Black Widow may have been written out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but she apparently has delivered one final real-life karate kick to Marvel’s owner, the Disney Company.
If she has, good. It’s the least Disney and Marvel deserve for the disrespectful way they treated Black Widow.
Here’s how it happened.
Scarlett Johansson, the real-life actress who played the fictional Black Widow so well for so long, recently sued Disney, charging that the company cost her up to $100 million in royalties from this summer’s Black Widow movie.
Black Widow the movie was originally planned as a regular Marvel theatrical release, which more or less guaranteed it would sell hundreds of millions of dollars worth of tickets. Johansson’s contract gave her a percentage of those sales.
Then Covid hit and movie theaters became closed or empty or both. So Disney, not alone among movie producers, started releasing big films like Black Widow on TV — in this case, on HBO Max.
Like most other films this year, Black Widow didn’t do much in theaters, as fans flocked to their TV screens instead. Smaller crowds, cheaper popcorn.
Scar-Jo gets no cut from home viewing. So she sued.
Disney denies it has any culpability or obligation. But last week Disney’s CEO quietly allowed that the company is “resetting” future contracts to reflect new distribution realities.
While Disney didn’t mention the Johansson suit, let’s make a wild guess the timing of the “reset” isn’t total coincidence.
It also seems like the right thing to do.
But that’s not the big issue here.
More troubling than any alleged accounting sleight of hand, and less easily fixed, is Marvel’s treatment and termination of Black Widow the character.
I don’t say this as someone who considers Marvel movies a religious experience. I’m a civilian who enjoyed the last pre-pandemic round of films, up through Black Panther, Civil War and Endgame, and simply feels that Black Widow deserved better.
It’s perplexing because Black Widow has been all over the Marvel universe since her debut in 1964. She’s changed names, changed sides, changed partners, gotten a clone and been killed off a couple of times. She’s fought, fumbled, agonized, wisecracked and fought some more. Right up to the end she was hurtling through space, dodging bad guys and ever-more sophisticated special effects. You know, all the stuff Marvel is about.
Yet all this multitasking also suggest Marvel never figured out exactly what to do with her. It certainly never gave her the respect 57 years of service should have earned her — and, yes, probably would have earned a male character.
It’s hard to get around the fact that she finally got her own movie only as a memorial, after she’d apparently been killed off for good.
You have to think that’s a big reason Black Widow became one of the lowest grossing Marvel movies ever. The better the movie, the more engaging the character, the more depressing it was going to feel that she was gone.
Marvel was smart enough to realize that and tried to neutralize the problem in an understandable but annoying way: Black Widow the movie became only incidentally about Black Widow the character. Its real mission was to hand off her role to her previously invisible sister Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), who for starters got most of the best lines.
Black Widow over the years could be prickly and downright nasty, making it a mild irony that she was never more sympathetic than in Endgame, the movie that preceded Black Widow.
In the climatic Marvel film Civil War, bad guy Thanos had snapped his fingers and vaporized half of Marvel’s good-guy team, the Avengers, along with half the rest of the world. Black Widow survived and several years later in Endgame was the Avenger who never gave up hope, who kept looking for a way to neutralize Thanos and get those people back.
She sacrificed herself to make that happen and while you could argue this was penance for some of the awful things she did earlier in her life, it was still a stunning and sad moment.
It also didn’t build much anticipation for the Black Widow movie. Hey, everybody, who wants to buy tickets to the wake?
It only compounded the cruelty that Marvel now gave Black Widow and Yelena a fleshed-out backstory, albeit one that conflicted with previous Black Widow backstories and also felt remarkably similar to the premise of the FX TV series The Americans.
This time around, we were told that Black Widow’s and Yelena’s parents, Melina and Alexei, were Soviet spies who were part of a sleeper cell in Ohio.
Which opens up some dramatic possibilities, except they do Black Widow no good. She’s dead. This only sets up Yelena.
What Black Widow the character did get in Black Widow the movie were most of the special effects scenes, with spectacular choreography and fights. But let’s be honest. Characters in those scenes are interchangeable props. The stars are the SFX creators.
So Black Widow finally gets her own movie, after 57 years, and she’s, well, incidental.
Whether or not Scarlet Johansson convinces a court that Disney devalued her contract, what’s going to sting more painfully for longer is the way Marvel devalued her character.