The comic book movie industry is facing a period of turbulence as more and more talent begin voicing their concerns about unfair pay and mishandling of contracts. In the wake of a controversial lawsuit filed against Disney by Black Widow actress Scarlett Johansson and the company's incendiary response, other professionals in the industry have come out to criticize how Marvel and DC treat non-executives working on their increasingly successful blockbusters.
Writers and artists have added their voices to those actors who feel that the studios making billions of dollars off their work are not paying employees and creative talent sufficiently. The comic industry has a history of giving the creatives coming up with characters and writing stories a tough break, and ever since caped heroes hit the big screens, things only got worse.
In an extensive investigative article, many professionals in the industry spoke to The Guardian about the way companies like DC and Marvel consistently exploit loopholes to rob creators of their rights to the stories and characters they came up with, while making people chase the payments they are owed.
Many parallels can be drawn between comics and the video game industry - both have a healthy supply of new meat because so many fans are ready to jump into demeaning and exploitative working conditions just to work on something they're passionate about.
The movies of the MCU and DCEU are huge undertakings with massive casts and crews working on bringing these productions to life - but even before the movies are even greenlit, huge amounts of work have already been done. While they all deviate to some degree, bringing in original story beats, they mostly work off the framework built buy the comics that came before.
These characters already existed. These stories already existed. Just about everything we've ever seen in a Marvel or DC movie is a reshuffling of ideas other already put on pages, with these vast narrative universes having been tended to and expanded and popularized by countless other creatives that came before.
According to some who spoke about working for Disney or DC (itself owned by a subsidiary of AT&T), all they got were "based on the comic book created by" credits at the end of the movie. Sometimes they'd get a check, cited by many to be uniformly valued at $5,000, or an invitation to the premiere. Maybe both.
It's basically standard practice among comic publishers to try to get creators to sign away rights to their characters and stories, in order to avoid having to pay royalties, or finding loopholes around having to pay out from revenue gained with merchandise. The creators of Watchmen were famously denied royalties on merchandise because DC called the said merchandise "promotional".
The current on-going lawsuit between Disney and Scarlett Johansson brought many long-lasting injustices in the comic book industry to the forefront, with the public eye witnessing these issues for the first time. Where legal systems that have been cemented over decades disarm creators to get fair pay or appeal the mishandling of contracts, the ballooning net worth of these companies comes at the expense of the creative talent fueling their popular products.
Between dodged royalties, haphazard access to "special character contracts" and some blatant displays of disrespect - the original creators of the Winter Soldier character, Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting, weren't invited to the premiere of Captain America and the Winter Soldier, with Sebastian Stan having to let them into the venue himself - it makes sense that employees are rallying around the Johansson lawsuit. The huge publicity granted that legal battle signal boosts other deeply seeded issues in the industry.
With actors, writers and artists joining in support of the push against Disney, the long-lasting effects of the lawsuit may end up being even greater than expected. As other actors are expected to file their own lawsuits for contract mismanagement, we might be living the first few days of a huge wave of reform crashing into the comics world.