When it comes to moviegoers, there are few that assemble as forcefully as the ones who pledge allegiance to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Yet for the past two years, superhero enthusiasts have been deprived of Spandex-filled theatrical offerings as the pandemic forced Disney (and Sony) to postpone “Black Widow,” “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and “Eternals” over and over again. Sure, there has been a steady supply of Marvel-set TV spinoffs like “WandaVision,” “Loki” and “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” on Disney Plus to fill the comic book-sized void, but movie theater marquees have been without an all-important Marvel superhero tentpole since “Spider-Man: Far From Home” in July of 2019.
Enter Natasha Romanoff. After a year-plus delay, “Black Widow,” the standalone adventure starring Scarlett Johansson, is finally hitting theaters on Friday and is expected to have the best opening weekend of any pandemic-era release. Playing in 4,100 North American locations, “Black Widow” is currently on track to generate between $75 million to $85 million at the domestic box office over its first three days. It’s poised to make an additional $50 million internationally, where the film is playing in 46 overseas markets. In China, a critical moviegoing market for Marvel installments, “Black Widow” still doesn’t have a release date.
Should estimates hold, “Black Widow” will overtake “F9” and its $70 million domestic debut as the best start for a movie released during the pandemic. Making projections tricky, however, is the fact that “Black Widow” is premiering simultaneously on Disney Plus for a $30 rental fee. Disney has deployed a similar strategy for several big titles, including the animated adventure “Raya and the Last Dragon” (which opened to $8.5 million in early May) and “Cruella” with Emma Stone (which opened to a more impressive $21 million later in May), and will repeat the approach with “Jungle Cruise” on July 30. Yet the $200-million budgeted “Black Widow” is the first tentpole of this scale to launch on the big screen and at home on the same day, presenting a potential obstacle for the otherwise unrivaled commercial track record of the MCU.
The projected opening weekend of “Black Widow” would be a strong result for COVID times, but it would represent a steep decline from the debuts of recent standalone Marvel titles, like 2019’s “Captain Marvel” ($153 million), 2018’s “Black Panther” ($202 million), 2017’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” ($146 million) and “Thor: Ragnarok” ($122 million). The franchise’s every-hero-but-the-kitchen-sink mashup adventures, such as 2015 “Avengers: Age of Ultron”($191 million), 2018’s “Infinity War” ($257 million) and 2019’s “Endgame” ($357 million), tend to have stratospheric launches, a reason why Marvel movies regularly blow past the $1 billion mark at the global box office with ease. A start above $75 million wouldn’t be far off from 2019’s “Spider-Man: Far From Home” ($92 million) and 2018’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp” ($75 million), which each ended their theatrical runs with respectable global tallies and focused on a few key characters instead of a cavalcade of costumed vigilantes. Disney isn’t expected to disclose how many people opt to rent the film on its subscription-based streaming service, though it’s expected to put a dent in overall ticket sales.
Fandango, the online movie ticketing service, reported on Wednesday that advanced ticket sales for “Black Widow” are the strongest of the year, outpacing “F9” and “A Quiet Place Part II.” The company noted that “Black Widow” has eclipsed pre-sales for fellow Marvel titles “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and Doctor Strange,” both of which were released far before scientists were aware of the virus that would become known as SARS-CoV-2. For reference, “Doctor Strange” opened to $85 million in 2016 and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” pulled in $117 million in its inaugural weekend in 2017.
Fandango’s managing editor Erik Davis says “Black Widow” offers the kind of cinematic spectacle that demands to be seen on a large screen in a darkened cinema.
“This action-packed film delivers on every level, giving fans the immersive, big-screen summer blockbuster, they’ve come to expect from Marvel Studios, along with a compelling storyline, engaging humor, and a memorable cast of characters, including exciting newcomers to the MCU,” Davis said in a statement.
Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige echoed that sentiment last week at a “Black Widow” fan event in Los Angeles. He says the $70 million opening weekend of “F9” is an “amazing sign” for the movie theater industry, adding that “we want to root for other people’s success” as the business rebounds.
“Pre-release ticket sales [for ‘Black Widow’] are showing us that people are ready to have that shared communal cinematic experience, which is why Marvel movies exist,” he told Variety.
Movie theaters could use a hero. The film exhibition business has endured its most punishing 18-month period in the medium’s history, one that resulted in prolonged theater closures and endless release date delays. As of this weekend, 80% of North American cinemas have reopened but many in Canada, which accounts for a significant portion of domestic grosses, remain shuttered. At the same time, roughly 17% of international territories, including parts of Southeast Asia and Latin America, have closed again to help curb the spread of new variants of COVID-19. It may be a while before moviegoing rebounds to pre-pandemic levels, but at the very least, “Black Widow” should beget a much-needed boost in popcorn sales.
Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland (“Berlin Syndrome”) directed “Black Widow,” a spy thriller that takes place between the events of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” long before Natasha Romanoff (a.k.a. Black Widow) became one of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. In the standalone film, she’s forced to confront the darker parts of her past when she’s faced with dangerous conspiracy. Florence Pugh, David Harbour and Rachel Weisz co-star as other members of the Romanoff clan.
Marc Malkin contributed to this report.