This morning a story about Wonder Woman actress Gal Gadot went viral — that she had been paid a paltry (by Hollywood tentpole standards) $300,000 for her part in what has quickly become Warner Bros. and DC’s most well-regarded movie in a struggling cinematic universe. This was quickly compared to a figure that claimed Henry Cavill was paid $14 million for his role of Superman in 2013’s Man of Steel, a film considerably less well regarded.
The numbers have echoes of Hollywood’s notorious pay gap: Gal Gadot is being paid less because she’s a woman, an egregious example of how men are paid more than equally experienced women for the same roles. And don’t get me wrong — the pay gap is real. But both her and Cavill’s salaries for their debut DC Extended Universe movies are heavily disputed — there’s an equally likely explanation for a low six-figure base salary for Warner Bros. biggest DC success so far.
Since the story appeared in one form on the Daily Dot yesterday and again on Glamour today, the numbers involved have been called into question. According to one report on The Hollywood Reporter, they were paid roughly the same up front, if not slightly unequally — with Gadot taking the higher share. Vulture’s sources cite Cavill’s base salary as six figures, nowhere near the number reported elsewhere. And in fact, Lois Lane actress Amy Adams was reportedly paid quite a bit more for Man of Steel than her co-star Henry Cavill — but made less on profit-sharing, or “points” according to Screenrant.
So why, amidst a very real gap in pay between men and women in Hollywood, did Amy Adams probably get paid more initially than Henry Cavill? Because in January 2011, when Man of Steel was cast, Amy Adams was a three-time Academy Award-nominated actress, and Cavill was a relative unknown. And when Gal Gadot was cast as Wonder Woman in mid-2013, she was primarily known as a supporting player in the Fast & Furious films before they became the billion-dollar franchise they are now.
In an interview with Variety in 2014, Robert Downey Jr. made a more astute observation about the modern landscape of comic book cinematic “universes” as a business than most people reading probably grasped. “It really is the closest thing to being a beloved contract player with a big old-timey studio that there is right now,” Downey Jr. said.
In the ‘40s, big studios like Paramount and MGM held a stable of actors and actresses to contracts that paid poorly and obligated them to appear in whatever films studio bosses dictated. It was a necessary evil; sign a contract, eat some crow, and maybe, just maybe, you might come out the other end a star with real negotiating power.
It’s important to disclose that much of the discussion about what performers in big budget films make is apocryphal, told in whispers and via minimally sourced rumors in trade publications and gossip sites. It’s in the studios’ interests to make as little information known as possible, to weaken negotiating power as much as possible.
However, as Downey Jr. more or less admitted, this is how Marvel Studios works — to massive financial success — and the rest of the industry has been paying attention, DC included.
In 2003, Christian Bale saw the last big payday for a superhero debut with a $9 million check for Batman Begins (with a contract for two additional films). That was an anomaly, even then, and likely driven in part by Bale’s notoriety and track record in other films. Meanwhile, for 2000’s Bryan Singer-directed X-Men, Wolverine/Logan actor Hugh Jackman received a comparatively paltry $500,000.
Batman Begins and the X-Men films found success, but other comic films struggled to find similar box office results. In the same Variety interview cited above, Downey Jr. admitted he had to beg Marvel for the opportunity to star as Iron Man in 2008. His negotiations followed a period of professional hardship and literal jail time for the star, and Marvel hedged its bets with a $500,000 rate for an otherwise well-known actor.
That bet paid off, in every regard. And since then, Marvel has been casting with a mind to the bottom line, primarily seeking out stars on the cusp of widespread acclaim, rather than big names, a lesson that Warner Bros/DC has taken to heart — as have other studios working with Marvel properties.
Sony reportedly paid their second Spider-man, Andrew Garfield, $500,000 for their attempt to reboot a critical franchise. (There’s no word on what Tom Holland is getting for his turn as the hero, but assume it’s not a lot just yet.) In a 2015 interview, Miles Teller, who co-starred as Reed Richards/Mister Fantastic in that year’s disastrous Fantastic 4, claimed that he was still making student loan payments.
Meanwhile, Marvel Studios has built their massive MCU franchise on shockingly low salaries. Chris Evans received $300,000 for Captain America: The First Avenger. Admittedly thinly-sourced reports have pinned compensation for other MCU actors even lower. Chris Hemsworth made an even smaller $200,000 for Thor. Tom Hiddleston made $160,000 for The Avengers, his second turn as Loki, and unlike the rest of the starring cast, reportedly received no points.
Falcon actor Anthony Mackie is reported to have received $280,000 for Avengers: Age of Ultron after profit sharing. Zoe Saldana’s base salary for Guardians of the Galaxy has been reported as $100,000 before profit-sharing. As Nebula, Karen Gillan may have taken home around $140,000 after points, while Chris Pratt’s payment may have reached approximately $1.5 million after profit sharing. Even Paul Rudd, an actor with a great filmography — though, admittedly lacking any big-budget draw — may have only warranted $300,000 for Ant-Man initially. With points, his compensation was likely much higher.
There are signs that at Marvel, this may be changing. Chadwick Boseman signed a six-picture contract as Black Panther, and may have received around $700,000 for his role in Captain America: Civil War, though it’s unclear if this rumored number was before or after profit-sharing. Elsewhere, there’s been speculation that Brie Larson, fresh off a Best Actress Academy Award, could be getting just under $5 million for her initial turn as Captain Marvel.
But Marvel Studios and, consequently, everyone else building a cinematic superhero universe, is weary of paying too much too early for well-known stars and finding themselves in a financial conundrum. Downey Jr’s initial payday of $500,000 for Iron Man has reportedly secured him $200 million for the third and fourth Avengers films. And while Downey Jr. is the highest paid Avenger, Scarlett Johansson has followed closely behind him — she made as much as almost every other Avenger other than Iron Man combined for Age of Ultron.
If there's anything out of the ordinary in the contracts Warner Bros. negotiated for Wonder Woman, its that the company appears to not have planned for the movie’s success. Gal Gadot’s agreement reportedly only signed her for up to three films — a number that’s already accounted for, with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Wonder Woman and this fall’s Justice League. According to Vanity Fair’s sources, Gadot’s contract contains an option for sequels instead; Warner Bros. wanted an option to make a Wonder Woman sequel, but didn’t want to lock themselves in.
The company only signed director Patty Jenkins for a single film — Warner Bros. has to come to her if they want her to do another. And with Wonder Woman’s box office climbing ever higher (not to mention its overwhelmingly positive reviews) — Jenkins has plenty of negotiating power. Which might explain why she’s already at work on the Amazon warrior’s next cinematic adventure.