Will Disney Delay Black Widow Release Over Coronavirus Fears?

Hollywood and theater owners hold their breath while Disney holds its fire on Black Widow, the next Marvel tentpole that might get caught up in the coronavirus crisis.

Scarlett Johannson as Marvel's Black Widow
Photo: Marvel Studios

On May 1, Disney and Marvel Studios intend to release Black Widow, the 24th film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the first in the MCU in nearly 10 months (the last was July’s Spider-Man: Far from Home). The film stars Scarlett Johansson as the eponymous Russian superspy and Avengers charter member, who she’s played since 2010’s Iron Man 2. The picture is also a first for the Marvel film franchise—it’s a prequel. Set between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, the film is finally going to explore Nat’s backstory and is expected to truly kickoff Marvel’s “Phase 4.”

Unless it doesn’t. The coronavirus pandemic has caused a massive disruption not just in the daily lives of billions but in many major industries, including entertainment. Initially considered an outlier due to its specific international brand, the James Bond film No Time to Die was the first wide theatrical tentpole to move off its April release date. It was not the last.

As the virus expanded its spread across the United States, and was officially recognized as a pandemic by the World Health Organization, nearly every major Hollywood studio put upcoming releases on hold: F9: The Fast Saga (Universal), A Quiet Place Part II (Paramount), Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway (Sony), The Lovebirds (Paramount), and three pictures from Disney—Mulan, New Mutants and Antlers—are among the bigger titles that have all been either postponed indefinitely or moved to a new date.

Additionally, Disney was the first to shut down production on most of its in-progress TV shows and movies, including another Marvel film (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings). Still, the Mouse House has remained silent on the fate of Black Widow. With the release of the film just seven weeks away, will Disney hold fast and try to ride out the COVID-19 storm or attempt to move the next entry in its most valuable franchise out of the path of the disease?

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Moving or delaying Black Widow could have staggering implications for the rest of the movie industry—as well as the pandemic itself. Disney arguably has a cushion of, perhaps, three weeks to see how the virus plays out. If the studio decides by early or even mid-April to take the Widow off her May 1 perch, that would mean not only does the studio lack the confidence in the marketplace to share its new Marvel blockbuster, but in turn that the country has not weathered the worst of this crisis just yet.

Let’s be clear: that sobering prospect, and the human and societal cost that could come with it, remain the most urgent priorities for the nation and the world at large. But since we’re focusing here on the film industry, Disney blinking on Black Widow could have a domino effect that sends the movie business into a tailspin for months with continued delays, shrinking audiences, job losses, and a detrimental ripple effect on Disney and the other studios all possible.

What are Disney’s options with Black Widow? The company does have several, actually, ranging from the predictable to the bold, and all come with inherent risks and advantages:

Stay on Target

The execs at Disney and Marvel may be experts at creating and marketing blockbuster family entertainment, but they’re certainly not scientists. No one can predict where the pandemic will be in a few weeks or a month, but Disney could keep Black Widow on May 1 and hope for the best. This in itself, however, could end up with a few different scenarios:

By the time early May rolls around, the worst of the COVID-19 crisis could be behind us and people worldwide, relieved and looking for just the kind of escapism and fun that a Marvel movie almost always promises, could flock to theaters and make the movie a giant success—something that, with its prequel nature and its focus on a character that audiences saw die just last year, was not necessarily guaranteed.

Or the movie could arrive and, even if all seems to be on the mend, still face some strong headwinds. One might be a public leery to come out in droves just yet for mass gatherings in close quarters. The other could be theater chains that are still closed or have temporarily decreased capacity in their auditoriums, as the country’s biggest chain, AMC, did on Friday before NYC and LA shut them down. As we write this, even more pressure has come to bear on the film industry: Los Angeles and New York City have shut down all their movie theaters entirely to help halt the spread of the virus, and it’s a good bet that at least some of the other major metropolitan areas will follow suit.

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A Short Hop

Disney could also move Black Widow to a slightly later release date. Right now there isn’t a single Friday in May that could offer serious competition to the epic battle between Natasha and Taskmaster: in fact, May 2020 was looking remarkably weak in terms of tentpoles even before F9 moved off its original May 22 starting line.

Disney itself has Artemis Fowl coming on May 29, so it might veer away from that (not that the two have much overlap), but even if the company shifts the Widow to the May 8, 15, or 22, there’s little to interfere with her, and she still has a few weeks to erase the red in her ledger before Wonder Woman 1984 swings into action on June 5.

A Long Leap

Now we get into some trickier territory. If Disney is not feeling good at all about Black Widow’s chances in May, the company could move the movie out of that month completely—and that has bigger ramifications.

Where could she go? Disney has Pixar’s Soul coming on June 19, and it could perhaps bump that animated entry into a later slot and put Black Widow there instead. That lets the movie open a full two weeks after Wonder Woman 1984–not ideal but not too bad—but it also puts it nearly head to head with Tom Cruise’s Top Gun: Maverick, which opens on June 24. Aside from that potential behemoth, the competition is rather sparse for several weeks.

The other possibility would be to move Black Widow into the November 6 release slot of the next Marvel Studios movie—The Eternals. But that in turn literally pushes the entire MCU, which really works like a giant, interlocking TV series, six months into the future. Marvel only has two movies coming out this year (and allegedly two Disney+ series with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and WandaVision, although production on both is paused at the moment). However, the studio has four scheduled in 2021: Shang-Chi in February, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness in May, Spider-Man 3 (which is technically a Sony release, but is set in the MCU) in July, and Thor: Love and Thunder in November. Add a couple more Disney+ entries, and there’s not a whole lot of room to stick Eternals in there… unless the pandemic continues to slow production down on any or all of those titles, which is a distinct and increasingly strong possibility.

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Moving Black Widow out of May, when the theater exhibition business is already going to be reeling from the loss of business between now and then, could be a fatal blow to a lot of movie theaters. But there is another option that could be even deadlier for them.

The Disney+ Option

 There has been scattered speculation online that Disney could make a bold move and premiere Black Widow on its relatively young streaming service, Disney+.

For theater owners, that would be not just unplugging the patient’s life support but then taking their pillow and smothering them. Exhibitors already feel bullied by Disney, which demands a larger cut upfront from the box office than the other studios. Because the company releases almost nothing but blockbusters year after year, the theater owners pretty much have to kowtow to the Mouse.

Such a move might cause a rift between Disney and the exhibitors that even Avengers: Endgame Reunion couldn’t heal. On the other hand, perhaps Disney could somehow get the theater owners involved. In a long shot alternative, Disney could either allow them to stream the movie first (although at present AMC is the only chain with its own branded streaming service) or figure out a way to charge a premium to watch the film and give the owners a desperately needed piece of the action.

Paying a premium on top of their monthly subscription fee might cause some Disney+ subscribers to grumble, but since a lot of them were going to pay to see the movie in theaters anyway, who cares? And the rush of new subscribers and publicity for Disney+—which is currently struggling to generate some excitement between seasons of The Mandalorian—might be a shot in the arm for the service.

With all these options, one thing is probably certain: Disney and the rest of the studios are going to have to dial down their expectations. There’s a very good chance that the pandemic and its aftermath, both socially and economically, are going to have lingering effects for months to come, if not the rest of 2020. That means that even the biggest cinematic behemoths may not pull down the record-setting opening weekends or billion-dollar grosses that are now the standard. Whenever or however Black Widow does come out, Disney should just be glad that people still want to see it, and adjust accordingly.

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It may be a while before the movie studios can erase the red that will accumulate in their own ledgers from this terrible, surreal spring, but if Natasha Romanoff can eventually do it, so can they.

Black Widow is scheduled to open, for now, on May 1.