Why Did ‘Black Widow’ Disappoint at the Box Office?

Black Widow underperformed at the box office, leading to theater owners blaming Disney+ for eating into their revenue. However, this argument seems a bit unlikely. What's really happening with Black Widow, and how can theaters convince the crowds to come back?
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Black Widow was the triumphant return of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in theaters after the Dumpster fire that was the entire year of 2020 and the front half of 2021. After Phase III of the MCU went out on an astronomically high note with Avengers: Endgame, box office analysts assumed Black Widow would be the movie to blow the doors off of in-person cinema viewing again.

Scarlett Johansson in 'Black Widow'
Marvel Studios

They were wrong: Black Widow had a ho-hum second weekend and the National Association of Theater Owners has some theories about why this happened.

Black Widow dropped 67 percent in its second weekend, and the theater owners’ association directly blamed this drop-off on the film having a simultaneous release on Disney+, the streaming service that hosts all of Disney’s content. However, some analysts take issue with this reasoning. After all, Black Widow’s home video release occurred simultaneously with its theatrical debut, so why would the second-weekend falloff be related to the movie being available on a streaming platform?

After all, Space Jam beat out Black Widow at the box office, and it was also available on streaming. In fact, Space Jam was included with HBO Max for free, while Black Widow was an extra $30 on Disney+. Is it fair, then, to blame the same-day streaming release for the film’s underwhelming performance?

Space Jam
To be fair to Black Widow, it’s tough to beat LeBron dunking on cartoon characters. | Image: Warner Bros

So Why did ‘Black Widow’ Disappoint?

The question of why, exactly, Black Widow disappointed theater owners at the box office is a complicated one. It’s possible that audiences weren’t enthused by the idea of going back in time to see a story that was disconnected from the main MCU timeline. After all, the film takes place in 2016. Some other reasons might have to do with the character of Black Widow herself. Or, her fate in prior films, at least.

Major spoilers for every MCU film follow after this.

In Avengers: Endgame, Natasha Romanov sacrifices her own life so that the Avengers can get access to the Soul Stone. Her death in the film is sudden, and many viewers felt jarred by the sudden disappearance of Black Widow from the MCU. Following this major, controversial character death with a solo film for that character is more than a little weird.

Black Widow
Black Widow, as she appears in Captain America: Civil War. | Image Credit: Marvel Studios, Disney

Mismatched Expectations?

It’s possible that the Black Widow film experienced a steep second-week falloff specifically because of the weird decision to release it in 2021 instead of in 2016 or 2017, where it would have neatly slotted into the existing MCU timeline. Audiences might have gone into the theater in the first week to learn how the film resurrected Black Widow from the events of Endgame and how she could return to the big screen.

Instead, audiences got a small-scale, personal adventure for Nat that introduces her adoptive spy “family” and answers some questions about the Red Room and Nat’s backstory. For some audiences, this post-mortem character study might have felt a bit hollow, though. Why does this matter, after all, if Nat’s just permanently gone?

The Future for Theaters

Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, you can’t put it back in. Simultaneous releases for films on home streaming platforms are the new normal. No amount of press releases or heartfelt pleas from theater owners is going to change that HBO Max and Disney+ will probably play host to new movies as they come out. After all, why would studios share the entire revenue stream for the first several months of a film’s release when the events of the past year have shown that they can get just as much money by releasing them on their streaming platforms?

Whatever the future may hold for theaters, they’ll need to go out of their way to prove their value in the post-lockdown world. If they can’t keep up, they’ll go the way of Blockbuster and drive-ins. The only constant is change.

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