Scarlett Johansson-led film arrives more than a year later than planned in an evolving cinematic market

Is it safe? Are we back to normal yet? Can we take down the sandbags and discontinue the nightly blackout?

It is nearly a year since blockbuster cinema made its first nervous steps back into the enormoplex. Remember when Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was set to save the medium? That didn’t quite happen. Wonder Woman 1984 later failed to restart the machine at Christmas.

Cinemas were open and thriving in China, but Europe and America was still coughing through a second or third wave. Bad Boys For Life, the highest-grossing film in the US last year, was released before the pandemic set in. No title that premiered after March 6th secured a top-10 spot in the US chart for takings in 2020.

The current reopening feels different. Fast and Furious 9 has already made back its production budget in early release elsewhere and seems set to take sums comparable to earlier episodes. Then we have the return of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Scarlett Johansson: “I’m more comfortable with jumping into the unknown with stuff – with taking risks and seeing how stuff plays out.”

Nobody is much talking about the pandemic at the global press event for Black Widow. Looking crisp in a pistachio jumper and dangly earrings, Scarlett Johansson is pondering the responsibility of finally playing the title character in an MCU release.

“I spent such a long chunk of my adulthood playing this character that I certainly am less afraid of things now than I was 10 years ago,” she says. “Which is good. I feel like that’s a positive progression in life. Not physically. Physically, I’m more terrified of stuff than I used to be. But I am definitely more comfortable taking risks. I’m more comfortable with jumping into the unknown with stuff – with taking risks and seeing how stuff plays out.”

Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, works hard to sell his star to a receptive audience. “Scarlett Johansson is an amazing performer and with each and every appearance, you learned more, you saw more and you wanted to know more,” he says. “And the fact that we finally have an entire feature dedicated to her was very exciting for all of us. And now that it’s coming out and people can see it is even more exciting.”

There are still millions out there who will pay to see Marvel movies on the biggest screen

That “finally” speaks to a long struggle. First conceived for the Marvel comic Tales of Suspense in 1964, the character, alias for one Natasha Romanova, began as a Russian spy before defecting to the US and becoming part first of the espionage body Shield and then a member of the mighty, all-conquering Avengers. Back in 2004, the movie rights were acquired by Lionsgate Films. That project faltered.

Then the Marvel Cinematic Universe cranked into action. There was talk of Emily Blunt taking on the role, but Johansson ultimately secured the gig and made her first sleek appearance in Iron Man 2 back in 2010.

Over the last decade, Hollywood has been under increasing pressure to push forward diversity and find more prominent roles for female characters. The notion of a standalone film for Black Widow became something of a cause célèbre. Why the heck was stupid Ant-Man getting a feature when the more popular Black Widow was still waiting to get her name over the marquee?

As it happened, Captain Marvel, a hit for Brie Larson, beat Natasha to the punch in 2019. All seemed sunny when Cate Shortland was signed to deliver Black Widow for 2020 and, thus, became the first woman to direct an MCU title on her own. 2020? Just another year. Nothing special about that date, bar it being the beginning of a new decade. Right?

Walt Disney, parent company of Marvel Studios, can congratulate themselves on putting women front and forward with this project. At the press event, Feige and supporting player David Harbour are outnumbered by Shortland, Johansson and co-stars Florence Pugh and Rachel Weisz.

“I love stories about women directed by women. I love playing opposite woman,” Weisz, who plays a mother-figure to Natasha, tells us. “I like stories about people. But it was wonderful to tell a story about three complicated strong women.”

All was set for a new dawn. Then 2020 turned out to be a more unusual year than we had anticipated. Marvel had already brought a degree of pressure upon itself.

With all the premature chatter about Covid dealing some sort of death blow to an already-ailing medium, it is too often forgotten that just two years ago the studio, with Avengers Endgame, gave us the highest-grossing film of all time (it lost the title back to Avatar this March when that film was re-released in China, but that’s another story). Those audiences have not been carried away in the rapture. There are still millions out there who will pay to see Marvel movies on the biggest screen.

Scarlett Johansson in Black Widow: Why the heck was stupid Ant-Man getting a feature when the more popular Black Widow was still waiting to get her name over the marquee?
Scarlett Johansson in Black Widow: Why the heck was stupid Ant-Man getting a feature when the more popular Black Widow was still waiting to get her name over the marquee?

The original release date for Black Widow was May 1st, 2020. When the history of cinema during the pandemic era comes to be written, a chapter inevitably titled “A Canary in the Coalmine” will deal with Eon Productions’ decision, made as early as March 4th of last year, to shift No Time To Die, the still imminent 25th James Bond film, from April 2020 until November of that year (later moved again to September 2021).

Many thought the move was an overreaction. A trailer for Black Widow arrived with the original date displayed prominently. Top industry boffins declared that Marvel was not going to shift. Then the walls fell in.

A year and quarter later, more has changed than even the wildest prognosticators could have guessed. And Disney has made more radical decisions than most. Some studios released a few high-budget duds on streaming services during the pandemic.

Most of the tentpole releases were, however, held back for the reopening of cinemas. Eon made it clear from the start that venerable James Bond would not be making his debut on the small screen. Disney did, however, edge titles such as Mulan, a live-action remake of an animated hit; and Soul, a lovely new film from Pixar, onto their Disney+ streaming service.

It was subsequently reported that, some days after Soul’s release, 13 per cent of new subscribers had signed on just to watch the future Oscar winner.

All this was happening during the darker days of Covid. There was more marked surprise when it was confirmed that both Cruella, prequel to One Hundred and One Dalmatians, and Black Widow, return of the era’s most lucrative franchise, would arrive on Disney+ at more or less the same time as they landed in cinemas. Luca, the latest from Pixar, arrived on Disney+ on June 18th without troubling physical cinemas. 

The voodoo economics of the plague times are so skewed it is almost impossible to draw any useful conclusions about how the shifts in strategy are playing out. How much damage does a simultaneous streaming release do to your theatrical box office? Scott Mendelson, veteran box office analyst for Fortune magazine, was not much impressed with Cruella’s $87 million takings during its first two weeks in US cinemas.

“By any rational theatrical standard, even on a Covid curve, the film isn’t exactly blowing the doors down,” he wrote. Maybe the films is making a fortune at its “premium” rate on Disney+. Perhaps old-school box office doesn’t matter. The sums just don’t add up as they once did.

It seems likely that we will never return to the old normal. Black Widow is not here to announce the end of anything or the beginning of anything. The film’s arrival in both cinemas and on the digital stream marks the next chapter for an evolving industry that has not yet recovered from its Covid concussion.

Remember this, however. Disney films earned about $19 billion in 2019. On the eve of the first infection, theatrical exhibition was still a massively profitable business. Only a fool would write its obituary.

Oh, and the Black Widow press event was on Zoom. There is a change that really may be here to stay.

Black Widow releases in cinemas from July 7th, and on Disney+ with Premier Access on July 9th