Cate Shortland: Black Widow (2021) | poster excerpt
Scarlett Johansson in Black Widow (2021) | poster excerpt

Marvel Studios ‘Black Widow’ Mishandles the MCU’s Most Popular Female Character

Marvel Studios’ Black Widow was too little, too late for the MCU’s most popular female character due partially to misogynistic business practices at Disney.

Black Widow
Cate Shortland
Walt Disney Su

The Mishandling of Black Widow Continues

unfortunately, the mishandling continued offscreen as well. As previously mentioned, Black Widow was originally scheduled for release in May 2020, but the Covid-19 pandemic shut down the world in March 2020. Cinemas were closed and even when they reopened there was apprehension amongst much of the population about returning to an enclosed space with a crowd. Streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, and Apple+ experienced spikes in viewership because people were seeking entertainment from home. The studios, meanwhile, weighed their options.

The first major film to reopen cinemas would likely be a huge hit, but nobody knew when the pandemic would subside enough for that to happen. In April 2020, Black Widow was delayed to November in hopes cinemas would reopen by then. Warner Bros. attempted to reopen cinemas with Tenet (Nolan, 2020) in September, but it seriously underperformed. They tried a different idea with Wonder Woman 1984 (Jenkins, 2020). First, it was delayed from June to December, then Warner Bros. released it for free to all HBO Max subscribers on Christmas Day. They forfeited a potentially huge box office, but it increased HBO Max subscribers. Disney followed suit with Soul (Docter, 2020), a Pixar animated film delayed from the summer but released for free on Disney+ on Christmas Day. These films were diminished somewhat by opening directly on streaming, but they increased subscribers.

Besides waiting for cinemas to reopen and releasing the films to streaming, studios had another option: Premium Video On Demand (PVOD). In this case, films would be released on streaming services but subscribers would have to pay an extra fee (as much as $30) to watch them immediately. It would become free to subscribers several months later. Disney used this model to release Mulan (Caro, 2020) in September, and Raya and the Last Dragon (Estrada and Hall, 2021) in March 2021. Meanwhile, Black Widow was set to open in cinemas in May 2021. Disney had a backlog of films, making for an especially tricky scenario for Marvel Films which are interconnected and rely on a certain release order. When cinemas were not widely reopened in May, Disney made a drastic decision to simultaneously release Black Widow in cinemas and on PVOD in July. It was the first MCU film released in two years, quite a change from the oversaturation pre-pandemic, and it was the biggest theatrical hit since December 2019.

However, Hollywood contracts are complicated. Scarlett Johansson’s fee for Black Widow was, in part, tied to theatrical revenue, which was diminished by the PVOD release. When Warner Bros. released Wonder Woman 1984 to HBO Max, they very publicly paid director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Gadot millions to compensate for a lack of theatrical release. Johansson was not similarly compensated, so she sued the Walt Disney Company. Disney portrayed Johansson as greedy and unreasonable, claiming to be forced into PVOD by the pandemic. Johansson claimed that studios and streamers were massively profiting off streaming during the pandemic and using the situation to bypass contracts.

It is difficult to root for either side when it is a fight between a giant corporation and a wealthy actor, but Johansson deserves credit for publicly highlighting a new form of Hollywood accounting early in the streaming era. Disney and Johansson soon settled, but the situation was a distasteful off-screen epilogue to what was already an unsatisfying on-screen send-off to Johansson’s most popular role.

And so, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow was the most significant and popular female character in the most popular pop culture property of the 2010s. But studio politics prevented the character from being highlighted both in films and in toys and delayed her film too long. The film has its strong elements but is ultimately an unsatisfying, derivative superhero espionage story that amounts to too little, too late. Then the Covid-19 pandemic forced Disney to release the film in such a way that it diminished its impact and breached contracts. This is how Black Widow exits the MCU. Not with a well-deserved triumph, but with a poorly executed trip down the stairs. Not ideal.

Credits Scene(s)
In the post-credits scene set seven years later, after the events of Avengers: Endgame, Yelena visits Natasha’s grave. She is joined by Val (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who gives Yelena her next target: the man responsible for Natasha’s death, Clint Braton/Hawkeye. This plot thread is picked up in the Disney+ series Hawkeye (2021). Incidentally, this was meant to be Dreyfus’ first appearance as Val, four months before she appeared in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. But rescheduling moved this appearance later.

First Appearances
Florence Pugh debuts as Yelena and reprises her role in Hawkeye later in 2021. She will appear in future MCU projects.

Jade Xu appears as a nameless Black Widow in this film and reappears in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Cretton, 2021).

David Harbour’s Alexei and Rachel Weisz’s Melina are still on the board, so they may appear in future projects. As of now, nothing is confirmed.

Marvel Cinematic Universe Viewing Order
I am torn on this one. I like to group the films by “Phase”, and this was the first film released for MCU “Phase 4”. The post-credits scene certainly takes place after Avengers: Endgame. But the actual film is released shortly after Captain America: Civil War, and placing it there in the Viewing Order feels like a mild corrective to many of the “too little, too late” issues surrounding the film. So it’s going earlier.
See previous articles for other phases.

Phase 3
13. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
14. Captain America: Civil War
15. Black Panther
16. Black Widow
17. Doctor Strange
18. Spider-Man: Homecoming
19. Thor: Ragnarok
20. Ant-Man and the Wasp
21. Avengers: Infinity War
22. Captain Marvel
23. Avengers: Endgame
24. Spider-Man: Far From Home

Phase 4
25. WandaVision
26. Loki
27. [tbd]
28. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

Next Time: What If… Marvel Studios used an animated series to further explore the MCU multiverse?