Disney is debuting Black Widow as a Disney Plus Premier Access title alongside its theatrical release this summer, sacrificing one of its biggest potential summer blockbusters to its streaming service and forgoing what would almost certainly have been hundreds of millions (or even billions) of dollars at the box office in the process.
In a vacuum, Disney could have waited to release Black Widow until theaters were back to normal in a post-pandemic world, and reaped the box office rewards. But in many ways, the company is a victim of its own success. The ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe means that each new Disney Plus show or blockbuster film relies on previous Marvel entries, and Disney just couldn’t keep delaying its next wave of superhero adventures.
By the time Black Widow hits theaters — and now, Disney Plus — on July 9th, it’ll have been over a year since its intended release date of May 1st, 2020. Some of the ripple effects of those successive delays are easy to see: each time Disney has moved Black Widow, it’s caused a cascade of delays to its other films, like Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (originally meant for February 12th, 2021, now out September 3rd), Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (originally planned to hit theaters on May 7th, 2021, and currently planned for March 25th, 2022), and Thor: Love and Thunder (moved from November 5th, 2021 to May 6th, 2022).
And if the Marvel Universe was just movies, those successive delays would be fine; everything stays in the intended order, and while Disney would be out of its billions of box office revenue for an extra quarter or two, it’d bounce back once those movies started hitting packed theaters again.
But the company’s recent Disney Plus ambitions further complicate things. Disney can keep delaying its movies indefinitely — as, indeed, films like No Time To Die or F9 have continued to do while waiting out the pandemic. But thanks to the tangled web of storylines crossing between those blockbuster films and the streaming shows, constantly moving back release dates for one thing — like Black Widow — can hold up the entire slate from moving forward.
The strain of scheduling is already apparent. Take WandaVision, which kicked off the company’s Disney Plus lineup earlier this year in its original 2021 slot. (This was mainly because COVID-19-related production delays forced The Falcon and the Winter Solider from its fall 2020 slot.)
Under the original, pre-delay schedule, the surreal WandaVision would have been the second Disney Plus show (after the more traditional Falcon and the Winter Solider), and would have been followed just a few short weeks after its debut by Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness in March, which promises to pick up Wanda’s story where the show left off. Instead, fans will have to wait over a year to find out what happens next, ruining the carefully planned synergy between streaming subscriptions and box office receipts.
But unlike its films, Disney can’t afford to delay its streaming shows indefinitely. The fledgling streaming service is still extremely short on high-profile, must-watch shows — The Mandalorian being the only other non-Marvel title that fits the bill.
Shows like WandaVision, Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki are crucial to keeping subscribers paying for Disney Plus month after month, and Disney Plus’ continued growth in revenue is crucial to Disney’s future. As CEO Bob Chapek commented earlier this year, Disney’s “direct-to-consumer business is the company’s top priority, and our robust pipeline of content will continue to fuel its growth.”
The interconnectedness that has long been one of Marvel’s biggest strengths (best exemplified by its famous post-credit scenes and its incredibly popular crossover films) is conversely one of its biggest weaknesses here. Characters introduced in Black Widow are supposed to be in the upcoming Hawkeye series, for example, which is planned for later in 2021.
If Disney delays Black Widow, it has to delay Hawkeye, lest it spoil surprises or confuse viewers. Delay Black Widow too much (as has happened multiple times already) and the company has to move all its other films — like Shang Chi; Eternals; and the Doctor Strange, Thor, and Black Panther sequels. The tie-in effects then continue to cascade; delay Thor: Love and Thunder too much, and you have to delay Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, which in turn delays that franchise’s holiday special for Disney Plus, and so on.
In a perfect world, Disney would want to wait for theaters to release Black Widow. But right now the company needs the long-term Disney Plus growth much more than a short-term windfall from one summer blockbuster. And to achieve that growth, it needs a steady drip of marquee content.
The move isn’t a total loss for Disney, though. Moving Black Widow helps to keep the Disney Plus machine going and keeps the theatrical schedule on track for the fall when theaters can hopefully reopen.
But the short-term loss could reap bigger gains for Disney down the line: if you want to watch Black Widow this summer, you have two options. You can go and buy expensive movie tickets in person, in which case Disney’s box office goals will be that much closer to succeeding. Or you either pony up for Disney Plus and a $30 fee on top, juicing subscriber numbers.
And who knows — while you’re there, you might stick around to watch WandaVision, Falcon and the Winter Soldier, or other Marvel films. At which point you might as well just keep your subscription active for Hawkeye or Ms. Marvel that fall.
Either way, Disney wins.