Now that my final papers are complete, and I can rest assured that in a few days I will be graduating with my masters degree and can move forward into legal studies, I have been able to turn back to a passion of mine that I had to subdue for far too long: geeky things. That’s right. I enjoy my fair share of gaming, comics, literature, and film. But when two things I am passionate about – politics and gaming – collide, I simply have no choice but to share that wonderful collision with the world. Here, we see the popular Marvel franchise colliding with the forces of free market economics.

Apparently, there’s been a bit of a disagreement between Scarlett Johannson and Chris Hemsworth – cast as Black Widow and Thor in the Avengers universe – and their Marvel Studios corporate counterparts. Johannson and Hemsworth have apparently been underpaid for their roles as the iconic Marvel superheroes, and according to WorstPreviews they are now threatening to not return in The Avengers 2.

Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth received only a $500,000 pay increase for returning for the “Captain America” and “Thor” sequels. And unlike Downey, the actors will earn only $500,000 more if their movies break the $500 million mark at the box office.

Despite having a contract, Hemsworth considered backing out of “Thor 2,” because he earned $5 million working on “Snow White and the Huntsman” and Marvel isn’t offering anywhere near that, despite the fact that “Thor” and “The Avengers” are massive franchises. Scarlett Johansson is also fed up and isn’t willing to take a pay-cut to return for “The Avengers 2.”

Our natural response to this is to boo Marvel for being stingy with the actors who made the third highest grossing film in history possible. Or, we could laugh with incredulity at Hemsworth and Johannson when none of us mere mortals will ever be in a position to earn a $500,000 pay bonus, ever. But no one has done anything legally wrong here. This is all a function of the free market.

As a company providing an exclusive employment opportunity, i.e. a role in The Avengers 2, Marvel Studios can ultimately take a leadership role in negotiating issues like salaries and bonuses. The same principle goes for the actors: in the same way that major athletes are paid commensurate with their talents in the game, so too are actors paid for their skill and ability on set. This is even more true for A-List celebrities like Johannson and Hemsworth, who are not only marketable for their acting chops but also for their particular look and style on screen. Their high level of pay is a function of not only the potential profits a film can bring, but also the entirely unique product that they offer: themselves. If the performers don’t feel they are being compensated enough for their unique product, they can either push the issue in negotiating for a raise, or choose to work on other acting projects.

Marvel Studios has apparently developed a reputation for underpaying its actors, and is more than willing to dump performers who demand more than the studio wants to pay. Terrence Howard, for example, was cut from Iron Man 2 and replaced by Don Cheadle in the role of Rhodey, AKA War Machine, for this exact reason. Because Johannson and Hemsworth are a part of the core Avengers cast, it would be a bit difficult from a franchising perspective to replace them with new faces (especially Hemsworth, who has already finished shooting the upcoming sequel Thor: The Dark World) in comparsion to replacing Howard. However, it would not be the end of the world for Marvel, as they’d likely still be able to continue the Avengers franchise with the new faces as part of the team.

What Marvel may not have counted on was Iron Man coming to the rescue. Robert Downey Jr. is reportedly considering stepping back from the role of Tony Stark following the release of The Avengers 2. Some speculation has been thrown around as to why Downey would be backing away from what has arguably become one of his most iconic roles, and Deadline has suggested an interesting theory: Downey is using his star power as Marvel Studios most successful hero as leverage on behalf of his fellow team members, threatening to leave as well unless they are paid at a better level.

Marvel, as I mentioned previously, could have replaced Black Widow and Thor with only a little difficulty. However, Iron Man has already become one of Marvel’s most successful cinematic achievements: Iron Man 3 has already grossed over $200 million domestically, and that figure is most definitely going to go up. Marvel Studios could re-cast Tony Stark, and some day may have to do so if RDJ does choose to leave the role, but doing so would be a massive franchising project and could cost the company significantly: Robert Downey Jr. has become synonymous with Iron Man for hundreds of millions of fans around the world. A replacement actor would have to be spot on in order to successfully fill Iron Man’s suit. For Marvel, the potential damage of losing RDJ, Johannson, AND Hemsworth in one fell swoop may not be worth the relatively lower cost of increasing Johannson and Hemsworth’s pay.

The free market, in this case, may just be the hero. Because the free market operates based on the cumulative actions of individuals, we are all empowered to use our actions a variety of ways – including ones that are morally meaningful. Here, Robert Downey Jr. marketed his unique product – himself – so well in the role of Iron Man that his bargaining power may be even greater than Marvel’s willingness to tow the line on Scarlett Johhannson and Chris Hemsworth’s level of pay. In making the moral choice to support his fellow actor and actress, RDJ may be able to use the power of the free market to support those around him in a situation where they may otherwise have been cut loose.

And the idea of doing something moral via the free market seems simply Marvel-ous to me.


David Giffin | Emory University | @D_Giffin