Scarlett Johansson sues Disney over Black Widow theatrical release

Scarlett Johannson
(CREDIT: Andrea Raffin /

The National Association of Theatre Owners aren’t the only ones peeved over the fact that Disney left money on the table by putting Marvel’s Black Widow on Disney Plus on the same day as its theatrical debut. Scarlett Johansson is alleging that $50 million of that money left on the table belongs to her.

According to a Wall Street Journal article, Johansson’s legal team filed a lawsuit Thursday at Los Angeles Superior Court, alleging that Disney breached Marvel’s agreement with Johansson that guaranteed Black Widow a theatrical-only release, as the majority of the actress’ salary on the superhero film was tied to box office gross.

Attorneys for Johansson are seeking unspecified monetary and punitive damages, saying she was promised an exclusive release in theaters and that the simultaneous release of her Avengers’ character’s first solo film violated that agreement.

According to the complaint, Marvel and Johansson agreed that her compensation for Black Widow would “be based largely on ‘box office’ receipts” and so to “maximize these receipts, and thereby protect her financial interests” the actor made the studio promise the movie would be exclusively released in theaters. Her attorneys wrote that the studio’s parent company, Disney, “was well aware of this promise,” but released the movie on Disney+ anyway.

According to the complaint, under Johansson’s contract for Black Widow the movie was to be initially released only in theaters for a period of 90 to 120 days. After Disney announced the launch of its streaming service, which includes the Marvel Cinematic Universe library of films, Johansson’s representatives allegedly received assurances from the studio’s counsel that it would adhere to the agreement. But then in 2021, it announced the film would be released concurrently in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access, which provides subscribers access to select new films for an additional $29.99 per film fee.

Black Widow originally was scheduled for a theater-only release on May 1st, 2020, but that release date was pushed several times due to the Covid-19 pandemic. During the past year, Disney has offered up some of its planned but postponed 2020 releases (like Mulan and Raya and the Last Dragon) via Disney+ Premier Access. Upon its release, finally, on July 9th, 2021, Black Widow was also offered through Disney+ Premier Access.

Johansson has been an integral part of the Marvel universe since appearing as Black Widow in 2010’s Iron Man 2. Her presence has grown significantly since then as a member of the Avengers, alongside Iron Man, Captain America, Thor,  Hawkeye, and the Incredible Hulk. Her character tragically died in the 2019 blockbuster Avengers: Endgame, and the prequel film in theaters now takes place before the events of  2018’s Avengers: Infinity war.

Johansson’s suit comes as multiple major motion pictures have been released on streaming services during the pandemic, as theaters in many cities shut down and audiences have been largely staying home. Last year, Warner Bros. and WarnerMedia released Wonder Woman 1984 simultaneously in theaters and on the streaming service HBO Max, then announced it would do the same for its entire 2021 slate of films, however, Warner Bros. reportedly quietly approached agents for Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins and actor Gal Gadot ahead of the announcement to pay them each millions of dollars to make up for the loss in box office revenue. Judging by Johansson’s suit, the same can not be said for Disney. 

According to the Wall Street Journal, a source estimated that Johansson lost $50 million due to the Disney+ stream. The company previously revealed that Disney+ Premier Access purchases of Black Widow grossed $60 million during the film’s opening weekend. (Black Widow also made $80 million domestically and $78 million internationally at the theatrical box office its opening weekend.)

Johansson’s lawyer John Berlinski told the Wall Street Journal of the lawsuit, “This will surely not be the last case where Hollywood talent stands up to Disney and makes it clear that, whatever the company may pretend, it has a legal obligation to honor its contracts.”

Disney responded this afternoon in a statement, calling the lawsuit “distressing.”

“There is no merit whatsoever to this filing. The lawsuit is especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Disney has fully complied with Ms. Johansson’s contract and furthermore, the release of ‘Black Widow’ on Disney+ with Premier Access has significantly enhanced her ability to earn additional compensation on top of the $20M she has received to date.”