By David T. Valentin
It appears it was just yesterday Marvels fans were excited for the widely anticipated Black Widow film, a solo film for Black Widow’s character that was long overdue. The film was mostly well received, and while Scarlett Johansson’s character is dead as of Avengers: Endgame, fans still had some hope that we might see the character later down the line in some prequel project, or even in the form of some type of resurrection.
But as is business in the entertainment industry, things quickly turned heads. Just a few weeks after the release of Black Widow, news erupted that Johansson created a lawsuit against Disney because of their failure to renegotiate a deal that would secure the star more money from the hybrid release of the film, both in theatres and on Disney+, Disney’s streaming service.
According to Giant Freakin Robot, “Before the film’s release, the actress tried to talk to Disney about her contract, which includes bonuses that are tied to the box office. Since Disney decided to release Black Widowin theaters and on Disney+ at the same time, during a worldwide pandemic, box office expectations had heavily changed.”
In other words, the film was planned to be released only in theatres prior to the pandemic. But due to changing situations and a need to make the film accessible to a wider audience who may still feel uncomfortable or cannot travel to theatres, Black Widow was released on Disney+, giving the film a hybrid release like many of films released by Disney in 2020 and early 2021.
But because Disney failed to renegotiate Johansson’s contract to include bonuses she may receive due to both a theatre release and a digital release, Johansson believes the company breached her contract and stripped her of profits that she could have made.
If tensions couldn’t get any worse between Johansson and the House of Mouse, just this week news was released that Disney has allegedly cut “all ties” to Johansson, thus destroying fans hopes to see Black Widow in future Marvel projects and any Disney projects.
As Giant Freakin Robot explains when discussing the pandemic’s impact on actors pay with the movies released during the pandemic, “That affects her pay as well as everyone else with a similar contract in the cast and crew, but Scarlett Johansson is the face of the movie. As the star, if she got Disney to negotiate her contract, it would affect the others. She had the most power.”
It may seem as though the whole situation is just a bunch of rich companies and people complaining about a loss of revenue that most people don’t get to see in their lifetime, but Disney’s response to Johansson’s lawsuit and attempted renegotiation of her contract seems to be the final nail on the coffin after a series of many, many nails to Black Widows character as a whole.
For the longest time until Wanda Maximoff, played by Elizabeth Olsen, came to the MCU, Black Widow was the first and only Avenger. From her debut in Iron Man 2 back in 2010 to Avengers: Age of Ultron’s release in 2015 and the introduction of Wanda Maximoff, that gives Natasha Romanov five years before any other female superhero made an appearance.
Some may think being the first woman Avenger would allow the MCU to give women and young girls a strong character to root for, a character that would break the mold and to show to the world comic book fans want to see more female characters on the big screen.
Instead, Black Widow spent much of her screen time as the brunt of sexual harassment, which were often played off as jokes, and awkward, forced love interests. One only needs to look at Black Widow’s introduction in Iron Man 2 where Tony Stark makes multiple sexist and uncomfortable jokes about Natasha’s body and personality.
Likewise, Black Widow seemed to be a chameleon of personalities, or should I say a chameleon of overused and harmful stereotypes of women, because of her status as the only woman Avenger. Natasha was often played off as the stoic caretaker to her male-dominated superhero team, but at the same time a sexy, mysterious, and fierce woman who could kick ass. In every movie, Natasha was given a love interest, or at least put in situations that created tension that seemed like romance was brewing with almost every one of her teammates.
A bit of a flirt to Hawkeye, who ended up being just an incredibly close friend in the first Avengers film. A tempting bad girl to Steve Rogers in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And even a caretaker and gentle spirit to Bruce Banner and the only one who could calm the rageful hulk in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
It wasn’t until Captain America: Civil War that Natasha was given enough depth to be established as her own character with a consistent personality. Within the film, she demonstrates a gentle care to Wanda Maximoff who is adjusting to her new life as a superhero and still grieving the loss of her brother and her country, Sokovia. Then in Avengers: Infinity War we get some bad ass scenes with Black Widow, and although we still don’t get to see much of her personality shine through, we see a growing friendship between her and Wanda and an unspoken promise to learn more about Black Widow and who she is away from the forced romances.
Then once when it finally seems as though Natasha is getting some much-needed screen time and character development, she’s ultimately killed off in Avengers: Endgame, adding her to the list of female characters who get fridged for the sake of the plot and character growth for her male teammates.
Her death was a huge disappointment to me mainly because after about a decade of MCU projects sidelining her and using her for the growth of others that she was finally growing as a character herself. But then Marvel decides to announce a long overdue Black Widow movie after her death, a movie that’s a prequel to provide backstory for the character. Wouldn’t that have been a good movie to have five years ago to build up an emotional connection for audiences, especially considering the MCU was planning on killing off the character?
Now that the MCU has a plethora of women characters, characters like Wanda Maximoff, Monica Rambeau, Sylvie, Captain Marvel, Mantis and Gamora and many more, it feels very much like Disney discarding Johansson because they no longer need her to establish a huge cash grab.
Before 2008, the MCU was a very different playground. At the time, superhero movies were not as nearly popular as today and Marvel was unsure a connected, cinematic universe would be feasible. But after the release of Iron Man in 2008 and the success of the first Avengers movie, it was impossible to deny the success an extended, connected Marvel cinematic universe would have. Still, it seemed as though they played it safe with well-known characters like Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Captain America, and Black Widow. And then Galaxy of the Guardians happened, a movie with huge success that featured superheroes that most people never even heard of.
Now in 2021, we have a sprawling list of characters, some previously unheard of, with A-list and breakthrough actors portraying many of them. Now it seems as though Marvel and Disney know people will see a Marvel film regardless of whichever superhero is featured.
And we see that reflected in the MCU’s change in creative execution as they drift toward more experimental storytelling very different from what came before; shows like WandaVision, the long-awaited multi-verse, movie cross over Spider Man: No Way Home, and Falcon and the Winter Soldier which offered a grittier, more political angle to the MCU.
Had Johansson filed a lawsuit against Disney five years ago under similar conditions, I think the company’s reaction would have been much different given that Black Widow was their only female character and that it wouldn’t have looked too good for the House of Mouse to sleight their biggest woman star. Which makes it even worse that Disney decided to release a public statement that insinuated Johansson was nagging and ungrateful for the chance she received to even get a solo movie and the opportunities she had under Disney, as if to say, “You got to be our star, token woman superhero what more do you want?”
In recent days, Elizabeth Olsen who plays Wanda Maximoff, or the Scarlet Witch, came out in support of her co-star’s legal battle with Disney. “I think she’s so tough and literally when I read that I was like, ‘Good for you, Scarlett,’” she said during a Vanity Fair interview.
The fact that other co-stars have not come out in support of Johansson is telling, specifically Johansson and Olsen’s male co-stars, especially given the circumstances of past situations in where other actors of the MCU were put in the spotlight, is telling.
Back when Captain Marvel was released in 2019, Marvel’s first female lead movie, Brie Larson received what could only amount to sexist remarks disguised as “film criticism.” Many Marvel fans critiqued the character for being cocky and overpowered while ignoring and giving excuses to characters like Tony Stark and Thor. None of Larson’s co-stars came to her defense.
When Anthony Mackie received racist remarks because of his character, Sam Wilson, taking up the mantle of Captain America and also calling Marvel for many of their movies being directed by white filmmakers, none of his co-stars said a word.
But when Chris Pratt was under fire for attending his Hillsong Church, which is infamously anti-LGBTQ+, co-stars Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, and even director James Gunn came to his aid, tweeting to the world how much of a “good guy” Chris Pratt is.
So, while the situation with Disney and Johansson seems to just be rich people trying to get richer, the neglect of Johansson’s character, Black Widow, throughout the decade, and now Disney unwilling to renegotiate her contract cannot be ignored as just isolated and unconnected incidents. The whole thing reeks of a decade’s long, slow boil of bad blood that is just now erupting both in a creative sense and a financial sense.