The lawsuit filed by Scarlett Johansson over the distribution of Black Widow on Disney+ has affected Disney, but it hasn’t had the same impact on Marvel Studios. Johansson’s contract, which owed royalty payments exclusively for theatrical release profits, guaranteed such a release, a guarantee that was broken by the simultaneous premiere on Disney+ Premier Access. Disney’s response has been slammed as harsh and slanderous, and its justification, that the global epidemic made streaming the only viable option, fails to address their contract breach.
Kevin Feige, the head of Marvel Studios, has reportedly expressed displeasure and embarrassment over Johansson’s treatment – a very different reaction, and one that casts the Marvel movie division in a lot more positive light than its parent business. The lawsuit’s optics have been negative for Disney, with performers and creators concerned that if the business prevails, subsequent contracts may be treated similarly. While Marvel Studios does not have the power to overturn Disney’s decision, they are unlikely to face the same level of fan anger.
Johansson’s future with Disney appears to be at risk in several ways, but does it matter? Johansson’s final film in the MCU was Black Widow, and while Disney’s multiple subsidiary firms provide the company a huge market share of entertainment properties, the star is unlikely to have trouble finding new projects. (Wes Anderson’s latest picture has already cast her.) Nonetheless, Disney’s gesture of publicly leveraging the public as a defense against Johansson and her case could be too harmful.
Disney’s industry reputation has taken a hit as a result of their lack of faith in their ability to fulfill their contractual responsibilities. Putting the blame on COVID for the streaming decision just adds fuel to the fire.
Despite being a Disney company, Marvel Studios has managed to sidestep the worst of the lawsuit’s consequences. Feige’s words have improved Marvel’s public image, but it’s unclear whether they will assist with the industry fallout from the contract violation and litigation. Marvel Studios is still in the same situation as when the Black Widow decision was made, as it is a wholly-owned subsidiary that is exempt only on the basis of having had minimal power over the distribution choice.
While moviegoers may not change their minds about the MCU, the outcome of the Black Widow lawsuit will have far-reaching implications for both Disney and Marvel as a corporation.
There is no apparent road forward for the parties involved. Even if Disney were to completely change its mind, first impressions matter and the public perception of this litigation has been overwhelmingly negative. Because to Feige, Marvel Studios will maintain a more good public image, but until the studio is granted greater authority, this may be a Pyrrhic victory; deeds must follow words, and the industry effect will still splash due to the firms’ interconnectedness. Whatever the final ruling is, Black Widow will be remembered as a landmark picture, both as a conclusion to the MCU’s Black Widow character and for the legal and public relations precedent it established.