After a blistering and unprecedented streak of billion-dollar-grossing films, Marvel superhero films took what was supposed to be a brief hiatus two years ago.
When “Black Widow” hits theaters on Friday, Hollywood will be watching to see if Marvel has regained its mojo after an involuntary hiatus caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I would say it is in flux, at a pretty critical turning point,” said Kendall Phillips, a pop culture expert at Syracuse University. “Black Widow,” which gives Scarlett Johansson’s Russian assassin-turned-superhero Natasha Romanoff her own spin-off, has been “in the can” since May 2020, as parent company Disney awaited the reopening of theaters.
It is now set to be the first of a slew of new Marvel films, with 12 big-budget good-versus-evil blockbusters due in theaters by the end of 2023 – not to mention a slew of TV shows that debuted during the pandemic or are on the way.
Even for a franchise that has previously produced three blockbusters per year – including “Avengers: Endgame,” which briefly surpassed “Avatar” as the highest-grossing film in history – this is a frantic pace. And the films’ resurgence comes at a time when moviegoers’ appetite for crowding into theaters remains uncertain.
Despite recent successes such as “A Quiet Place 2” and “F9,” only 80% of North American theaters are open, box office receipts are far below pre-pandemic levels, and fears of Covid-19 variants are growing.
“‘Black Widow,’ I’m sure, would make 10 to 15% more this weekend if all theaters were open and there was no such thing as Covid,” said David A. Gross, founder of movie consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research.
The loss of several stars complicates the overall Marvel relaunch. Iron Man and Captain America actors Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans have stepped down from their roles, while “Black Panther” actor Chadwick Boseman died of cancer last year.
His role will not be recast for the sequel, which will walk a fine line between honoring Boseman’s legacy and cashing in on the first film’s nearly $1.4 billion global gross.
In their absence, upcoming films will focus on lesser-known comic book characters like Shang-Chi and the “Eternals.”
In recent Marvel TV series on the Disney+ streaming platform, such as “WandaVision” and “Loki,” minor characters have been promoted to lead roles. However, Gross added: “I’d never wager against Marvel. They’ve essentially demolished every expectation and ceiling.”
According to Phillips, part of Marvel’s success stems from the production of culturally significant “event” films that attract “the everyday average moviegoer, who never read Marvel Comics, didn’t watch the cartoons, and doesn’t play the video games.”
“The tricky part is that they’re trying to keep those people on board and attract a new generation while not having those [famous] characters,” he explained.
Following in the footsteps of 2019’s groundbreaking female-led “Captain Marvel,” “Black Widow” will be the series’ first film directed entirely by a woman, with two female leads in Johansson and Florence Pugh.
Analysts are waiting to see if it will be the first film since the pandemic to gross more than $100 million in its first weekend.
These figures fall far short of the $350 million debut of “Avengers: Endgame,” and may be dampened by the film’s concurrent release on Disney+ streaming.
However, if it can even surpass “F9’s” recent $70 million box office, it will send a message that “Marvel is back, they’re in the movie theater, and that’s where fans want to see Marvel first,” according to Comscore box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian.