The legal battle between Black Widow star Scarlett Johansson and Disney is heating up after the company fired back at the actress' lawsuit with a harsh response that many observers have called out as gendered and an undue attack on Johansson's character.
When the lawsuit was first filed by Johansson in the court of California, most observers assumed that it would quickly and quietly be resolved with an out-of-court payment from Disney. The legal action followed the studio's decision to release Black Widow on the Disney+ streaming platform concurrently with its theatrical release, charging users an additional $30 to stream the film.
Black Widow is the first solo outing of Johansson's character, who has been a part of the MCU as a supporting character since Iron Man 2. The actress' legal team claimed in the lawsuit that launching the film via streaming concurrently with the theatrical release is in breach of contract, and also led to Johansson missing out on major bonuses based on box office earnings.
Disney decided to fire back instead of eating the costs. The way things are shaping up, this might turn out to be a mistake - Disney's attorney Dan Petrocelli called the lawsuit "manifestly wrong in every respect", pointing out that actor contracts give the studio ultimate control over how films are released.
Whether or not this is factually correct ends up paling in comparison to the outrage over additional comments made by Disney. Petrocelli and Disney's official legal response went on to attack the lawsuit and Johansson herself, calling her 'callous' and describing the lawsuit as just a PR stunt designed to squeeze a check out of the company.
This response added fuel to the fire - in a industry where the theatre-streaming debate is still very prominent in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in a context where other actors have confirmed plans to file lawsuits against Disney, the response drew a great deal of criticism.
Kevin Feige from Marvel and former Disney CEO Bob Igor have both expressed concerns with the handling of the lawsuit; many actors in the industry spoke up in support of Johansson, whom they view as fighting for the rights and benefits of actors everywhere; and SAG President Gabrielle Carteris called the actress a "champion for economic justice" while condemning the gendered rhetoric used in Petrocelli's response.
Considering other lawsuits were knowing to be incoming and the volatile state of industry discourse around streaming, Disney's response makes more sense - the company does not want to set a precedent. However, this also gives their response a lot more weight and is seen by many as an attack on the interests of actors worldwide. Between that, and the sexist nature of the company's response, the lawsuit is almost definitely going to be a protracted battle with more interests joining in.
As public outrage at the response grew, Disney dug in and Petrocelli solidified their stance:
It is obvious that this is a highly orchestrated PR campaign to achieve an outcome that is not obtainable in the lawsuit. No amount of public pressure can change or obscure the explicit contractual commitments. The written contract is clear as a bell.
Allegations of Disney mishandling actor contracts during the pandemic are chief among those in other lawsuits being considered by other actors. The company has stated that these allegations display a lack of sympathy for the difficult circumstances the pandemic caused - something they directly accused Johansson of, trying to construct a narrative where a greedy actress is merely grasping for a payout.
This is not the case, and the response to the lawsuit did set a precedent - one which showed actors that major corporations will just wave the mishandling of contracts away and attempt to smear the professionals who are shorted by this phenomenon. One of the largest and richest multi-media corporations seeking sympathy during a health crisis rings hollow.
The eyes of the entire movie industry, and countless filmgoers and fans worldwide are now fixated on this lawsuit. At this point it is too early to call the result - it seems like the semantics of the contract support Disney's stance, however their tone-deaf response has resulted in massive public support rallying around Johansson, with more lawsuits probably on the way. It may not seem it yet, but the outcome of this battle could shape actor-studio relations for years to come.