A decade after Robert Downey Jr. earned $50 million for the first Avengers, stepping into a superhero costume remains one of the last ways for an actor to earn a major payday. With rare exception, even A+ stars aren’t making what they used to, as first-dollar-gross deals and massive backends have become little more than Hollywood lore.
And, more often than not, iconic characters like Spider-Man and Batman are seen by studios as more important and valuable than the famous movie stars who are playing them. A seasoned Marvel star might earn top dollar when they are in costume — sources put it at $20 million to $25 million, which is consistent with what Disney trumpeted paying Scarlett Johansson during their since-settled dispute over the day-and-date Black Widow release. Florence Pugh, already an Oscar nominee when she appeared in Black Widow as Yelena Belova, will receive eight figures for her next two Marvel films, including leading the ensemble cast of the villain-centric Thunderbolts, due out July 26, 2024. But that level of pay rarely translates to other roles those actors take on.
Superhero paydays vary wildly based on experience. A first-time superhero lead has remained in the mid-six-figure range for the past decade — and a director new to the Marvel or DC universe will also make mid-six figures for their first superhero feature. That fee can jump to two to five times that for a sequel helmer.
This means that a first-time Marvel director will not net a larger payday than they’d get for any other studio fare. Says one rep, “You do it because you want to make a Marvel movie.”
Meanwhile, others tied to comic book universes aren’t seeing anywhere near those numbers. Over the past year, the plight of comic book writers and artists has come to the forefront, thanks to creators speaking out about paltry sums they’ve been offered.
Devin Grayson, the writer who co-created Yelena Belova in the late ’90s, went public in July with her pay, revealing that she had received just $5,000 of a promised $12,500 for the character’s use in Black Widow. (After THR published a story featuring her claims, Marvel agreed to pay the remaining $7,500.)
Fees for TV shows are even lower than those for film adaptations (comic book writers and artists generally receive straight fees and no residuals). Grayson was offered just $300 per episode of Hawkeye featuring Yelena, while one co-creator of a title character of a CW show has yet to receive any payment at all for the series. They fear they may never get their compensation because of complications with the Warner Bros. Discovery merger.
Writers and artists are generally hesitant to create characters for Marvel or DC, because they will not be entitled to riches should those characters become the faces of $1 billion film franchises. Many opt to go the indie publisher route (think: The Old Guard or The Walking Dead), where they can make deals that are more favorable when it comes to keeping their IP. Though the vast majority of indie comics don’t spark enviable bidding wars (according to sources, the average option for such a book is in the $5,000 to $10,000 range), these creators maintain more control over their properties and can find other ways to earn from films, such as being tapped to write a screenplay.
Despite the ups and downs of the genre, the past few years have shown that even stars seemingly retired from the tights can be lured back into their Lurex. Michael Keaton, who famously exorcised his superhero history with his Oscar-nominated role in Birdman, came out of Batman retirement for a trio of roles: the upcoming The Flash, a cameo in Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (though that may have been cut) and Batgirl.
Keaton received $2 million for Batgirl, the $90 million film that Warner Bros. Discovery ultimately shelved, after participating in about a week’s worth of work, described by sources as a glorified cameo.
For Keaton, donning the Batsuit may be the closest a star can get to living like Bruce Wayne. Says one dealmaker: “If you want to get paid, you have to put on a cape.”
This story first appeared in the Oct. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.