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With ‘Black Widow’ ticket buying suddenly drying up, growing questions for Disney’s Marvel about what did it in

Disney’s big post-pandemic hope falls

Marvel's “Black Widow,” starring Scarlett Johansson as the dark title character, grossed just $26 million at the box office this past weekend. (Marvel Studios-Disney/AP)
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Maybe it’s the model. Or maybe it’s Marvel.

Disney’s highly anticipated Marvel film “Black Widow” suffered a brutal blow at the box office this weekend, falling 67 percent compared to its opening weekend and dashing hopes at the company for a July hit.

Potentially even more worrisome for Disney is that the poor numbers may not have been solely the result of its decision to make the movie available simultaneously for $30 on Disney Plus: It could be that consumers don’t want to pay for Marvel content in the numbers they once did, no matter the venue.

If true, it would imperil the most lucrative movie universe of all time at precisely the post-pandemic moment movie theaters need it most and throw Marvel’s larger financial future into question along with it.

“I assumed this would be a bigger, more consistent hit,” said Josh Spiegel, a commentator and leading Disney expert. “If ‘Black Widow’ can only do what it did in its second weekend, there’s a part of me that says people may be a little tired of Marvel. That should make Disney worried.”

Scarlett Johansson plays a Russian spy named Natasha Romanoff in Marvel's "Black Widow." (Video: Marvel Studios)

The underperformance is particularly concerning for Disney as it seeks to unleash a barrage of new movies in its so-called “Phase 4” of storytelling in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU, as it’s known. (The third started winding down with the megahit “Avengers: Endgame” in 2019.) This September “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” — Marvel’s first film with an Asian lead — will kick off six new MCU movies through next July after 24 months without a new film. (The stretch will culminate with “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” without that series’ lead, the late Chadwick Boseman.)

A Disney spokeswoman declined to comment for this story.

The MCU is the most lucrative group of movies at the country’s largest entertainment conglomerate. Its nearly two dozen installments have grossed more than $8.5 billion at theaters in the United States and an additional $14 billion at theaters overseas, while also generating billions more digitally and in merchandising.

Starring Scarlett Johansson as the dark title character, “Black Widow” was supposed to slide right into that lucrative tradition. The film, which explores its protagonist’s backstory, has long been awaited by fans; its numerous pandemic postponements beginning in May 2020 amounted to a kind of de facto teaser campaign. The film finally came to theaters and Disney Plus’s Premier platform July 9.

But after a middling (for Marvel) start of $80 million in theaters, the film grossed just $26 million at the box office this past weekend, finishing in second place to LeBron James’s comedy “Space Jam: A New Legacy.” Its second-weekend plunge, it turns out, is the biggest of any Disney-released Marvel film, which generally play well for weeks.

The film now stands with $132 million in U.S. receipts over 11 days of release and could wind up as the lowest-grossing Disney Marvel film ever. (A distinction held by “Captain America: The First Avenger,” with $177 million a decade ago.) Most Marvel films exceed $300 million domestic, and many have surpassed $400 million.

“Black Widow” has not fared much better overseas, where it has yet to be given a release slot in China and has struggled in some countries. All told, the film has so far grossed $263 million worldwide, way off the pace set by many of Marvel’s billion-dollar releases.

While some might chalk up the results to covid-related consumer nervousness about theatrical moviegoing, experts note that does not explain the relatively low numbers in Disney Plus sales. Disney said the film took in $60 million in “consumer spend globally” the first weekend, referring to Disney Plus purchases, and did not report second-weekend sales. Figures of that size won’t make up the theatrical shortfall.

Disney chief executive Bob Chapek announced in March the company would release “Black Widow” simultaneously in theaters and as a paid-purchase option on Disney Plus because of the uncertainty around the reopening of theatrical markets. Some theater owners, however, worried the company was using the pandemic as an opportunity to test a new model that disadvantaged theaters, which typically have enjoyed several months of exclusive windows.

The National Association of Theatre Owners trade group responded to the results Sunday with a long statement criticizing Disney for the simultaneous release, saying that it had undermined a “well-made, well-received, highly anticipated movie” with its rollout. “Simultaneous release is a pandemic-era artifact that should be left to history with the pandemic itself,” it said.

Simultaneity is also a tack controversially taken by Warner Bros. for all of its 2021 movies, including “Space Jam.” Universal Pictures, though, followed the more traditional release formula for its recent “F9” sequel as did Paramount Pictures’ for its horror drama “A Quiet Place Part II.” Both performed better than “Black Widow” relative to their respective predecessors.

Disney won’t have much flexibility to pivot or scale back in Phase 4, which began with Disney Plus show “WandaVision” this winter and will encompass as many as two dozen series and movies through at least 2023. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige is famous for planning out arcs years in advance to give the story lines cohesion; fan sites have already begun delineating story “sectors” drafting off hints in “Black Widow.”

The MCU unofficially kicked off with Robert Downey Jr.’s “Iron Man” in 2008, when Marvel’s movies were being distributed by Paramount. It reached an early apex with Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” in 2012, several years after Disney acquired Marvel, as audiences took to the world’s sprawling mythology and high stakes combined with intimate quips and personal drama. Under Feige, the MCU in the years since has spawned one global hit after another, creating legions of fans and lining the pockets of Disney, its shareholders and movie-theater owners.

Few doubted the ability of Feige to continue that mojo even after “Avengers: Endgame” appeared to cap a long and winding story, and even though many profitable franchises, such as Disney’s own Star Wars, eventually came upon creative bumps and consumer fatigue.

But the pandemic pause — and the subsequent geyser of Marvel content on Disney Plus — may have damaged those hopes. An MCU bounty has been available for free to the more than 100 million Disney Plus subscribers over the past six months, with shows such as “Loki,” “WandaVision” and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” debuting. Disney leaders have aimed to attract as many people as possible to its service with high-value content. But in the process they may have done something else — conditioned consumers to the idea that Marvel material is not something to pay extra for.

Some analysts said they think consumer mind-set may have indeed played a role in the “Black Widow” underperformance, but for a different reason: By making the movie available for digital purchase right away, Disney compressed a schedule and deterred consumers.

“I think what this shows is that if you’re making a movie available quickly for free on streaming, people will just wait,” said Alicia Reese, an equity-research analyst at investment firm Wedbush Securities who closely follows the theatrical industry. “If Disney goes back to the traditional model, I think people will be less patient and come back to the theater.” “Black Widow” will be available on Disney Plus just three months after its release, a quicker turnaround than many other films. (Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” waited a long eight months.) “Shang-Chi” will follow a more traditional slow pattern: a 45-day wait for digital sales before eventual availability on other platforms.

Piracy is also a concern with a simultaneous release. “Black Widow” was the most pirated title of the week, according to one authority.

And a prime demographic for Marvel movies is children under 12; it’s possible that parents and summer camps made single Premier purchases to show to large groups of unvaccinated children instead of buying a slew of individual tickets to a theater.

Even skeptics like Disney commentator Spiegel are not ready to write Marvel’s obituary. He points to the tepid reviews of “Black Widow” and the fact that the movie occupies a kind of no man’s land in the universe’s timeline — before “Endgame,” which means moviegoers know the character’s fate — as factors. The performance of “Shang-Chi'” and November’s “Eternals,” from “Nomadland” director Chloe Zhao,” could better reveal whether Disney has reason to worry, he said.

Theaters owners, however, say that even if the MCU sputters they will have little reason to panic.

“To me the debate isn’t whether Marvel can or should go on forever,” said Chris Johnson, co-owner and chief executive of Classic Cinemas, which controls 131 screens in Illinois and Wisconsin. “It’s that we need a wide range of releases to bring out a wide range of audiences, audiences that don’t necessarily love superheroes and explosions.”

He said he was optimistic that if Marvel foundered others would step in. “Creativity isn’t owned by one company,” he said.