As much as we might love the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we can’t deny the movies and TV shows of Marvel Studios still struggle to treat their female characters right. Sure, things did get better in Phase 4, with heroines such as Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani) and She-Hulk (Tatiana Maslany) stealing the spotlight. Then again, we also have Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) getting a bland treatment in Thor: Love and Thunder and Wanda Maximoff’s (Elizabeth Olsen) character growth being completely erased in favor of a Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) story. Above all, the way Scarlett Johansson was treated in front of and behind the cameras shows how even the most-beloved actress in the entire MCU was still not safe from unfair treatment. So, while it’s sad to hear Johansson say she’s done with the MCU for good, we can’t blame her. After all, not only did Black Widow get sidelined in the MCU, but Johansson had to sue Disney to get paid what she deserved.
Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow Was Sidelined For Too Long
The first phase of the MCU gave the spotlight to the superpowered members of the Avengers. As such, Black Widow and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) became supporting characters in other heroes’ solo movies — Hawkeye in 2011’s Thor and Black Widow in 2010’s Iron Man 2. Black Widow and Hawkeye are regular humans, counting on their wits and combat training to survive in a world filled with gods and monsters. Even so, the duo does get a compelling arc in 2012’s The Avengers, which is why we were all excited to see where Marvel Studios would take the characters next.
While the other OG Avengers remained major players in the MCU, Black Widow remained a supporting character in other heroes’ journeys. Natasha was back for 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in which she helps Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) destroy Hydra. And while Johansson does magic with the little she’s given, we wondered when Natasha would become the main character of her own story.
Black Widow and Hawkeye reappear in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. The movie helps to deepen Hawkeye’s character beyond his relationship with Black Widow by giving him a family worth fighting for. The scenes on Barton’s farmhouse are the best in the entire Age of Ultron. And thanks to his family and his will to sacrifice everything to keep the people he loves safe, Hawkeye became one of the big emotional cores of the Avengers. Sadly, Natasha didn’t get the same attention, and once Marvel Studios decided to explore Hawkeye’s backstory, they just turned Black Widow into part of a different duo, this time with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). We would love to see Natasha and Banner’s relationship evolve, but after Age of Ultron, their chemistry was thrown into the trash can.
Despite being part of four different movies, Marvel Studios could not give Natasha an arc of her own. Instead, in each movie featuring Black Widow, she’s just there to support one of her male coworkers. 2016’s Captain America: Civil War and 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War were too crowded for Natasha to shine. And then, in Avengers: Endgame, Natasha makes the ultimate sacrifice, giving her life away so that her teammates can have a chance of defeating Thanos (Josh Brolin).
Natasha’s death is unquestionably one of the saddest moments in the entire MCU. Thanks to Johansson’s exceptional acting skills, Black Widow’s sacrifice hit us as hard as possible. That’s because, even though Marvel Studios never really knew what to do with Natasha, Johansson is a remarkable actress capable of adding layers to any character she plays. Nevertheless, it’s not just Natasha who was mistreated by Marvel Studios, as Johansson was forced to enter a legal battle against Disney.
Scarlett Johansson vs. Disney Legal Disputes
After Endgame and Natasha’s death, Marvel Studios finally gave the character a solo movie. Of course, it was too little, too late, as 2021’s Black Widow didn’t change the character story in any meaningful way and just served as a jump pad to introduce a new Russian assassin, Yelena (Florence Pugh). As a prequel to Infinity War, Black Widow couldn’t have a significant emotional stake, as we knew the fate of the titular character. In addition, since Natasha dies in Endgame, her victory in the prequel feels shallow. So, after many years of asking for a Black Widow movie, we got one at the worst possible time. Finally, things became particularly unpleasant once we learned Johansson’s payment was cut short due to Disney’s decision to release Black Widow on Disney+ on the same day the movie hit theaters.
When Disney decided to use Black Widow as part of their Premier Access initiative, it seemed like the House of the Mouse was trying out a new release strategy that could bypass the limitations caused by the pandemic. However, once we learned Johansson was suing Disney, it became clear the studio wanted to keep a bigger chunk of the profits for itself. Johansson rightfully sued Disney because part of her payment for starring in Black Widow was proportional to how much money the movie made at the box office. However, since the actress’ contract didn’t include any clause about streaming, Johansson didn’t get a penny of what Disney made through Premier Access. To add insult to injury, with Black Widow available on Disney+ when we were still uncomfortable going to theaters, the box office of Johansson’s first MCU solo movie was much smaller than she had anticipated when she signed her contract.
Johansson eventually settled her lawsuit against Disney and got her due payment. And for a while, it seemed that the damage Disney had done could be reversed, with the actress reportedly attached to a mysterious MCU project. Still, Johansson didn’t come back to voice Natasha in the What If…? animated series, being replaced by Lake Bell. And now, two years after Johansson’s secret MCU project was announced, hearing the actress say she’s done with the franchise indicates that things went sour behind the scenes.
Black Widow was everyone’s favorite female character in the MCU. Even so, the character and Johansson had a long and tortuous exit from Marvel Studios’ cinematic universe that’ll go down in history as a disgraceful example of how studios treat their female stars. Marvel Studios was under a lot of pressure to avoid female-led films, but still, Natasha deserved better. And in the lack of fair treatment for the character, at least Johansson could have parted ways with Marvel Studios and Disney with less conflict.
Black Widow is available on Disney+.