the people that are represented. It is a responsibility that filmmakers should always keep in mind so as not to reinforce outmoded ways of thinking and other potentially harmful dispositions viewers may or may not already possess. Additionally, while it is likely knowledge that is commonplace, it’s important for the next generation of viewers to see themselves in the heroes they look up to. That’s why representation in film is so important, especially in this day and age. Black Widow releases in both theaters and on Disney+ with premier access July 9th, 2021.