The Jonathan Majors case: the latest celebrity trial variant where women lose

If you thought the Megan Thee Stallion and Depp v. Heard cases yielded toxic online discourse, just wait

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published October 28, 2023 2:00PM (EDT)

Jonathan Majors in "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania" (Jay Maidment/Marvel)
Jonathan Majors in "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania" (Jay Maidment/Marvel)

A famous actor with a recurring role in a Disney franchise. A celebrity domestic abuse case resulting in the arrests of both parties involved. A low-grade rumble on social media pitting a fandom against people who are intolerant of malicious behavior, including but not limited to physical assault, by privileged celebrities.

These are a few of the reasons Jonathan Majors’ legal drama has an unsettling familiarity about it. Majors, whose acclaimed performances in “Lovecraft Country” and “Creed III” made him a rising star in Hollywood, was charged with assault and aggravated harassment on March 25 related to an argument with his former girlfriend Grace Jabbari.

The complaint, as described by a Reuters report, alleges Majors struck Jabbari’s face with an open hand causing a laceration behind her ear, as well as grabbing her hand and neck, resulting in bruising.

Through his attorney Priya Chaudhry, Majors has refuted the allegations and, in June, filed a counter-complaint against Jabbari claiming she assaulted him.

He has since been dropped by his management and PR teams, scrubbed from a U.S. Army recruitment ad campaign, and removed from consideration for several films, including an Otis Redding biopic and an adaptation of the Walter Moseley novel “The Man in My Basement.” As of Friday, Disney also removed his bodybuilding film "Magazine Dreams," which was slated for a December release, from its schedule, reports Variety.

One company that hasn’t parted ways with him is Marvel.

Currently, Majors co-stars in the second season of Marvel’s “Loki” as a variant of Kang the Conqueror, the major villain introduced in Phase Five of the comic book franchise’s two-decade saga playing out in theatrical releases and its TV shows.

On Thursday, one day after his lawyer’s motion to dismiss the charges against him was rejected by a New York judge, “Loki” viewers watched the continuation of the role he debuted in the “Loki” first season finale, where he was introduced as He Who Remains.  

Season 2 brings him back as one of the endless variants of this supervillain, a genius stumblebum named Victor Timely who appears at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and has made a prototype of an invention that will eventually realign the multiverse.

LokiJonathan Majors in "Loki" Season 2 poster (Marvel Studios)Victor is weird, easily frightened, and eventually bullied by a clock-shaped AI, Miss Minutes, who has gone rogue. He cons a group of condescending racists after his tent presentation, only to return to his lab to discover Miss Minutes is crazily in love with him. This persona is one of many versions of the same being – a variant, as he’s called in the series, of an intergalactic dictator known as Kang the Conqueror.

Related to his performance outside of "Loki," critics and audiences have either loved his performance or deemed it "borderline unwatchable." Some of the more troubling takes, if predictable, relate the quality of one to his plausibility as an assault defendant.

"Where are the blogs and people that was complaining and accusing Jonathan Majors? Why isn’t this a big deal?" asks one X user. "His ex getting arrested for actually being the one doing the assaulting lol meanwhile he killed Mr Timely on Loki."

As Kang, Majors made his MCU theatrical debut in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” which was first released in theaters nearly two months before Majors’ arrest. As more details about the case emerged, accompanied by other people sharing their negative experiences of working with Majors in the past, many people wondered whether Marvel would also distance itself from Majors.

But as of now he remains slated to play a central role in the MCU’s Phase Six movies “Avengers: The Kang Dynasty” and “Avengers: Secret Wars,” a source of bafflement and consternation. Season 2 of “Loki” was already shot by the time the allegations against Majors surfaced. The technology exists to digitally replace him, and the season could have been delayed. (See: Tig Notaro replacing Chris D’Elia in 2021’s “Army of the Dead” following sexual misconduct accusations involving underage girls.)

Those options were never in consideration. At the beginning of October, the show’s executive producer Kevin Wright told Variety that owing to the strength of the performances in “Loki,” this is the first Marvel series to never have any additional photography. “It felt hasty to do anything without knowing how all of this plays out,” Wright said.

The charges Majors’ is facing initially recalled the legal scandals surrounding Ezra Miller, including various assault allegations and a felony burglary charge. Warner and DC still released “The Flash” this spring. (It bombed spectacularly, which is neither here nor there.)

But Marvel has a more solid precedent bolstering its bet in the protracted case between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard extending back to their 2016 divorce, which involved Heard accusing Depp of domestic violence in police reports. Majors and Jabbari weren’t married, of course. More to the point, Majors' career ascent was only just beginning whereas Depp has enjoyed more than 30 years of fame and celebrity and has the multimillion-dollar net worth to prove it.

To this end, the public sympathy weighted in Depp’s favor came from a passionate multigenerational fandom, one buoyed by his playing Jack Sparrow in Disney’s lucrative “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies and pumped by his colorful villain in the “Fantastic Beasts” of "Harry Potter."

But Majors’ situation brings other social factors.

He’s a Black man being accused by a white woman of domestic abuse, a reliable accelerant that brings racists, sexists and domestic abuse denialists around the same campfire to cast aspersions on Jabbari’s credibility.

Ant-Man and the Wasp: QuantumaniaJonathan Majors in "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania" (Jay Maidment/Marvel)Along with this, he’s also a highly skilled actor who reportedly inspired Marvel’s executives to change the plans for the franchise’s future and build Phase Six around his performance of Kang. Fan culture has long nourished the sentiment that extraordinary talent should, in some cases, operate as a kind of holy water washing away the sins of a problematic artist.

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This is why so many legendary performers and visual artists have gotten away with despicable behavior. Their violence, whether verbal or physical, was chalked up to eccentricity, something we all have to put up with to experience genius.

But as some of the people who claim to have experienced intolerable behavior by Majors point out, when that behavior comes at the cost of the physical and mental health of the people they work with, excusing it eventually becomes a matter of public endangerment. In 2018, a crew member on one of Depp’s films sued him for assault; a settlement agreement was reached before the matter went to court.

The producers of both '"Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Fantastic Beast" dropped Depp from their franchises after Heard’s allegations became public, and in a 2021 profile published in U.K.-based Times he lamented that Hollywood had boycotted him. He’s still working, mainly in Europe where other disgraced Hollywood luminaries including Kevin Spacey and Roman Polanski have found refuge.

But triumphing over Heard in their widely reported 2022 defamation suit fed the misogynist claim that Heard was a lying woman scorned as opposed to a domestic abuse survivor – which understandably proved detrimental to the psychological well-being of survivors who aren’t rich and famous. Their court case became a media feeding frenzy, kicking off social media attack campaigns that asymmetrically pummeled Heard.

We’d experience something similar later when Megan Thee Stallion’s assailant Tory Lanez went to trial last fall, bringing out celebrities and mudslingers masquerading as freelance journalists to attack her character, causing her substantial emotional and psychological distress.

A jury went on to find Lanez guilty of three felony charges related to injuring Megan Thee Stallion in 2020 by shooting at her feet. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison in August 2023. But Megan Thee Stallion is still ridiculed on social media.

Since Wright’s Variety interview was published in early October, the start date for Majors’ trial has been set to begin on Nov. 29. On the same Wednesday that a judge cleared the prosecution’s way to proceed, Jabbari was arrested on Wednesday at Manhattan’s 10th precinct on suspicion of misdemeanor assault and misdemeanor criminal mischief but subsequently released. In a Hollywood Reporter story published Thursday an outside expert described Majors’ counterclaim against Jabbari and subsequent arrest as a “publicity stunt” by the actor’s defense team.

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As we said: a mess, on many fronts. And it's set to get messier for the public witnessing this case unfold along with an accompanying flood of poisonous TikTok takes and insta-punditry on X, the social media platform formerly called Twitter.  

A jury may end up clearing Majors on these charges, making Marvel’s position seem prudent from a business perspective. For a public exhausted by the angry magpie chatter that always erupts around these trials, getting there will not be pleasant – and far less so for Jabbari and women in relationships they may view as akin to hers, who will see another survivor dragged through thorns in the public square.

Marvel executives know all of this, certainly. That may be why Kasra Farahani, who directed Majors in this season’s third episode of “Loki,” did both Majors and the studio a solid by telling Variety that. while he did not know of Majors’ arrest as the episode was being shot, “we had, honestly, such a great experience on the set. The cast was a wonderful ensemble. They all worked together super well. Tom would have an idea, Jonathan would have ideas, Owen is an idea machine. The experience on set was without any drama, and just a joy.”

There’s no reason to doubt Farahani’s take. As “Loki” proposes, everybody has behavioral variants.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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