Despite controversy and a fan petition, WB can't fire Amber Heard or ask her to quit Aquaman 2, as they asked Johnny Depp to quit Fantastic Beasts 3.
Despite a growing fan movement to remove Amber Heard from Aquaman 2, Warner Bros. cannot fire her or ask her to resign, as they did in the case of Johnny Depp and Fantastic Beasts 3. This is largely due to how various legalities are handled differently in different countries; a point that has only served to pour gasoline on the fire of an already explosive situation.
The controversy began when Amber Heard and Johnny Depp underwent a tumultuous divorce in 2016. Heard claimed that Depp had been physically abusive, usually while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Depp denied the charges and a police investigation found no evidence of a crime occurring. Later that year, Heard accepted a $7 million settlement as part of their divorce, which she donated to charity.
Heard and Depp also issued a joint statement describing their relationship as "intensely passionate and at times volatile" while affirming that there had been no intention of physical or mental abuse and that neither of them had made any "false accusations for financial gain." Their divorce was finalized in January 2017, shortly after it was announced that Depp had been cast as the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald in the Fantastic Beasts films spinning out of the Harry Potter franchise. While it had seemed for a time there might be peace between the former lovers, their war was just beginning.
How Johnny Depp's Casting As Grindelwald Rekindled His Feud With Amber Heard
The backlash against Johnny Depp and Warner Bros. was immediate, but the studio, director David Yates and author J.K. Rowling defended Depp, pointing to the police investigation and the joint letter with Amber Heard as proof that Depp was innocent of any wrong-doing. Heard responded by pointing out that the joint statement also agreed that she hadn't said anything untruthful in a bid to benefit financially, implying that Depp had admitted to the truth of her allegations of abuse. It should be noted, however, that Depp had also alleged physical and emotional abuse at the hand of Heard, though his allegations have been made through court documents rather than public statements.
Heard went on to write an editorial describing her status as a public figure who had suffered domestic abuse, which was published in The Washington Post in December 2018. Despite the editorial not mentioning Depp by name, Depp responded by filing a $50 million civil suit against Heard in March 2019. Depp also filed a civil suit against the British newspaper The Sun, regarding its reporting on the case, which explicitly referred to him as a "wife-beater." It is the recent resolution of this court case which led to the latest developments in the on-going battle between Depp and Heard and Depp's being asked to resign from the Fantastic Beasts franchise.
Why Johnny Depp Has Left Fantastic Beasts 3
When considering Johnny Depp's civil suit against The Sun, it is important to note the differences in libel law in the United States and the United Kingdom. In American courts, the burden of proof in a defamation of character case rests on the plaintiff, who must prove a malicious intent and disregard for the truth on the part of the reporter. This is often difficult given the free speech protections for reporters written into the US Constitution. By contrast, in English courts, the burden of proof lies on the accused journalist, who have to prove that they weren't operating in bad faith as well as the accuracy of their reporting. It is for this reason that many civil suits against investigative reporters are filed in the United Kingdom, where the libel laws and courts tend to favor the person filing the suit.
The Sun beat the odds, however, with Judge Andrew Nicol from the Royal Courts of Justice ruling against Depp. Of the 14 specific allegations of abuse that Amber Heard had made which were reported upon by the paper, the burden of proof had been satisfied for 12 of them, in Judge Nicol's legal opinion. While this has no effect on Depp's personal defamation suit against Heard regarding her editorial in the United States, the news that he had failed to prove that he wasn't a wife-beater to the satisfaction of a British court was still a blow to his public image and one that made Warner Bros. nervous about continuing to employ him in the Fantastic Beasts movies.
While the precise details of Depp's contract with Warner Bros. are unknown, it is typical for big name actors to have protections from being fired except under certain circumstances, including criminal charges being filed against them. This meant that Depp could not be sacked because of the findings of his civil case against The Sun, as that was a civil trial rather than a criminal one. He could, however, be asked to resign so long as he was paid his $10 million salary in full, which is what came to pass. This was to the benefit of both Depp and Warner Bros. as Depp no longer had to worry about balancing his time between court appearances and filming a major motion picture and the studio could continue the filming of Fantastic Beasts 3 without having to accommodate Depp's schedule. Unfortunately for the studio, there seems little chance that Warner Bros. will dodge the scandal they'd hoped to avoid by releasing Depp from his contract.
Why WB Can't Fire Amber Heard From Aquaman 2 (Or Ask Her To Step Down)
In the wake of Johnny Depp's resignation, a movement has risen up against Amber Heard and begun working to get her removed from playing Mera in any further DCEU films, such as the Snyder Cut of Justice League or Aquaman 2. This is due to the allegations that Heard was just as abusive toward Depp as he was towards her and that she may have been the instigator of the physical abuse in their relationship, which Depp reportedly responded to in self-defense. The key piece of evidence here is a recording of a phone conversation between Depp and Heard, in which Heard admitted to having physically assaulted Depp and Depp spoke of trying to prevent further violence between them.
While one fan petition to fire Heard from Aquaman 2 has received over 1 million signatures, Warner Bros. cannot fire Heard for the same reasons they could not fire Depp. Typically it is impossible for a studio to break their contract with an actor unless criminal charges have been filed against them. While the court of public opinion may have found Heard guilty of being abusive toward her former husband, the teaming masses have no power in an American civil or criminal court. Likewise, the studio cannot ask Heard to step down as they did Depp, as there has been no civil judgement against her.
This could change if Depp wins his civil suit against Heard and proves to the satisfaction of an American court that she lied about him abusing her or that she painted his acts of self-defense as abuse. For the time being, however, Heard is still lined up to play Mera in Aquaman 2 and Depp is definitely out of Fantastic Beasts 3. The only certainty now is that this matter is unlikely to be settled quickly or quietly.